Back in September a friend of mine, who happens to be an Auburn graduate and fan, asked if I thought there were any players in the SEC not playing for Alabama who could start for the Tide.
In other words, would Alabama be improved by a one-for-one trade for any other player at the same position?
At the time I thought the question was absurd, particularly coming from an Auburn fan whose team was ranked in the Top 10 in the country and coming off a convincing win in the 2017 Iron Bowl.
I still adamantly believe there are players around the league who could make Alabama better. I would start with LSU defensive backs Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit. I’d also include just about any punter or placekicker in the league, including the specialists at Auburn.
But just a few days away from the 2018 Iron Bowl I began thinking about that preseason discussion.
How many players on Auburn’s offense or defense would start on Alabama’s undefeated and top-ranked team? The answer is zero.
Despite the difference in how the season has gone for Alabama (perfect) and Auburn (largely disappointing), that answer is still shocking to consider.
Alabama has recruited at an incredible level but Auburn has also consistently brought in highly rated classes. None of those recruits has developed to the point of being a starter-level player for their rivals.
Let’s take a look at some of the best Auburn players and where they would fit in on the country’s best roster.
Nick Coe, Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell are all quality defensive linemen who have a chance to play for years in the NFL. But none is remotely on the level of Quinnen Williams, who is on his way to being named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and will receive consideration on my Heisman Trophy ballot. Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs have also performed at a slightly higher level than those Auburn stars.
Linebacker Deshaun Davis is the most popular player on the Auburn roster because of his hustling play, his intelligence and reliable tackling. But athletically he’s a step behind Alabama’s Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson.
Auburn’s best cornerback, Javaris Davis, is just a notch behind Alabama’s second-best cornerback, Saivion Smith.
And that’s where the discussion ends.
No Auburn offensive player would crack the playing rotation at Alabama, and that includes record-setting wide receiver Ryan Davis.
It’s hard to imagine how the discrepancy got to this point. It’s not enough to simply say Nick Saban has built a dynasty in Tuscaloosa.
Less than a year ago Auburn beat Alabama 26-14. That marked the first time since 1969 that Auburn had beaten Alabama by more than 10 points — and the game wasn’t even that close.
So how do we explain what has happened since? Alabama certainly lost more great players to graduation and to the NFL than Auburn since last year.
Yet, since last year’s Iron Bowl, Alabama is 13-0, including a national semifinal win and a national championship victory. Auburn is 7-6 over the same span.
It’s not lost on Auburn fans that the 7-6 record corresponds to when coach Gus Malzahn was handed a $49 million contract, 75 percent of which is guaranteed even if he is fired.
That brings us to Saturday’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
No matter what happens in the game, Alabama is still headed to the SEC Championship Game, where a win would lock up a spot in the College Football Playoff. One of the unintended and unfortunate consequences of the four-team playoff is that it can render a huge game like the Iron Bowl irrelevant in the national championship race.
Also, no matter what happens, Auburn is headed to a second-tier bowl and a season that fans will forever consider a disappointment and a missed opportunity.
Auburn’s hopes of pulling the upset rely on the following: win the turnover battle; trust quarterback Jarrett Stidham to be the future NFL draft choice NFL scouts insist he is; count on the health of the Alabama quarterbacks to be a factor in the game; and win with special teams in the fourth quarter.
All those things seem unlikely against an Alabama team that is on a collision course with a perfect season. But as we saw just one year ago, Auburn has proven to be one of the few teams that can at least temporarily derail the Alabama dynasty.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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