TUSCALOOSA _ The area is known as the red zone has been an issue for both the University of Alabama and Auburn football teams this season.
But while inside the 20-yard line been a bit of a sore spot for the Crimson Tide, it's been a gaping wound to the Tigers.
Auburn's defense ranks last in the Southeastern Conference in red-zone defense. Opponents have scored 37 out of the 39 times they've been within the 20 (94.9 percent), and have given up 27 touchdowns, by far the most. Second is Vanderbilt and Mississippi State with 22 followed by Kentucky at 21.
The Tigers have allowed scores in 15 of 16 red-zone chances over the past five games, but finally enjoyed their bye after playing 11 consecutive Saturdays.
"It was big," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said during his Tuesday press conference about the rest. "I think that not just physically, as I have said even earlier in the week, I think mentally, just mentally for our guys just being able to walk away for a couple days and then come back and refocus. I just think that's a big part of rejuvenating yourself. I think it came at a time when we needed it."
Alabama is sixth in red-zone offense, scoring on 38 of 44 possessions (86.4 percent), but with just 19 touchdowns.
"I think that we have had our struggles at one point in time in the red zone this year, a lot of it self-inflicted in terms of penalties, a fumbled snap or things that the defense really didn't have anything to do with," Nick Saban said. "I think the key to it is disciplined execution in terms of what we do and what we're doing and that's going to give us the best chance to be successful regardless of whom we're playing. That's what we're going to focus on."
Alabama's passing game struggled in particular, but junior quarterback Greg McElroy threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones last week for his first red-zone touchdown pass since Kentucky on Oct. 3. His four previous touchdown passes were from all from beyond the 20 (21, 73, 48 and 45 yards).
"It's something we've definitely taken pride in, we've spent a lot of time and extra preparation looking at red-zone defenses, and that's something you have to exploit if you're going to be successful throughout the course of the season," he said. "We're going to definitely have to come out firing and keep the ball on the ground and, when it opens up, get them through the air."
Meanwhile, a key matchup could come on the flip side. Auburn is tied for second in red-zone offense (33-of-35, 94.3 percent, 25 touchdowns), while Alabama tops the conference in red-zone defense (13-of-19, 68.4 percent, seven touchdowns).
"When you get down there, it's all about execution," Chizik said. "I feel like when we have gotten down there, we have executed well. We have a good plan every week when we get down there in taking advantage of different coverages that you see when the field shrinks. In terms of game plan down there, I think that (offensive coordinator) Gus (Malzahn) does a great job with that and I think we have taken advantage of that. We have been productive when we get down there.
"Hopefully, we come up with another great plan against this great defense. They are a great defense and once we get down there, it is going to be more difficult this week than most weeks to get it in the end zone. Up to this point during the year, we have been very successful."
Heading back to the Plains
Friday will make the unusual return of first-year linebacker coach James Willis, who not only played for the Tigers but after his professional career ended was a graduate assistant (2001-03) and linebackers coach (2006-08) before being hired by Saban.
"James is a very good linebacker coach, he's a very good person," Saban said. "He has a very strong, I don't know what the right word is, moral, ethical value system that affects people in the right way, especially has a positive impact on our players, the players he deals with and coaches. He is very knowledgeable. He knows our system and has made very good input throughout the course of the year in terms of his experience and what he's done."
Willis kept much of the same recruiting territory that he had for Auburn, including the Mobile area.
"He's very liked in the state by a lot of coaches," Saban said.
Senior tight end Colin Peek was named first-team Academic All-American on Tuesday, with redshirt freshman guard Barrett Jones a second-team selection by the College of Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) for ESPN The Magazine.
"It's something I really worked for," Jones said. "We're students first and athletes also, so that's something I put a lot of emphasis, academics, because that's the main reason I'm here to get an education."
Peek has a 3.79 grade point average in finance and is expected to graduate next month. Jones has a 4.0 grade point average in management.
Alabama's last first-team academic All-American in football was running back Major Ogilvie in 1979. Defensive lineman Kenny King was a second-team selection in 2002.
Here's the updated rundown:
Heisman Trophy: Finalists announced Dec. 7.
Maxwell Award (outstanding player): Mark Ingram, finalist along with Tim Tebow (Florida) and Colt McCoy (Texas): Winner announced Dec. 10.
Walter Camp Award (Player of the year): Ingram, Rolando McClain semifinalists. Finalists announced Dec. 2.
Butkus Award (linebacker): Rolando McClain, finalist along with Sam Kindle (Texas), Eric Norwood (South Carolina), Brandon Spikes (Florida) and Sean Witherspoon (Missouri). Winner announced Dec. 8.
Bednarik Award (defensive player): Terrence Cody, finalist along with Spikes and Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska). Winner announced Dec. 10.
Doak Walker Award (running back): Ingram, finalist along with Toby Gerhart (Stanford) and C.J. Spiller (Clemson). Winner named Dec. 10.
Lou Groza Award (kicker): Leigh Tiffin, finalist along with Kai Forbath (UCLA) and Blair Walsh (Georgia). Winner named Dec. 10.
Bronko Nagurski Award (defensive player): Cody, finalist along with Pat Angerer (Iowa), Eric Berry (Tennessee), Jerry Hughes (TCU) and Suh. Winner announced Dec. 7.
Rotary Lombard Award (lineman): Cody, finalist along with Hughers, Gerald McCoy (Oklahoma) and Suh. Winner announced Dec. 9.
Lott Trophy (defensive impact player): McClain, semifinalist. Finalists were due to be announced Tuesday.
Rimington Trophy (center): Finalists were to be announced Monday.
Eddie Robinson Award (coach): Finalists announced Dec. 9.
Broyles Award (assistant coach): Finalists announced Nov. 30.
No longer in the running: Davey O'Brien Award (quarterback); Unitas Golden Arm (senior quarterback); Fred Biletnikoff Award (wide receiver); John Mackey Award (tight end); Ray Guy Award (punter); Walter Campbell Trophy (scholar-athlete, formerly known as the Draddy Trophy); Outland Trophy (interior lineman); Jim Thorpe Award (defensive back); George Munger Award (coach); Ted Hendricks Award (defensive end).
Junior running back Terry Gant (abdominal strain) returned to practice, but didn't appear to be doing much when reporters were allowed to observe.
Sophomore running back Mark Ingram is on this week's cover of Sports Illustrated, with an article by Selena Roberts about Ingram's relationship with his father, who declined to be interviewed. The article is titled "Pride of the Tide. The magazine hits stores Thursday.
Senior end Brandon Deaderick doesn't have any problem facing his former teammate Chris Todd, who has thrown for 2,196 yards this season for Auburn. They both attended Elizabethtown High School in Kentucky. "Not really, I just approach it like every other game," he said. "The fact that I played with him in high school doesn't change a thing for me personally."
Senior Leigh Tiffin on being named a Lou Groza finalist for kicker of the year: "You hate to say you're expecting it, but I wasn't surprised by it. We've had a good year." Tiffin said a preseason goal was to make 80 percent of his field goals this season. He's made 25 of 28 attempts (89.3 percent) and is averaging 9.9 points per game, exactly what the defense has been giving up (9.9 points per game. "Being a Groza finalist wasn't one of my main goals because I know a lot of that depends on how many opportunities you get and also you need to have a great year, you can't hardly miss."