Monday, November 25, 2013

And Now it All Comes Down to Iron

By Jean Neuberger

The Iron Bowl is as heated a rivalry as it gets in college athletics.

If you disagree, Harvey Updyke would like to have a word with you.

As was the case in the previous four years, this year's battle between the Tide and Tigers carries serious national title implications. This time, though, both teams are involved. For Nick Saban's 11-0 Tide, it's business as usual. For Gus Malzahn's 10-1 Auburn squad, it's a shocking surprise given last year's dumpster fire on the Plains.

Another year, another BCS title road going through the state of Alabama. This has to irritate Texas. This definitely irritates Bob Stoops. Let's face it; it irritates the nation. But there seems to be no end to the southern superpower.

Alabama seems to have been preparing for this game once they dismantled LSU. The Tide beat Mississippi State in a game that seemed as if 'Bama was sleepwalking. Despite State's record, winning a game at night in Starkville is difficult. Winning it with obviously not a solid effort? That's just being really, really good. Last week's romp of Chattanooga was just enough to get the kinks out, rest the starters and prepare for this Saturday. Now, it's business time for Saban and Co.

Furthermore, sexual assault charges swirling around Florida State's Jameis Winston, coupled with bad performances by Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota last Saturday, the chance is there for Alabama's steady hand at QB, A.J. McCarron, to steal the Heisman and cap what has been a career for the ages in Tuscaloosa.

Auburn has been preparing for it since they pulled off the miraculous upset of Georgia. Last-second wins have fallen the Tigers way this season; as they squeaked by Mississippi State, survived Ole Miss, stole a thriller from A&M in College Station and then smashed Georgia's hearts. Malzahn inherited a team that was built for his offense and it's clicked from the start. Tre Mason has been fantastic and Nick Marshall has proven he is a serious threat at quarterback, fulfilling Malzahn's desire of having a QB who can run while executing a spread offense. What's underrated has been the job Ellis Johnson has done for their defense. With the Auburn defenses under Chizik, the Tigers are 6-5 going into this game, even with Malzahn's offense. Johnson's influence has been that big for Auburn.

So, with RVs already pulling into town, all of Columbus, Ohio trying to find things blue and orange, a BCS title and potential Heisman candidacy at stake and the state of Alabama boiling over with football fever, the question remains: who wins?

In my mind, this game will mirror the 2009 game. A seriously revved up Auburn team will start the game on fire, stuffing 'Bama on the run, frustrating McCarron and taking an early lead thanks to some Nick Marshall trickery cooked up by Malzahn I expect Mason to have some big gains early and do a lot of end arounds to help spread the field. Then, after the early punch, Alabama will go to work. T.J. Yeldon will not let Auburn stop him all game and will start to loosen up the line, allowing McCarron to start picking the Auburn D apart.

Call it a hunch, but I see Amari Cooper, who has had a good but relatively quiet season, to step up and have his best game on Saturday. Auburn will counter, as Malzahn will throw his entire playbook at the Bama D. Mobile, quick QBs with good arms have had some success against the Tide this year (see Manziel, Johnny). However, the Tigers don't have a receiver like A&M's Mike Evans, who has been the only receiver to torch 'Bama's secondary this season.

So, basically, it'll be a tight chess match. Auburn will pull ahead early, 'Bama will surge afterwards and it'll be a fourth quarter battle. Unfortunately for Auburn, lucky breaks such as the miracle catch against Georgia don't seem to work against the Tide. And, in a high pressure game, you take the veteran QB and the team used to the spotlight. So, I'm going to say it's Alabama that punches their ticket to the Georgia Dome, beating Auburn 27-22.

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