Wednesday Thoughts: Paper Tigers?

So here we are.  Well, almost.

Alabama is one Southern Conference team away from facing Auburn in what is coming to be known as an “Iron Bowl for the ages.”

First off, spare me the “one for the ages” talk.  We’ve heard it all before.  There was 1989.  There was 1994.  There were others.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s a big game.  But it’s funny how these are always “one for the ages” when Auburn is attempting to do something extra special against Big Brother.

No matter what happens two Saturdays from now, Alabama is the better football team.  It has a better defense.  It has more offensive weapons.  It has AJ McCarron.  And it has Nick Saban and his staff.  But give Auburn credit.  They have fought their way through their schedule and they have 10 wins against just one loss.  They are ranked – and should be ranked – as a top 10 team.  Gus Malzahn and his staff have done a magnificent job taking the dumpster fire of 2012 and molding that smoldering heap into this year’s team.  They’ve done a marvelous job.

For Auburn, each week has been a test to pass.  Everyone – including themselves, I’m sure – has looked at them each week to see what they would do.  Would they revert back to 2012?  Would they be exposed?  Or were they actually better?  They almost failed in week three against Mississippi State before pulling the game out late.  And they did fail one week later against LSU.  The seven games after that, for the most part have been manageable.  They matched up well against Texas A&M and saved that one late.  They were simply better than Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee.  And then last week brought an almost epic collapse before one of college football’s all-time greatest moments.  And now Malzahn and his staff have one game left:  Alabama.  The No. 1 team in the country.  At home.  On national television.  For the SEC West title and a chance to move on to the championship game.

But enough with the praise.  Though Auburn is a 10-1 team, we don’t really know how good they are and last week’s game against Georgia really didn’t help to answer the question.  The Dawgs aren’t a dumpster fire, but they are smoldering.  Their first half offensive play was mind numbing and it was clear they weren’t prepared for how the game opened.  UGA’s defense is talented, but somewhat young and for sure undisciplined.  (Knock the ball down, fellas.)  Auburn was well on their way to crushing the Dawgs before a fourth quarter collapse gave Georgia the lead.  The one-dimensional nature of their offense, all of a sudden, wasn’t trendy and cool.  It was, well, one-dimensional.  And that bend-but-don’t-break defense showed why it’s ranked 11th in the conference.  When all was said and done, the Tigers had scored 43 points against a ggggghhhhuuuhhh Georgia defense and allowed 532 yards and 38 points – mostly in three quarters – to the Dawgs.

Yes, Auburn won the game.  Yes, Tiger fans are pouring out of the woodwork.  Yes, they have things set up just like they like them:  one shot against the champ.

But if things play out as they should, the Iron Bowl won’t be close.

Here’s the truth, brothers and sisters:

* Alabama’s defense isn’t 2011-Alabama-good, but it is very good and it’s very good against the run.  It’s not a defense that will totally stop teams from moving the ball.  But it is very good.  It’s also very big, very fast, and very athletic.  And it has great leadership in C.J. Mosley.

* Alabama’s biggest test on defense will be stopping the run.  Auburn leads the conference in rushing and they do it from a quirky, triple-option-type offense with very good skill players.  Defending this offense takes discipline first.  It’s assignment football.  But the Tide has the players to defend Auburn’s offense.  Yes, I believe they will get some yards.  I believe they score some.  They may even have some long scoring plays.  But I don’t believe they will be able to jam the ball down our throats for the entire game.  That just won’t happen.

* To beat Alabama, Auburn will have to throw the ball.  Passing from the Auburn offense is essentially play action passing.  Defenders must distinguish between run and pass and must do so quickly.  I won’t be surprised to see some passing yards.  Not at all.  But Auburn won’t beat Alabama by passing alone.

* Now, if Nick Marshall pulls a Stephen Garcia, all bets are off.  Some times you can play your best, but the other guy is on fire and you just say, “Hey, it’s not our day.”  Marshall is a very talented player.  He runs Malzahn’s offense very well.  He runs the ball really well and can pass at times, though that’s not his strongest suit.  But he’s capable of having a huge game.  Just ask Tennessee.  He may break off a long run or two and he may even hit a long pass or three, but I don’t see Marshall alone beating Alabama.

* Alabama’s offense is set up to mash Auburn.  The Tide’s line may be a bit over matched against Auburn’s D-Line, but Alabama wins most of the match ups against the Tiger defense.  Our running backs are far better than their linebackers.  Our receiving corps is deep and talented and far more talented than Auburn’s defensive secondary.  And then there is McCarron.

* I think you can expect anything from Alabama’s offense, but when the game is over, I think a Tide win will show that we held the ball, ran the clock and wore the Tiger defense down.  We can do that in a lot of ways.  Running T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake or the short passing game.  But most likely via a deadly mix.

* Auburn hasn’t played a team on their schedule that has an offense like Alabama’s.  No, not Texas A&M.  They are a two-man show:  Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans.  LSU is close.  They have a nice running game and two lethal receivers.  But overall, Auburn hasn’t faced an offense as deep, talented and well-coached as Alabama’s.

* With all that said, however, turnovers are the great equalizer.  Hey, we’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it from some of the guys on this team.  The best way for Auburn to stay close to Alabama for 60 minutes is for the Tide to turn the ball over.  And it’s not so much about winning the turnover battle as it is about killing our momentum and preventing us from pulling away.  This one aspect of the game is what worries me the most.