Back in a position to defend their national title, the second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide close out their regular season as they play host to their arch rival Auburn Tigers in Tuscaloosa on Saturday in the 77th edition of the Iron Bowl.
Alabama's run to another national championship seemed to be derailed with a stunning 29-24 loss to Texas A&M at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 10, but with Oregon and Kansas State both suffering their own losses last week, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have climbed into the second position in both the top-25 and the BCS standings. Following this game, Alabama will have to get by third- ranked Georgia in the SEC Championship game to play in its third BCS Championship Game in the last four years.
Saban was quick to point out that the team is not looking past the Tigers to a possible national title game.
"Everybody in this organization needs to understand that we are dismissing all talk about anything except playing Auburn. The Iron Bowl is a big deal. It's a legendary game that people remember for a long, long time and still talk about games that happened in the past that had huge impacts and effects on the future of what happened. They are traditionally very tough games. It's important that we play our best game."
Auburn is just two years removed from its own national championship, capturing the BCS crown in the 2010 event. Gene Chizik's Tigers have been on a steady decline since, including this year's ugly 3-8 record. The team's downward spiral is even more emphasized by the fact that Auburn is still searching for its first SEC win in the season-finale. Two of the team's three wins on the year have come in the last three games however, including a 51-7 romp over FCS foe Alabama A&M last weekend.
Chizik spoke about the Iron Bowl and what it means to the players and fans alike.
"This is a very special week as we all know. It's a very important week for so many people in this state and so many people that are both Auburn and Alabama fans. This is a great game. It's a game it's a privilege for me to be now part of what would be my seventh one, and it's very unique. I think there is just a difference in this game."
Alabama holds a 41-34-1 series advantage and has won three of the last four meetings with Auburn, including a dominant 42-14 rout last year.
It's amazing what a Heisman Trophy quarterback can do for an offense. Two years removed from Cam Newton's exploits in an Auburn uniform and the Tigers evoke little fear on the offensive side of the ball. Auburn is averaging just 20.4 ppg this season, doing so on a mere 317.9 yards of total offense. While the ground game has had its moments (153.5 ypg), the passing game is severely lacking (164.4 ypg).
Instability under center is the primary culprit, as Chizik has used everyone at his disposal. Freshman Jonathan Wallace will get the nod in this contest. The youngster has completed 62.1 percent of his passes in eight games, but for only 649 yards and four TDs. On the season, Auburn has recorded just eight touchdown passes, between Wallace, sophomore Kiehl Frazier (two TD passes), junior Clint Moseley (one TD) and sophomore WR Quan Bray (one TD).
Running the football is Auburn's preferred mode of travel, thanks to talented tailbacks Tre Mason (920 yards, 6.1 ypc, eight TDs) and Onterio McCalebb (573 yards, 6.3 ypc, six TDs). The pair combined for 285 yards in last week's win, with Mason rumbling for 181 yards and McCalebb adding 104.
The Auburn defense has been equally inept this season, allowing over 400 yards of offense per game (414.8), and has shown a particular weakness against the run (191.3 ypg). In addition, the Tigers have really struggled in the red zone, allowing opponents to score 86 percent of the time (37-of-43), with 28 of those scores resulting in touchdowns.
Linebacker Daren Bates has been the team's most active defender, posting 91 total tackles, with 5.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, one interception and two fumble recoveries. Defensive ends Dee Ford (31 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 6.0 sacks) and Corey Lemonier (29 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) provide the best push up front.
Nick Saban is likely to attack Auburn's defensive weakness with Alabama's strong ground game. The Crimson Tide may no longer have Trent Richardson as a workhorse in the backfield, but the team is still averaging an impressive 209.4 yards per game.
It is a great combination of one of the nation's top offensive lines, headlined by All-American Barrett Jones and a pair of quality backs in junior Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon. The pair have combined for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns this year.
Senior quarterback AJ McCarron has been much more than a manager of the game, as he has completed 66.8 percent of his passes, for 2,291 yards with 21 TDs against just two INTs. Wideout Amari Cooper has become the go-to-guy downfield, leading the team in receptions (40), receiving yards (658) and TD catches (6).
Defense is still the name of the game in Tuscaloosa, with Alabama ranking first nationally in scoring defense (10.1 ppg), third in rush defense (75.6 ypg), fourth in pass defense (164.5 ypg) and second in total defense (240.1 ypg).
Linebacker C.J. Mosley leads the team in tackles with 89 stops. The Butkus Award finalist also has four sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery to his credit. Help in the middle comes in the form of fellow LBs Nico Johnson 50 tackles) and Trey DePriest (49 tackles).