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November 30, 2009

Disco Infurlough


It’s a rough time for newspapers these days. As a result, I’ll be taking a weeklong furlough starting today and lasting through next Sunday. It’s discouraging, but it’s the reality of the business.

Unfortunately, that means I won’t be able to ruminate on Auburn’s possible bowl destinations for the next seven days. I assume things will be decided pretty quickly after Saturday’s SEC championship game. Regardless, I can’t work again until 12:01 a.m. ET next Monday.

In the meantime, think of my furlough as a weeklong party loosely resembling the video above by The Trammps, only with brighter colors, bigger lapels, wider bell-bottoms and funkier dance moves. (And plenty of video games. Oh, the video games.)

So I beg you not to abandon the blog in the next week. I’ll be back soon.

November 29, 2009

Auburn’s bowl picture as hazy as ever

Yesterday did nothing to clear up Auburn’s bowl picture. South Carolina beat Clemson. LSU beat Arkansas. Tennessee beat Kentucky. And Georgia beat Georgia Tech.

What does it all mean? Six SEC teams, including Auburn, finished the season at 7-5, creating quite a mess for the bowl selection process. Here’s a look at the conference’s bowl eligible teams:

  • Florida 12-0, 8-0
  • Alabama 12-0, 8-0
  • LSU 9-3, 5-3
  • Ole Miss 8-4, 4-4
  • Tennessee 7-5, 4-4
  • Georgia 7-5, 4-4
  • South Carolina 7-5, 4-4
  • Kentucky, 7-5, 3-5
  • Auburn 7-5, 3-5
  • Arkansas 7-5, 3-5

The SEC has nine bowl tie-ins, 10 if you figure it will get two teams in BCS bowls (a foregone conclusion with the No. 1 and 2 teams playing next week in Atlanta for a right to be in the national title game). Here are the SEC affiliated bowls in the order they select:

  • BCS national title game vs. BCS No. 2 (Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 7, 8 p.m. ET)
  • Sugar Bowl vs. BCS at-large (New Orleans, Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET)
  • Capital One Bowl vs. Big Ten No. 2 (Orlando, Fla., Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET)
  • Cotton Bowl vs. Big 12 No. 2 (Dallas, Jan. 2, 2 p.m. ET)
  • Outback Bowl vs. Big Ten No. 3 (Tampa, Fla.,, Jan. 1, 11 a.m. ET)
  • Chick-fil-A Bowl vs. ACC No. 2 (Atlanta, Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET)
  • Music City Bowl vs. ACC (Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 27, 8:15 p.m. ET)
  • Liberty Bowl vs. C-USA No. 1 (Memphis, Tenn., Jan. 2, 5:30 p.m. ET)
  • Independence Bowl vs. Big 12 No. 7 (Shreveport, La., Dec. 28, 5 p.m. ET)
  • PapaJohns.com Bowl vs. Big East (Birmingham, Ala., Jan. 2, 2 p.m. ET)

A few things to keep in mind with the bowl selection order:

  • The Cotton and Outback bowls basically pick at the same time. The Cotton has preference to take a Western Division team; the Outback an Eastern Division team. But the bowls can choose from the other division if there is no conflict.
  • Records and head-to-head meetings don’t really have a bearing on where teams end up. The only rule a team can’t jump another team two wins ahead of it in the standings. So the only restriction here would be that none of the 7-5 teams could be selected for a bowl game ahead of 9-3 LSU.
  • The Liberty and Music City bowls make their choices at the same time in consultation with the SEC office. They both rank the schools as they would like them and submit them to the conference. If there are no conflicts, the everything moves ahead. If there is a conflict, the teams involved in the conflict would get a choice of where it wants to go.

So where does Auburn go in this whole thing? Who knows? I think LSU to the Capital One is a pretty solid lock. Ole Miss would figure to be the next team for the Cotton Bowl, but the Rebels just went there last year. And on the Outback side of the bowl picture, a bunch of Eastern Division teams seem like candidates.

It will basically come down to who the bowls think will sell tickets. The highest, I would think, Auburn could go is the Chick-fil-A Bowl. It’s close to Atlanta and probably would send a decent contingent of fans there (not that that bowl ever has trouble selling out). But with Georgia now in the picture there, that looks like a longer shot.

The Music City Bowl in Nashville is another option that’s very drivable for the Auburn fan base, although Tennessee and Kentucky are nearby and could just as easily have a good following.

The Independence Bowl is an intriguing one. It pits and SEC team against a Big 12 team. What if a 6-6 Iowa State is sitting there for the picking to match up with Auburn? That would certainly create some buzz to match up Gene Chizik against his old school, which just so happens to be coached by former Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. Ultimately, that’s what these second-tier bowl games are trying to accomplish.

ESPN.com SEC blogger Chris Low has Auburn slotted in the Independence Bowl in his latest projections.

FoxSports is projecting Auburn to the PapaJohns.com Bowl against Rutgers.

CBSSportsline is saying Auburn to the Independence Bowl against Iowa State.

Chizik satisfied with progress made in 2009

I wrote a story for today’s newspaper following up Auburn’s Iron Bowl loss to Alabama. Here’s how it starts:

AUBURN, Ala. — Gene Chizik left Jordan-Hare Stadium Friday night conflicted with emotions, disappointed by Auburn’s narrow 26-21 loss to No. 2 Alabama in the Iron Bowl’s final minutes yet encouraged by the step the program has made in the year since he became coach.

Ultimately, the latter was more impactful.

“I’m satisfied with us working toward building a foundation for what we know is going to be great here,” Chizik said during a Saturday teleconference. “I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that we’ve done that.

“Are there some games like yesterday where we wish we could have pulled out? There’s no question about it. But we have a chance for eight wins in our first year, but more importantly what we have set down is a foundation for a very, very bright future here. There’s no question in our mind about that. I think that was evident to everybody yesterday.”

Read the rest here. And follow the blog on Twitter.

November 28, 2009

Auburn grabs commitment from TE Dakota Mosley

Tight end Dakota Mosley verbally agreed to sign with Auburn in February, becoming the Tigers’ 22nd commit for 2010, according to AuburnSports.com.

Mosley, of Little Rock (Ark.) Christian High, is a teammate of running back Michael Dyer, one of the nation’s top running backs. Dyer committed to Auburn earlier this month.

Mosley is a 6-foot-4, 252-pound recruit. He had offers from Florida State, Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and Tulsa.

Rivals.com ranks him as a three-star recruit. Scout.com lists him as a two-star.

Mosley is Auburn’s first tight end commit for 2010.

And because I haven’t put Auburn’s commitment list up in a while, here it is (star rankings are by Rivals.com):

  • Joel Bonomolo, DE, 6-3, 245, New Orleans, La. (4-star)
  • Kenneth Carter, DL, 6-5, 270, Greenville, Ala. (3-star)
  • Ed Christian, OL, 6-5, 280, Valdosta, Ga. (4-star)
  • Steven Clark, K, 6-5, 230, Kansas City, Mo. (2-star)
  • Shon Coleman, OL, 6-7, 275, Olive Branch, Miss. (3-star)
  • Jessel Curry, LB, 6-2, 215, Buford, Ga. (3-star)
  • Justin Delaine, DE, 6-5, 225, Linden, Ala. (3-star)
  • Michael Dyer, RB, 5-8, 201, Little Rock, Ark. (5-star)
  • Antonio Goodwin, WR, 6-2, 170, Atlanta, Ga. (4-star)
  • Jake Holland, LB, 6-1, 228, Pelham, Ala. (3-star)
  • D.J. Howard, ATH, 6-0, 195, Lincoln, Ala. (3-star)
  • Shaun Kitchens, ATH, 6-3, 211, College Park, Ga. (3-star)
  • Demetruce McNeal, DB, 6-1, 180, College Park, Ga. (3-star)
  • Jonathan Mincy, DB, 5-10, 175, Decatur, Ga. (3-star)
  • Dakota Mosley, TE, 6-4, 252, Little Rock, Ark. (3-star)
  • LaDarius Owens, LB, 6-2, 225, Bessemer, Ala. (4-star)
  • Cody Parkey, PK, 6-2, 195, Jupiter, Fla. (3-star)
  • Trovon Reed, WR, 6-0, 173, Thibodaux, La. (4-star)
  • Jeremy Richardson, WR, 6-4, 220, Springville, Ala. (4-star)
  • Craig Sanders, DE, 6-4, 230, Ariton, Ala. (4-star)
  • Chad Slade, OL, 6-6, 316, Moody, Ala. (3-star)
  • Jawara White, LB, 6-2, 220, Troy, Ala. (3-star)

Chizik thinks foundation has been set at Auburn

Auburn might now have won the Iron Bowl, coming up just short in a 26-21 loss to No. 2 Alabama on Friday. But head coach Gene Chizik thinks the Tigers have a great start on a bright future on the Plains.

“I’m satisfied with us working toward building a foundation for what we know is going to be great here,” Chizik said during a Saturday teleconference. “I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that we’ve done that.

“Are there some games like yesterday where we wish we could have pulled out? There’s no question about it. But we have a chance for eight wins in our first year, but more importantly what we have set down is a foundation for a very, very bright future here. There’s no question in our mind about that. I think that was evident to everybody yesterday.”

Auburn won’t find out its bowl fate for another week, after the conference championship games. So Chizik will instead turn his focus to recruiting.

“We’re hitting right now,” he said. “The bowl committees are going to do their thing. We’ve got great leadership. We want to give our kids and opportunity to play in the best bowl they can. They’ve earned that and deserve that.”

Chizik said he met with recruits after the Tigers’ close 26-21 Iron Bowl loss to No. 2 Alabama last night and this morning. He called the response “overwhelming.”

With no game next week, Chizik said this week will be more about academics and rest before the team begins preparation for a bowl game.

“We are really going to focus on the academic world,” he said. “We’re going to give our guys some time to heal up. They’re beat up and bruised up, guys playing with all kinds of injuries, give them an opportunity for bodies to heal and really focus on academic issues at hand.”

Some other notes from today’s teleconference …

  • Chizik said Auburn didn’t capitalize enough on some field position opportunities last night that cost the Tigers in the end.
  • There’s a possibility Chizik could start doing in-home visits with recruits this week. “As long as it makes sense,” he said. “Everything’s about strategically planning, and it’s all about timing.”
  • He’s excited about the 15 practices Auburn will be granted leading up to the bowl game. “All those reps that accumulate over time can do nothing but help your football team,” Chizik said.
  • Chizik said Auburn is about 98 percent done with its recruiting evaluations and that the focus now is on finishing up a recruiting class rather than starting one up. “It’s just a whole different ballgame,” he said.

Iron Bowl redux

OK,we had a crew of reporters at the Iron Bowl providing complete coverage. Here’s everything we wrote:

I didn’t see the sidebar I wrote about Auburn’s fast offensive start on our Web site, so here it is in its entirety:

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn wasn’t about to hold anything back against the nation’s No. 1 defense in Friday’s Iron Bowl.

The Tigers might have eventually lost 26-21, but they pulled out all the stops in the first quarter, running a number of gadget plays that helped them build a 14-point lead against the No. 2 team in the country.

“We didn’t want to leave anything out there,” Malzahn said. “We wanted to give our guys the best chance of winning, try to be aggressive. So early on we did.”

Auburn started out with a play that’s gone off without a hitch all year. Wide receiver Terrell Zachery got the ball on a misdirection end around on the Tigers’ fourth offensive play, sprinting free up the home sideline before cutting back toward the middle of the field for a 67-yard touchdown.

It was the longest rush Alabama had allowed in the three-year Nick Saban era.

“Those are the plays that we’ve always had,” running back Ben Tate said. “We’ve always had them in our arsenal just sitting there waiting to use them. This was the perfect game to use them and it helped out a great deal.”

After recovering an onside kick, Malzahn dipped back into his bag of tricks. Kodi Burns took a snap out of the shotgun and lateraled it to quarterback Chris Todd, who was lined up out wide. Todd fired the ball across the middle to a wide-open Darvin Adams for a 22-yard gain.

The Tigers tried a variation of the play on the next snap, this time with Todd lateraling the ball to Burns, who threw an incomplete pass to Adams.

“We tried to throw some different stuff at them and throw some different looks, a few things they hadn’t seen before,” Todd said.

Auburn would go on to score another touchdown, finding the end zone on a 1-yard pass from Todd to H-back Eric Smith with 5:58 left in the first quarter to make it 14-0, the largest deficit Alabama had faced this year.

The 14 points were more than seven of the Crimson Tide’s 11 previous opponents had scored in an entire game.

After two drives, Auburn ran 19 plays for 149 yards. Alabama had six plays for five yards.

“When these guys go off from the script, they have all kinds of formations and plays, like double passes, reverse passes,” Saban said. “Most of the stuff you haven’t seen before.”

Alabama coped well. The Crimson Tide held Auburn to 183 yards in the final three quarters, 72 of which came on a touchdown pass to Adams.

The Tide increased the pressure on Todd, sacking him three times for 32 yards and getting six hurries. It also clamped down on Auburn’s misdirection plays by jumping all over the screen passes that worked early on. Alabama finished with nine tackles for a loss.

“That’s the best defense in America. There’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “They’re very well coached at each position and they’ve got great skill and at times we had them off balance. They heated us up in the second half and put a lot of pressure on us and got us in some negative plays. Give those guys some credit.”

Final: Alabama 26, Auburn 21

Here’s how the best game I’ve seen this year starts:

AUBURN, Ala. — With 37 yards and five points to make up in one final second, Auburn’s offense reached back into its bag of tricks, hoping it could find one more big play to pull off the shocker of the season against No. 2 Alabama on Friday.

It came away empty-handed.

Chris Todd‘s Hail Mary fell short, knocked harmlessly to the ground by a host of Alabama defenders as the Crimson Tide staved off its latest upset bid with a 26-21 victory before a sellout crowd of 87,451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“We didn’t play our best football and we need to learn from that,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “But at the same time I don’t think you can say enough about the competitive character that this team showed today.”

OK, here are a few more notes from the post-game …

  • Nobody was saying the exact words, but you have to get the feeling this was a moral victory for Auburn tonight. The Tigers took the No. 2 team to the wire, gained 332 yards (second most against the Tide this year) and scored 21 points (second mos as well). “We’ve come a long way,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “Again, we said at the beginning of this that we were going to build a foundation for what we know is right. We are going to do it right, and I don’t think there is any question (we have).”
  • “There’s never moral victories, not for me anyway,” running back Ben Tate said. “You either win the game or you lose it. That’s it.” But Tate also had this nugget: “Things are just getting started here. Auburn’s going to be a force to reckon with in a couple of years.”
  • Fast start for the Tigers, which is what I wrote about in my sidebar. Gus Malzahn pulled out all the stops early on — reverses, double passes, wacky formations. It worked to the tune of 149 yards and 14 points after two drives. “We didn’t want to leave anything out there,” Malzahn said. “We wanted to give our guys the best chance of winning, try to be aggressive. So early on we did.”
  • The 14-0 deficit was the largest Alabama had faced this year.
  • Todd threw a pair of touchdowns, setting Auburn’s single-season record for most touchdown passes in a season. Todd has 21 this year, one more than Jason Campbell threw in 2004 and Pat Sullivan did in 1971. “It’s really a thing where I think it’s great for the offense,” Todd said. “I think it’s great for Auburn. I really have to give the credit to, first of all, our offensive line. They played great all year. The receivers stepped up and made plays and really our running game. I think it’s good for Auburn moving forward.”
  • Among Auburn’s accomplishments was holding Heisman hopeful Mark Ingram to 30 rushing yards on 16 carries. He was out-gained by freshman teammates Trent Richardson, who had 15 carries for 51 yards and a score. “We were physical,” defensive end Antonio Coleman said. “We knew they were going to come in and run the ball, they have a great running back. We had to stop the run and that’s what we did.”
  • Tate didn’t do so hot himself against the nation’s No. 2 rush defense. He had 18 carries for 45 yards, a season low.
  • Auburn out-rushed Alabama 151-73, the first time in the last 11 Iron Bowls that the winning team did not have more rushing yards.
  • So how did Alabama win? Well, quarterback Greg McElroy came up huge. The junior was 21-for-31 for 218 yards with a pair of touchdown passes. He was calm under pressure on Alabama’s game-winning scoring drive, completing 7 of 8 passes for 63 yards, hooking up four times with wideout Julio Jones, who finished with nine receptions for 83 yards. McElroy finished it off with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Roy Upchurch to give Alabama its first lead of the night with 1:24 to play. “That may have been one of the greatest drives I have ever been associated with in a fourth quarter to win the game,” Saban said.
  • Auburn’s undermanned defense put up a valiant effort. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof summed it up like this: “We emptied the tank out there. We just have to find a way to make one better play or one better call. … It rips your guts out. I feel bad for our fans. I feel bad for our seniors and the kids in that locker room. They gave it everything they had.”
  • Bama clamped down on Auburn’s offense after the start. The Crimson Tide held Auburn to 183 yards in the final three quarters, 72 of which came on a touchdown pass to Darvin Adams. Alabama pressured Todd for most of the game and finished with nine tackles for a loss. “That’s the best defense in America. There’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “They’re very well coached at each position and they’ve got great skill and at times we had them off balance. They heated us up in the second half and put a lot of pressure on us and got us in some negative plays. Give those guys some credit.”
  • Saban had the best quote of the night: “Only the strong survive, but the strong still get their ass whipped,” he said. “And that was my message to the team. I shouldn’t use that kind of language, but we did survive because of our character and resilience.”
  • What’s up next for Auburn? Good question. The Tigers will have to wait for tomorrow’s games to play out before they have an idea of where they might end up for a bowl game. And the final decision might not be made for another week. Most likely destinations: Chick-fil-A bowl in Atlanta, Music City Bowl in Nasvhille and Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Outside chance at the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.
  • It was the final home game for Coleman. “It’s tough,” he said. “I had tears walking off the field. It finally set in that I’d never be walking on that field again in an Auburn uniform. The only time I’m coming back now I’ll be standing on the sidelines cheering these guys on so it’s tough, but I have one more month with these guys, bowl game. Like I said before, I’m going to ask these guys again to lay it out on the field for me and I’m going to do the same for you.”

November 27, 2009

Iron Bowl pre-game

The crowd lined up early today for Tiger Walk, as you can see. It’s the calm before the storm here in the press box right now, a few hours before kickoff for today’s Iron Bowl.

As usual, I’ll be updating this post leading right up to the game. Follow the blog on Twitter for instant updates. I’m close to 300 followers and would like to get there soon.

It’s a sunny, cool autumn day here in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Perfect for football, in my opinion. Slight breeze, but not too much.

I’ll get right to the pre-game facts that you need to know:

  • Alabama leads the all-time series 39-33-1.
  • The Crimson Tide is ranked No. 2 in the BCS rankings and has already clinched its spot in next week’s SEC championship game in Atlanta against Florida.
  • Seventeen of the last 21 meetings in the series have been decided by 10 points or less.
  • Auburn has not allowed a first-quarter touchdown in the series since 1996.
  • The team leading at halftime has won 74 percent of the time (54 of 73). However, since 1996, the team trailing at the half has won on five occasions (Alabama in 1996, ’98 and ’99; Auburn in ’97 and ’04).
  • The Tigers have 53 players on their roster from Alabama.
  • The ground game will be key. The team that has finished with the most rushing yards has won the last 10 Iron Bowls. Auburn is 11th nationally in rushing (219.5 ypg); Alabama is 10th (225.6).
  • Auburn’s Ben Tate is 19th nationally in rushing (109.9 ypg). Alabama’s Mark Ingram is second (127.1 ypg).
  • The rushing defenses are not so evenly matched. Auburn is 88th nationally (169.7 ypg); Alabama is second (70.5 ypg).
  • Auburn has had 21 scoring drives that have taken two minutes or less. Twenty-one of those have ended in touchdowns.
  • The Tigers are sixth nationally in red zone offense, scoring 94.3 percent of the time (33 of 35).
  • Auburn quarterback Chris Todd has 19 touchdown passes this year, one shy of the single-season school record set by Jason Campbell (2004) and Pat Sullivan (1971). That’s pretty good company.
  • Tigers wide receiver Darvin Adams shares the SEC lead with nine touchdown receptions.
  • Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman leads the SEC with 13.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. His 22 sacks are tied for third most in school history.
  • In the last 10 Iron Bowls, Alabama has thrown eight interceptions and eight touchdowns.

12:50 update: It’s 40 minutes to gametime and both teams are out for warmups. Apparently Alabama’s bus arrived a little late because of a wreck on I-85. Everybody’s here now though.

12:57 update: LB Eltoro Freeman is not dressed. He’s standing on the sideline in his uniform but no pads. That means freshman Jonathan Evans will likely get the start at weak-side linebacker.

1:01 update: The PA announcer just ran through the starting lineups. Sure enough, Evans, who has about two solid halves of experience, will be starting at linebacker in Freeman’s spot.

1:10 update: Just in case your were curious, Auburn’s backup crew at linebacker is Wade Christopher in the middle and Ashton Richardson and Chris Humphries on the outside. Yes, that’s three walk-ons. And one’s a defensive end.

1:23: Auburn honored the 1989 team before the game on 20th anniversary of Alabama’s first trip ever to Auburn. The biggest ovation was saved for Pat Dye at end.

Plenty on the line in today’s Iron Bowl

Here’s how my Iron Bowl advance in today’s newspaper starts:

AUBURN, Ala. — It didn’t take long after offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn took the job at Auburn that he received his first bit of unsolicited advice regarding the Iron Bowl.

“The first week I was here,” he recalled with a chuckle. “From that you can kind of tell how important it is to our people and our kids. It’s a big one.”

That’s especially the case this year, when more than just bragging rights will be on the line this afternoon at Jordan-Hare Stadium for No. 2 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC).

The Crimson Tide has already punched its ticket to the SEC championship game against Florida in Atlanta next week but must first get past arch-rival Auburn (7-4, 3-4 SEC) if it has hopes of playing for its first national championship since 1992.

Although Auburn ruled the series with six straight victories from 2002-07, Alabama ended the streak in dominating fashion with a 36-0 rout last year in Tuscaloosa, not that Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban believes that will have an impact today.

“There is nothing outside of this game that really matters this week,” Saban said. “You can throw out the records, rankings, awards, nothing else really matters. This is kind of a state championship game, so to speak. I think it’s always a great football game.”

Read the rest here. And follow the blog on Twitter for updates leading up to the game.

November 26, 2009

Iron Bowl breakdown

We did another collaborative preview capsule for this week’s game. I took the Auburn half. Michael Casagrande of the Decatur Daily took the Alabama half. Here’s what we came up with:

No. 2 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) at Auburn (7-4, 3-4 SEC)

  • Where: Auburn, Ala.
  • When: 2:30 p.m. ET, CBS
  • Last meeting: Alabama 36, Auburn 0, Nov. 29, 2008, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

PASSING GAME

Auburn: Auburn’s passing game continues to play Jekyll and Hyde even this late in the season. Quarterback Chris Todd looked unstoppable in the first quarter against Georgia two weeks ago, throwing for two touchdowns. But Georgia clamped down the rest of the game, intercepting Todd twice in the second half. The Tigers normally strong offensive line allowed three sacks. Still, the Tigers have been productive through the air this season. Todd has 19 touchdowns to only five interceptions and receiver Darvin Adams (44 catches, 717 yards) is tied for the SEC lead in receiving touchdowns with nine.

Alabama: After a midseason lull that nearly brought the offense to a standstill, Greg McElroy and company are beginning to round back into form for the final push. Also hitting his stride is Julio Jones. Slowed by a knee injury early in the season, Jones has touchdown receptions in each of the past three games, including the game-winning 74-yarder against LSU. McElroy has struggled with accuracy at times, but he isn’t leaned upon in the clutch. As long as he can continue avoiding big mistakes, find Jones when coverage breaks down and gets the ball the running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, the Tide should be fine.

Edge: Auburn

RUNNING GAME

Auburn: Ben Tate‘s statement that he was the best running back in the state raised some eyebrows in Tuscaloosa, but the senior has put together quite a season. Tate has 1,209 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, nearly doubling his output from last season. Auburn can go with Mario Fannin (8.3 yards per carry) as a backup or the speedy Onterio McCalebb, who hopes to be back at full strength from a nagging ankle injury. Whoever the runner, the Tigers have had success behind an offensive line featuring left tackle Lee Ziemba and center Ryan Pugh. Auburn’s rushing attack is ranked 11th nationally, averaging 219.6 yards per game.

Alabama: The Tide running game would be scary with Ingram alone. But add the slippery but powerful freshman Trent Richardson and Alabama’s backfield has options. Even if one isn’t on top of his game, the other has an ability to be equally effective. For Ingram, the Heisman Trophy candidate is only getting stronger as the season progresses. Closing in on the single-season rushing record, the sophomore needs just 72 yards to pass Bobby Humphrey for the mark. The addition of the Wildcat offense only added to Ingram’s effectiveness, as defenses have struggled to stop him even when they know what’s coming.

Edge: Alabama

FRONT SEVEN

Auburn: Depth remains a major issue for Auburn’s front seven, particularly with linebacker Eltoro Freeman‘s status in doubt with the sophomore dealing with an ankle injury. The Tigers rank 10th in the SEC and 88th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 169.7 yards per game, and their pass rush has been mediocre, getting to the quarterback on average two times a game. Defensive end Antonio Coleman, who leads the league with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss, hopes to do better than last year in Tuscaloosa, when he assisted on only three tackles and had one pass break-up.

Alabama: Experience dominates this unit. Five of the seven are seniors and Rolando McClain is an experienced junior. Only freshman Nico Johnson is an Iron Bowl rookie. With that experience and considerable talent, the front seven regularly manhandles the opposition. It is instrumental in the Tide defense’s No. 2 ranking against the run and 28 total sacks. Nose guard Terrence Cody, a finalist for several postseason awards, draws double teams nearly every week, freeing up the All-American McClain to rack up a team-high 84 tackles.

Edge: Alabama

SECONDARY

Auburn: The Tigers avoided facing star Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green, who left the game two weeks ago with a shoulder injury, but they still got beat up. Cornerback Neiko Thorpe has made a habit of getting beat deep recently, watching as Georgia completed passes of 50 and 47 yards against him. Cornerback Walt McFadden is the veteran of the group, tied for fourth in the SEC in interceptions with four. But the two safeties — Daren Bates and Demond Washington — are rookies, making them a ripe matchup for Jones.

Alabama: Once seen as a potential pitfall, the Tide defensive backfield has developed into one of its biggest weapons. Mark Barron leads the SEC in interceptions (6) and passes defended (1.45 per game). Alabama’s 18 interceptions are tied with Florida for the league lead. The backs also have been known to blitz the quarterback. All four of cornerback Javier Arenas’ sacks have come at critical moments and his open-field tackling has shown steady improvement.

Edge: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

Auburn: Washington gave the Tigers’ maligned return game a boost against Georgia, taking a fourth-quarter kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown and breaking the school’s single-game return record in the process. He figures to return both kicks and punts again. Clinton Durst is coming off his best game this season, when he averaged 48.0 yards per punt at Georgia. And place-kicker Wes Byrum, although he hit doinked in a field goal off the upright in Athens, is still 14-for-15 on the year.

Alabama: It’s been a banner year for nearly all of Alabama’s special teams. Issues, though, remain in kickoff coverage that regularly costs the Tide in the field position battle and twice meant six points for the opposition. When receiving kicks and punts, Alabama is equally dangerous. Arenas’ seven punt returns for touchdowns is an SEC record and he’s reliable when catching punts in traffic. Kicker Leigh Tiffin, one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, makes 89.3 percent of his kicks (25-of-28) and has accounted for 109 Alabama points this season.

Edge: Alabama

COACHING

Auburn: Gene Chizik has been a part of three Iron Bowls and never lost. But that was as a defensive coordinator back from 2002-04. Being the head coach is different. Already this year, Chizik has coached a team to a victory against Tennessee in Knoxville and taken down a ranked opponent at home when Auburn dispatched then-No. 24 Ole Miss on Halloween. But the Crimson Tide presents a much larger challenge.

Alabama: Nick Saban has a two-year head start on Chizik in the battle for state supremacy. He out-recruited Chizik’s predecessor on the recruiting trail and the benefits were evident on the scoreboard last year. Head coaching experience is invaluable in this rivalry and Saban simply has more of it right now.

Edge: Alabama

KEY MATCHUPS

Mark Ingram vs. Auburn’s linebackers. The Heisman Trophy candidate has been effective at gaining yards after contact, meaning Auburn’s linebacking trio will need to be sound with its tackling, something that’s been a problem for most of the year. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens rank 1-2 on the Tigers’ list of tacklers, but with Freeman’s status in doubt, true freshman Jonathan Evans might be thrust into a starting role, becoming an instant target for a Tide rushing attack averaging 225.6 yards per game.

Ben Tate vs. Alabama’s front seven. Few teams have had success running the ball at the heart of Alabama’s No. 2 nationally-ranked run defense, where Cody clogs the line for McClain to dart in and make tackles. But Auburn’s offense is predicated on running the ball, so the Tigers won’t abandon it altogether. Look for Tate to try to get to the perimeter (he’s deceptively fast) and force the Crimson Tide’s outside linebackers Eryk Anders and Cory Reamer to make plays.

PREDICTIONS

Casagrande: Alabama 23, Auburn 13

Bitter: Alabama 31, Auburn 13