In rivalry games, anything can happen. That logic takes place more than any in the Iron Bowl.
Auburn is set to face off against No. 1 Alabama in Bryant-Denny to try to spoil the Tide’s incredible regular-season run.
Alabama is led by Heisman favorite Tua Tagovailoa, who has dominated every secondary he has faced. On the other hand, Auburn – though coming off a shut-out win against Liberty – limps into the Iron Bowl only playing for a chance to spoil its biggest rival’s title hopes.
The Tide lead the series 45-36-1 with Auburn taking the latest matchup last season in a dominating 26-14 victory.
Here is a position-by-position player to watch for each team in the 83rd edition of the Iron Bowl.
Players to watch
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Jarrett Stidham (Auburn):
In last year’s edition of the Iron Bowl, Jarrett Stidham put the team on his shoulders on the way to a 26-14 win over the No. 1 ranked Crimson Tide. According to Pro Football Focus, Stidham put up his best performance of his college career, posting a 91.1 grade. Not many can say they performed well against Alabama, let alone posting a career-best performance.
After reviewing film from last year’s Iron Bowl, Stidham’s poise in the pocket has dipped tremendously. His confidence in himself to be able to make the plays necessary has not been there this season. Stidham still possesses those attributes and will need to go back in time in order to go toe-to-toe with Tua Tagovailoa.
Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama):
Tagovailoa is the runaway favorite to win the coveted Heisman trophy. People have said just about enough about how good he has been this season, so here are some stats to show his dominance and why he is always a player to watch.
He is currently leading the SEC in completion percentage (69.2) and the nation in yards per attempt (12.1). Tagovailoa is 88th in the country in passing attempts but seventh in touchdown passes. He leads the nation in quarterback rating and Alabama is getting a first down 50 percent of the time when Tagovailoa drops back to pass in a third-and-long situation.
Najee Harris (Alabama):
A third of the Alabama running back trio, Najee Harris has shown to be the most explosive out of the bunch. Out of SEC running backs, Harris is getting a rush of 10 or more yards 23.8 percent of the time. He leads Alabama in yards per rush with 7.02 and that is .05 from the conference lead.
Damien Harris gets most of the carries for the Tide, but with him coming off of a concussion, Najee Harris could be the lead back on Saturday.
JaTarvious Whitlow (Auburn):
Auburn’s run game is a different story. JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow has been banged up for most of the season but has seen carries in every game for the Tigers. A fully healthy Whitlow has seen success against SEC competition and after a few weeks of a minimal workload, Gus Malzahn said the running back is 100 percent.
Whitlow is averaging nearly six yards a carry, even with a poor offensive line. Whitlow will get his first experience playing in the Iron Bowl and will most likely have the most vital role if Auburn wants a chance to upset Alabama.
Ryan Davis (Auburn):
Ryan Davis torched the Alabama secondary in last year’s Iron Bowl, racking up 11 receptions for 139 yards. Though his long on the day was 25 yards, Davis was a menace after the catch.
Alabama ranks first in the SEC in least amount of yardage allowed per screen pass – according the CFB Film Room – and that is Davis’ specialty. The rematch between Alabama’s secondary and Davis is something to watch.
Jerry Jeudy (Alabama):
Jerry Jeudy is having the most successful receiving season since Amari Cooper in 2014. Jeudy is Tagovailoa’s No. 1 target, he is leading the team in receptions, yards, yards per catch and touchdown receptions. According CFB Film Room, Jeudy leads the conference in highest percent of targets resulting in 20-plus yard gains at 26.9 percent.
Likely to be matched up against Auburn’s No. 1 corner Jamel Dean – who is only allowing a completion percentage of 18.2 percent on passes deeper than 10 yards – whether Jeudy can take advantage of the man coverage or falter under its pressure will dictate Alabama’s deep ball success.
Kaleb Kim (Auburn):
After securing the starting center job once again, Kaleb Kim has helped the struggling offensive line of Auburn. The main reason why Kim is on the players to watch is his imminent matchup against SEC defensive player of the year candidate, Quinnen Williams. Kim’s ability to open up holes in the middle and give Stidham some sort of time in the pocket will be key if Auburn wants any success offensively.
Quinnen Williams (Alabama)
Like mentioned before, Williams is a SEC defensive player of the year candidate. Usually, defensive tackles don’t get the glory in the box score with most of their praise coming from clogging up running lanes and double teams. Williams does both. Williams has recorded 15 tackles for loss and six sacks this season, while being third on the team in tackles with 55.
The success of Williams is a matchup problem for the Tigers as they’re already struggling with getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Auburn ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in run stuffs with 16.8 percent of carries ending in zero to negative yardage.
Marlon Davidson (Auburn):
To most, Marlon Davidson’s 2017 campaign seemed like a success but to Davidson, it was not good enough. After battling injuries all last year, Davidson has been a nuisance to opposing quarterbacks and running backs.
Most known as a run stopper, Davidson has stepped up his pass rushing abilities in 2018. The third-year starter leads the team in hurries with 19 and total pressures with 26. With a banged-up Tagovailoa, Davidson could have a huge impact in forcing the Alabama quarterback to make a few mistakes.
Darrell Williams (Auburn):
Like said in last week’s players to watch, Darrell Williams is the most NFL-ready linebacker Auburn has. The senior has the range to get from sideline to sideline, drop back into coverage and run stop. Williams will need all of those abilities to be at their very best and then some against Alabama’s playmakers.
Deshaun Davis will do his thing like he does every game, but Williams’ performance is what might keep Auburn in striking distance on Saturday.
Dylan Moses (Alabama):
As a true freshman, Dylan Moses led the Tide in tackles against Auburn last season. In 2018, not much has changed. Moses earned the starting spot and currently leads the team in tackles.
Moses plays a huge role in filling holes on the line and coming as an extra pass rusher with nine tackles for loss and three sacks on the season. Auburn’s offensive line is shaky at best and Moses could have field day in both departments on Saturday.
Savion Smith (Alabama):
Savion Smith is a player to watch for good reasons and also for bad. The good is Smith leads the Tide in interceptions – even taking one back for a touchdown. The bad is Smith has been susceptible to the deep ball with his go-big-or-go-home attitude.
Smith is allowing over 13 yards per target on passes over 10 yards. Stidham has had success with the deep ball in the past and with the emergence of Seth Williams, Smith’s inability to consistently defend the deep ball could give Auburn a fighting chance.
Noah Igbinoghene (Auburn):
Converted receiver turned corner, Igbinoghene has surprised with his immediate success in the new position. Igbinoghene leads the Tiger secondary in pass break ups with 11 on the season. The high number of deflections is from quarterbacks testing the ability of the newly-named corner.
Igbinoghene has been targeted 31 times on passes over 10 yards and is only allowing 22.6 completion percentage with six pass break ups. As a group, the Auburn secondary ranks No. 1 in the SEC according to Pro Football Focus. Igbinoghene has been tested week after week and the pattern suggests that won’t stop on Saturday.
Keys to victory
Time of Possession:
For Auburn to have any sustained success against Alabama, the Tigers must improve drastically on its time of possession. Currently, Auburn is ranked 126th in the nation in average time of possession, averaging a lackluster 26 minutes a game.
The Tigers cannot go toe-to-toe with Alabama’s offense, so they must abandon the hurry-up offense, run the football, keep players from running out of bounds and kill as much of the play clock as possible before each snap.
Win the field position battle:
Both Auburn and Alabama are top-20 teams in punt coverage this season. The Tide have the best punt coverage unit in the country, allowing only one return the entire season for minus-9 yards. Auburn is not far behind at No. 17, allowing 37 total yards in opponent return yardage this season.
The difference between the two units is Alabama is ranked last in the nation in average yards per punt, while Auburn is 14th. If Arryn Siposs can continue his success and pin Alabama deep into its own side of the field, Auburn has a chance to keep the Tide offense in check.
Red Zone success:
Teams that can successfully navigate the red zone on both offense and defense are usually some of the best units in the country. Auburn’s defense fully embraces the “bend, don’t break” mentality, only allowing touchdowns in the red zone 29.03 percent of the time. On offense it is a different story. The Tigers are 79th in the nation in scoring touchdowns once in red zone.
The difference between Alabama and Auburn is the fact that Alabama dominates on both offense and defense in the red zone. Alabama is tied for second in the country in touchdowns scored in the red zone and is third in opponent red zone scoring percentage. If Auburn wants any success against the Tide, they must keep up their pace on defense and start putting the ball in the end zone once the offense makes it into the red zone.
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