What to watch heading into No. 3 Alabama's Iron Bowl matchup against Auburn
After clinching the SEC West last weekend, No. 3 Alabama secured a date with No. 1 Georgia in next week’s SEC Championship Game. First, the Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1 in the SEC) will look to close out its regular season on a high note as it travels to Auburn (6-5, 3-4) for the Iron Bowl on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT.
Here are five things to watch heading into the matchup.
Young’s INT-free streak
Facing a third-and-goal from the Texas A&M 1-yard line, Bryce Young reared back and fired a throw toward tight end Jahleel Billingsley in the end zone. The pass was jumped by Aggies safety Demani Richardson, who intercepted it, depriving the Crimson Tide vital points in what ultimately resulted in Alabama’s lone loss of the season.
Since that costly error, Young has been exceptional. The sophomore quarterback wasn’t able to lead the Tide to a victory that night in College Station, Texas, but he’s been a driving force in each of its five following wins.
Young has attempted 208 passes since his misfire in the end zone. He’s completed 148 of them (71.1%) for 2,120 yards and 20 touchdowns. Most importantly, none have been picked off.
Young’s current streak of 208 passes without an interception ranks second on Alabama’s all-time list, trailing only AJ McCarron, who went 291 straight passes without an interception during the 2011-12 seasons. As Young continues to tear apart the Tide’s record books, that string of consistency might be his most impressive feat of the season.
“His decision-making and judgment is what leads to the production that we have,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said during his Wednesday Zoom call. “Poor judgment leads to bad plays, and he only had a couple of those. So that’s a really good batting average, and that’s why he’s got the production and had the performance that he’s had because of his choices and decisions.”
Young, who is currently second in the Heisman Trophy Odds, set Alabama’s single-game school record with 559 passing yards during Alabama’s 42-35 victory over Arkansas last weekend.
This week, he’ll be up against an Auburn secondary that ranks No. 78 in the nation, allowing 235.9 yards per game through the air. The Tigers are 13th in the SEC and tied for No. 100 in the nation with just six interceptions through 11 games.
Avoiding a scare in Jordan-Hare
When Alabama loses in the regular season, it generally occurs in its home state. Since 2008, the Tide has lost just 10 regular-season games. Only three of those — at South Carolina (2010), at LSU (2010) and at Ole Miss (2014) — have been away from the Yellowhammer State. Four of them — Auburn (2010), LSU (2011), Texas A&M (2012) and Ole Miss (2015) — have been in front of home fans inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. The remaining three have come inside Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Alabama has lost three of its last four trips across the state, including each of the last two Iron Bowls played in front of a sea of orange and blue. For perspective, the Tide has tallied seven straight wins inside Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium and has survived the shadows of Death Valley at LSU on five consecutive occasions.
So why hasn’t that road dominance translated into its trips down Highway 80?
“We've kind of been our own worst enemy,” Saban said Monday. “When I think about the games that we've had down there, whether we turned the ball over or pick-6s on the 1-yard line, kick-6. I mean, there's been a lot of things that we've contributed to that has made it difficult.”
Auburn’s infamous game-winning field goal return in 2013 was made possible by an inefficient Alabama offense that failed to come away with points on three of its trips to the red zone earlier in the game. The Tide’s 2017 loss saw it go just 3 of 14 on third down while allowing the Tigers to go 9 of 18 on the down. Alabama’s most recent loss at Auburn featured two pick-6 interceptions, including one on a 100-yard return.
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas don’t project this year’s game to have too much drama as Alabama heads into the matchup as 19.5-point favorites. However, the Tide knows it will have to avoid getting in its own way if it wants to leave Jordan-Hare with a win.
“It’s always going to be exciting,” Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. said. “They’re going to show up. The fans are going to come deep, they’re going to come loud. We just to expect one of those tough road games.”
Jameson's shot at returning
When examining Saturday’s matchup, one of Auburn’s most obvious disadvantages is the absence of Bo Nix, who had surgery to repair an ankle injury earlier this month. However, the starting quarterback won’t be the only key player missing for the Tigers.
Auburn will also be without kicker Anders Carlson, who had season-ending ACL surgery. The senior, who is 6 of 7 on field-goal attempts in his three previous Iron Bowls, was in the midst of another solid campaign this year, converting on 14 of 21 field-goal attempts, including 14 of 18 inside 50 yards. Although, that’s not where the Tigers will miss him most.
Anders also used his big leg on kickoffs, averaging 63.5 yards per attempt while recording 36 touchbacks on 60 attempts. Auburn benefited from those booming kicks as opponents have averaged just 18.65 yards per return.
Auburn has already experienced a difference without Carlson, as his replacement, Ben Patton, averaged 57.25 yards per kick while failing to record a touchback on any of his four kickoffs against South Carolina last week. That lack in leg power could be dangerous for the Tigers as Patton will be booting the ball to Jameson Williams, who is averaging 37.44 yards on nine kickoff returns, including two returns for a touchdown this season.
Stopping a Tank
Auburn might struggle to move the ball through the air without Nix behind center. But when it comes the ground game, the Tigers have a more-than-capable option in running back Tank Bigsby.
Earlier in the week, Saban referred to the 6-foot, 208-pound sophomore as “good as anybody in our league relative to his production.” Bigsby’s stats back that up as he has recorded 940 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 5.28 yards per carry.
"We know he is a great running back," Alabama safety Jordan Battle said. "We know up front, it starts up front in the trenches. We have to strike blocks, get off blocks in the secondary and inside linebackers. And everybody is going to have to come off our blocks and make good tackles in the open field."
Even Alabama outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who leads the nation with 26.5 tackles for a loss, admits he’ll need some help wrapping up the powerful back.
“He has a big strong lower body,” Anderson said. “He’s able to extend plays to his legs, run through defenders and stuff like that, and be able to get more yards on his tackles and stuff like that. So I think that's a big part of his game. And I think we just have to do a good job of gang tackling him and everybody getting to the ball.”
— Bryce Young is five passing touchdowns away from tying Tua Tagovailoa’s school single-season mark of 43 set in 2018. Young has thrown for five touchdowns three times this season, including each of the past two games.
— Brian Robinson is 55 rushing yards away from reaching 1,000 yards on the season. He has rushed for 55 or more yards in nine of his 10 games this season. The Tide has had a 1,000-yard rusher in five of the last six seasons.
— John Metchie III is two receptions away from moving into sole possession of fourth place on the school’s single-season record list. Metchie currently leads Alabama with 77 receptions on the year. He has recorded two or more receptions in all 11 of his games this season.
— Jameson Williams is 98 receiving yards away from moving into sole possession of third place on Alabama’s single-season list. He currently leads the Tide with 1,218 yards this season. He has recorded 98 or more yards in six of his 11 games, including each of his last four outings.
— With one tackle for a loss, Will Anderson will move into sole possession of second place on Alabama’s single-season list. The outside linebacker leads the nation with 26.5 tackles for a loss. He’s recorded at least one in 10 of his 11 games. Derrick Thomas holds Alabama’s single-season record with 39 tackles for a loss during the 1988 season.