It’s Iron Bowl Week. No matter what happens in Tuscaloosa between Auburn and Alabama, it’s great to simply be able to make that proclamation.
There were certainly days and weeks when the playing of the game was anything but certain. In fact, as we learned with the last-minute cancellation of Clemson’s game at Florida State last week, there are no guarantees of the game being played until the ball is kicked off at 2:37 p.m. Saturday.
The popular opinion of many fans and pundits early in the season was that no team would be able to navigate the Southeastern Conference without at least one and probably two losses. But the Tide has reached this point with seven wins by no less than 15 points. The average score of those seven games against SEC competition is 49-19.
Auburn has suffered one disheartened blowout loss at Georgia and a bewildering loss at South Carolina, but the Tigers are playing their best as they prepare for the Iron Bowl. Wins over LSU and Tennessee have served to elevate the confidence of the Tigers.
Now comes a trip to Alabama.
It’s worth noting the last team to beat the Tide was Auburn. In the 2019 Iron Bowl, the Tigers used two pick-six interceptions against new starter Mac Jones to knock off the Tide.
Since then Jones has gone from a fill-in for Tua Tagovailoa to a star who is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. But no matter how successful he’s been in the past eight games, there’s no erasing the fact he’s 0-1 against Auburn and 0-1 against Auburn sophomore quarterback Bo Nix.
Will Jones avenge the one blemish on his record? Oddsmakers, who have installed Alabama as a three-touchdown favorite, certainly think so.
Here’s a comparison of the two teams.
Actually, there are no comparisons between the two offenses. If the two rosters were combined, there are only three Auburn players who could make the playing rotation. Auburn receivers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz would contribute to Alabama’s offense. Star freshman Tank Bigsby is so good he would have to have a role on any team, though he certainly wouldn’t be a starter ahead of Alabama’s Najee Harris.
Nix has been hot and cold as a starter, but nobody can ever take away that his first game as an Auburn freshman was a win over Oregon, and the last game of the regular season was a win over Alabama. But neither of those were true road games. Nix has yet to beat a ranked team on the road, let alone the No. 1 team in the country.
It’s a different story on defense. Auburn’s Smoke Monday could play for Alabama any day of the week. Fellow safety Jamien Sherwood is better than anyone Alabama has at the position.
Monday and Sherwood play a position that has been a trouble spot for Alabama this season. Those struggles are what give Auburn hope of another upset of the Tide.
Alabama’s defensive numbers have been spectacular in recent weeks. Since halftime of the Georgia game, the Tide has yielded only 20 points in 14 quarters of play. In this age of weekly offensive explosions, those numbers are incredible.
But they aren’t good enough to erase what happened to the Tide in a game at Ole Miss. The Rebels and head coach Lane Kiffin exposed Alabama’s weakness in coverage in a game that was a joy for lovers of offensive football. Alabama eventually won 63-48, but the game left deep scars for Tide fans.
Alabama has looked much better against Georgia (and former walk-on quarterback Stetson Bennett), Tennessee (and embattled quarterback Jarrett Guarantano), Mississippi State (and freshman quarterback Will Rogers) and Kentucky (and run-first quarterback Terry Wilson).
Nix will present more of a challenge than that collection of quarterbacks. But could he pull off a second win over Alabama and Jones?
It’s not likely. Almost all of Gus Malzahn’s magic has been produced inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. At Bryant-Denny Stadium, Malzahn’s Auburn teams have lost by 11, 18 and 31 points.
There’s reason to believe Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chad Morris have a chance to do more damage against the Alabama defense than Tennessee, Mississippi State and Kentucky did. But there’s no indication Auburn will be the first team to slow down the Alabama offensive juggernaut.
So, the question for Iron Bowl 2020 seems to be whether Auburn can make the game an exciting shootout like the Alabama-Ole Miss game or another blowout Tide win. Either way, Alabama’s march toward an undefeated regular season seems likely to continue.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m. and on the iHeart app.
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