Nick Saban's Crimson Tide may not get a chance to play for the SEC crown, but find themselves in perfect position to play for a national title, as they bring a 10-1 record into this contest. Outside of a three-point overtime loss to top-ranked LSU (9-6) a couple of weeks ago, Alabama has certainly looked the part of the one of the top teams in the land. The Tide were able to distance themselves from that loss to LSU with back-to-back wins over Mississippi State (24-7) and FCS powerhouse Georgia Southern (45-21).
Gene Chizik's Tigers are the defending national champs, but without the Heisman winner from a year ago running the show, Auburn has taken a could steps back, coming into this game with a 7-4 overall record. The team was also host to an FCS school last weekend, besting Samford, 35-16.
Alabama holds a 40-34-1 advantage in the series all-time, but Auburn has won seven of the last 10 meetings, including last year's memorable 28-27 victory in Tuscaloosa. Five of the last eight meetings have been decided by seven points or less.
The Crimson Tide are not an offensive juggernaut, but when they get going, it is awfully hard to defend against their balanced attack. The team is averaging 35.5 ppg in 2011, while churning out 436.7 yards of total offense. The ground game sets everything up at 220.5 yards per game and features one of the nation's best backs in Trent Richardson. Finally the workhorse in the backfield for Alabama, Richardson has not disappointed, rushing for 1,380 yards this season with 20 TDs.
Richardson understands the importance of the Iron Bowl and all that comes with it.
"It means a lot. We are fighting for the best Alabama team out there. Alabama doesn't have a pro team, so it���s just college football for us. It means a lot to this program and all the people who have played here and made this legacy go on. I'm hoping to make my name part of this legacy."
Richardson has certainly aided A.J. McCarron's progress under center. The first-year starter has completed 65.7 percent of his passes, for 2,216 yards, with 13 TDs. Wideout Marquis Maze is by far the most productive receivers on the team, recording 52 receptions, for 609 yards and one TD.
The offense for Alabama is productive, but nowhere near as productive as the defense, which ranks as the nation's best. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in scoring defense (8.4 ppg), rush defense (74.6 ypg), pass defense (121.3 ypg) and of course total defense (195.9 ypg)
The unit is chock-full of All-American talent, starting with a ridiculous linebacking corps featuring Dont'a Hightower (72 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, one INT), Nico Johnson (41 tackles, one sack) and Courtney Upshaw (39 tackles, 14.0 TLFs, 6.5 sacks). The secondary features its own All-American in veteran safety Mark Barron (65 tackles, four TFLs, two INTs).
With Cam Newton at the helm last year, the Tigers were a lethal offensive squad. Without him in 2011, Auburn is simply a good offensive team, averaging modest numbers like 25.2 ppg and 345.3 yards of total offense per outing. The ground game is the primary mode of travel in 2011 at 183.5 ypg, headlined by tailback Michael Dyer, who has amassed 1,194 yards and 10 TDs on the season.
Nick Saban is impressed with Dyer and his skill set.
"I think he is an outstanding running back. Probably as good as anybody that we���ve played against this year. I think he has played really well. Maybe his numbers aren���t what they were a year ago, or whatever, I [am not going to] make that comparison, but I just think the guy is a really good back. He's got good change of direction, good burst, he's got some power, he's difficult to tackle, he's got good vision and instincts as a runner, especially in the things that they ask him to do. So I think he's an outstanding player."
The Tigers have used both Clint Moseley and Barrett Trotter under center, by neither has proven to be the definite leader. The pair have combined for just over 1,700 passing yards, 15 TDs and eight INTs.
Emory Blake leads the team in receptions (30) and receiving yards (505) with five TDs. Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen has certainly been a valuable outlet as well. Of his 22 receptions on the year, seven have resulted in TDs.
The Tiger defense is also a step or two behind its predecessor, yielding 28.2 ppg and a generous 406.5 yards of total offense. The rush defense has been particularly vulnerable at 193.1 yards allowed per contest.
Junior LB Daren Bates leads the team in tackles with 86. He is followed closely by veteran DB Neiko Thorpe with 85 stops, to go along with a team-high three INTs. Sophomore DE Corey Lemonier (40 tackles) has been outstanding up front, leading the way in TFLs (12.5) and sacks (8.5) this season.
Chizek knows the task at hand is daunting.
"Obviously this is a great rivalry week for us. We're excited about playing in another Iron Bowl. We understand the great challenge we have in front of us playing not a good team, but a great football team. We're certainly going to have to play our best game of the year to have a chance to win."