Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Midweek preview: Alabama, the nuts-and-bolts

Aaarggghh Real Life delay sorry.

It rests on his shoulders. And his hair. It definitely also partially rests on his hair.

Previewin' usually waits 'til Friday, I know, but with the holiday and a bushel of other columnesque stuff to write about this rivalry, I thought I'd get the nuts and bolts stuff out of the way early.

When Alabama has the ball: it comes down to two people. Well, one group of people, and one person.

The first is the Auburn linebackers. I don't think it's much of a secret what the Tide want to do on offense: they're going to try and pulverize the Auburn defensive front on the ground and then find Jones either over the top on on some intermediate route when in need of a first down. Houston Nutt and/or Les Miles-style trickeration is not going to be in the cards this week.

Unfortunately, the Tide are very, very good at the first part of that equation. They're second in the SEC (behind only the Gators and their ridiculous 6.12 mark) and 28th in the country in yards-per-carry. They rank ahead of the same Ole Miss and LSU teams that gashed Auburn for 5.68 and 4.68 yards-a-carry, respectively. This is less than encouraging.

However: 'Bama hasn't exactly been an unstoppable force, either. Tulane, Ole Miss, Georgia, and LSU have all held the Tide to less than 4 a carry, so there's some hope. Unfortunately, how much remains debatable when you realize that the Tulane game sort of looks like a fluke and that the Rebels, Dawgs, and Tigers are all the the top 15 in the country in rush defense while Auburn ranks 45th. In other words, Alabama is better on the ground than teams Auburn hasn't stopped and Auburn isn't as good as the team that have stopped Alabama. Not good.

So that first "group of people" on which Auburn's success rests is the Auburn linebackers. Stevens, Johnson, Bynes, Evans, maybe Pybus for a play or two--they have to play out of their minds. None of the indecision that plagued them against West Virginia, none of the missed tackles that led to big gains against Ole Miss or Georgia. There was improvement against the Dawgs. There will need to be a lot more against the Tide. If there is, the better health of the defensive line means Auburn should be able to keep the Tide under 4 a carry and their offense largely in check.

Because the matchup in the air favors Auburn. For all of the secondary's youth and, essentially, limb-loss, Auburn ranks 26th in the country in pass defense. Neither Ole Miss not Georgia were able to complete a pass longer than 25 yards or so to a wide receiver. Bottom line is that they're a good unit that playing very well and should be even better with Jerraud Powers having been given another week off to heal his hamstring.

On the other side lies the country's 100th-rated passing offense. Don't pay too much attention to that, though: the Tide rank 51st in average per attempt and if you watched their Georgia game (in which 'Bama finished 13-of-16 for 205 yards), you know how deadly John Parker Wilson can be when he's on. But there's no guarantee he will be: if you watched the LSU game, where Wilson finished 15-of-31 for 215 yards and a pick without a TD, you know how inefficient even the 2008 version of John Parker Wilson can be when he's off.

He's the second person on which the fate of this side of the ball will hinge. Auburn is going to almost certainly adopt the same defensive philosophy they adopted against the Dawgs and Rebels: lots of run blitzes and an extra safety pushed up into the box to stop the ground game, paired with plenty of cushion for the receivers to prevent Jones and Co. from getting loose deep. Wilson's shown good touch on the deep balls this year but hasn't always been as consistent underneath--Auburn will most likely give him those throws and if he does find that consistency, well, Alabama will score points and win the game. If he does that and the linebackers aren't up to snuff, Alabama will win in a rout.

When Auburn has the ball: they will use the spread.

There just doesn't seem like there's much of a point in lining up in the I or ace and trying to bang straight-ahead. Alabama has the fifth-best rush D per carry in the nation. It's fair to say Arkansas and Georgia have better rushing attacks than Auburn does, and 'Bama shut them down to the tune of a combined average of 3.02 yards a rush. It's fair to say that Ole Miss and 'Bama are pretty similar in ability to shut down the run; you'll recall how Auburn (save the one big Tate run) got precisely nothing accomplished running right at the Rebels.

So expect a heavy dose of the spread and a lot of Burns trying to find Billings and Smith on outs and slants, with a few shots downfield with Slaughter, possibly. I wish I had good news to tell you about the chances of this strategy working, but, uh ... Alabama holds opponents to fewer yards-per-pass than all but three other teams in the country.

I still think this is Auburn's best chance, though, because it's not like the Tide has faced a murderer's row of talented passers: Jonathan Crompton, Tyson Lee, Cullen Harper, etc. have a way of making the stats look good. Stafford and Snead didn't have great success but they got some things done, and even Jarrett and Lee and--most damningly--Kentucky's Mike Hartline had days that might qualify as "acceptable." Where Wilson can at least assume that the Tide run game will go somewhere, Burns has no luxury: Auburn will not be able to run without him, will not be able to move much at all without him completing passes whenever available. He will need to be superhuman or Auburn will not break the 10-point mark on offense.

When special teams are on the field: Auburn does have one thing going for it: Dust and the coverage units have Auburn 16th in the country in net punting, 2nd in the SEC. Obviously we're long past the stage where we could expect Dunn or the punt return unit to provide anything, but at least Dust should (emphasis on "should") be able to at least limit Arenas's effectiveness here.

Kickoff returns are kind of a coinflip, since the returners (Davis, Arenas) are dangerous on both sides. Arenas does seem to prefer punts--he has yet to bring one of these back for a TD and the 22.6 average isn't terrifying. (He will score Saturday to spite me.) The placekicking edge goes to the Tide; Tiffin's 9-of-14 between 30 and 50 isn't exactly stellar, but it's of course a damn sight better than what Byrum's done and that's before Foot Lauderdale came down with an "inflamed knee." Auburn seems unlikely to try any field goal longer than 40 yards--and thus very likely to get stopped on downs a time or two inbetween 'Bama's 30 and 20.

So all told, special teams should be a net plus for the Tide. Auburn, of course, cannot afford a net plus for the Tide in special teams and will need their best performance of the season here to have any shot at a victory.

Your bottom line: My response to a rational, even-handed evaluation of each team's strengths is this: AAAARRGGGHHH THE PAIN MY EYES IT BURNS IT BURNS MAKE IT STOP WHAT'S HAPPENING.

I think it's fair to expect Auburn to keep the Tide from the same kind of rampage they went on in Athens and Fayetteville. The Tide are going to get their yards on the ground, but as well as Auburn's secondary has played of late the big play through the air--even with Jones freaking around like the freak he is--should be a rarity if not absent completely. It'll take a long, slow, methodical drive and if the Tide are plenty capable of those when Wilson's on, they're not if he's not.

But the special teams has to be seen as a Tide advantage--what quality team has Auburn outplayed on special teams? None--and it's awful hard to see how Auburn's going to get much accomplished on offense. Won't be able to run. Maaaaaaybe will find ways to pass. Burns is going to have to play out of his mind, both running and throwing the ball, and Ensminger's going to have to find ways of getting Fannin the ball in ways that aren't "sweep left." And the cherry on top is that Byrum's injury makes it even more likely that red zone possessions will end in demoralizing nothing.
And, of course, it goes without saying that turnovers of any kind are death sentences.

It will take, in other words, Auburn's best and first complete performance of the season.

Here is the good news: Auburn is still due for its first complete performance of the season. The offense, in particular, is improving and does seem to be ramping up to the point where it turns the yards it's scraping together into points. And yes, I could see that performance leading to the following things: 10-14 points of some variety from the offense; 3-7 points via a huge defensive or special teams (i.e. kickoff return) play; and 14-17 points allowed by the defense. This puts us in the neighborhood of 17-14, 21-17, 20-20 and the random heartache of overtime.

Do I think Auburn has to play near-perfectly to win? Yes. Do I think the odds of that happening are against them? Yes. Am I convinced they're not going to pull it off? Not in the slightest.

1 comment:

J.M. said...

The facts sure are a buzzkill.