Iron Bowl preview: Can Auburn upset Bama?
Ahead of rivalry week, we’re breaking down the top matchups from each team’s perspective. Today, senior analyst Mike Renner and SEC analyst Gordon McGuinness join forces to take on the Iron Bowl. Here’s what each team needs to do to win, and what you should be watching for come gametime:
How Auburn can win
Make no mistake about it, the task that faces Auburn this Saturday is a monumental one. There’s a reason why the point spread sits at Alabama -20.0 at the time of writing, but there is reason for hope for Auburn fans. While this Alabama defensive front is the best unit that Auburn will have faced all year, the same is true in reverse, with the right side of the Auburn offensive line a big challenge for Jonathan Allen and company.
Right tackle Robert Leff is currently the 18th-highest rated offensive tackle in the nation. While his work in pass protection — where he has allowed just three sacks and nine hurries this season — and his discipline — just one penalty committed — has been impressive, it’s his work in the running game that really makes him stand out. He’s joined by right guard Braden Smith, the 17th-highest rated guard in the nation in 2016, who has followed up an impressive 2015 campaign with an even better one this year.
It’s no surprise then, given their strength here, that Auburn have averaged 7.0 yards per carry on runs between right guard and right tackle this year, and average 6.3 yards per carry on runs off tackle. 117 of their 547 rushing attempts so far this year have come through those two run positions, and it has allowed the Tigers to simply wear opponents down time after time. The work of Leff and Smith, both at the line of scrimmage and the second level, has been key in allowing the Auburn running backs to average 3.16 yards before contact per carry this season, and when you let the Tigers’ backs get to the second level, good things happen for the Auburn offense.
Auburn are hopeful that running back Kamryn Pettway will return from his leg injury and be able to play a big role for them in this game, with the team’s leading rusher not seeing the field since the win over Vanderbilt two weeks ago. That would be huge for Auburn, with the 240lbs running back a scary prospect for any linebacker or defensive back, even Alabama star Reuben Foster. Foster has missed just eight tackles from the 76 he has attempted so far this year, and while Pettway has forced just 17 missed tackles all year, he has still been a force at the second level, averaging 3.7 yards after contact per carry. Fellow running back Kerryon Johnson on the other hand, has impressed when it comes to breaking tackles, forcing 31 misses on 162 carries so far this year.
Provided that the Auburn offensive line can find some space on the right hand side and let Pettway and Johnson get into one on one matchups with the Alabama linebackers and defensive backs, the offense can deliver some long drives, and give the Tigers a chance.
— Gordon McGuinness
How Alabama can win
For Alabama there are a myriad of avenues for them to leave the Iron Bowl with a win Saturday. So instead of exploring all those different ways they could come out on top, I’ll instead examine where things could viably go wrong enough for Alabama to lose. While their record remains perfect, the Crimson Tide’s roster most certainly is not. There are weaknesses to exploit, but you have to know where to look.
The most obvious shortcoming for Bama is their downfield passing game. Of Jalen Hurts 2,154 passing yards this season, 27.5 percent have come on passes targeted behind the line of scrimmage. On throws 10+ yards downfield, Hurts is only 42-98 for 1,134 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions.
There are mistakes to be had if Auburn can force Alabama into third-and-long type situations. Jalen Hurts is second to last in the entire country in passer rating under pressure (20.8). On those plays his adjusted completion percentage is 48.9, although he’s scrambled past the line of scrimmage on 19 of his 101 pressured plays this season.
These are all big ‘ifs’ though. There is a reason the Crimson Tide hasn’t needed a well-rounded passing attack to roll through the SEC so far. Lane Kiffin employs one of the most creative rushing and screen attacks in the entire country. They employ jet-motion almost religiously to keep defenses off-balance at the snap and to get the ball in their playmakers’ hands quickly. The result is an offense that has averaged a shade over 6.5 yards per carry on designed runs.
Facing Alabama’s defense the weaknesses are far less pronounced. For guidance though, we turn to Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly. The Rebels put up 40+ points on the Tide in back-to-back seasons now with an offense that few would confuse for elite. So how did they do it? By living on the long ball. One might get lucky and break off a few long runs against Alabama, but there is really no such thing as consistently moving the line of scrimmage against this front. Hugh Freeze recognized this and dialed up 54 pass plays compared to 23 runs in their matchup earlier this year. On Kelly’s 39 targeted attempts in that game, a ridiculous nine traveled 20+ yards down the field. Of those nine he completed six for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama’s cornerbacks may all end up in the NFL in a few years, but there is still a reason they’re playing defense. Their ball skills still can’t compete with that of a quality wide receiver. For Alabama to lose, their corners will have to be beaten at the catch point multiple times on throws down the field.
— Mike Renner
Matchup to watch
Auburn outside linebacker Carl Lawson versus Alabama right tackle Jonah Williams
While Auburn must win the battle at the line of scrimmage when they are on offense, it is just as important for them to get pressure on Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts has completed 75.5 percent of his passes when the Alabama offensive line has kept him clean, but that number has tumbled to just 29.9 percent when under pressure, while his touchdown to interception ratio drops from 17:2 to 2:5 when pressure gets there.
Auburn’s top pass rusher is edge defender Carl Lawson, who lines up both standing up and with his hand in the ground, but has played 76.5 percent of his snaps on the edge lined up on the left side of the defense, meaning he will see a lot more of true freshman right tackle Jonah Williams, than he will of left tackle Cam Robinson.
Lawson has racked up nine sacks, 12 hits and 35 hurries so far this year and at 15.1, has the seventh-highest pass rushing productivity rating of any 3-4 outside linebacker in the nation but it is the fact that he has knocked the opposing quarterback to the ground on 37.5 percent of his total pressures that really stands out, and the fact that he averages a pressure once every 5.5 pass rushing attempts, compared to the NCAA average of one in 10.
Williams has been impressive as a true freshman, ranking 29th among all offensive tackle in terms of his PFF grade. He has allowed just four sacks, two hits and six hurries so far this year, and has a pass blocking efficiency rating of 97.3, tied for 54th in the nation, and eighth in the SEC among offensive tackles. As impressive as he has been though, this is arguably the toughest test he has faced all season, and one he really needs to pass.
— Gordon McGuinness