Auburn, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - The 78th Iron Bowl is on tap this weekend, as the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and fourth-ranked Auburn Tigers play for much more than state bragging rights.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have kept their course towards a third straight national title, as they have won all 11 games in 2013, including a rather easy 49-0 shutout of FCS foe Chattanooga last week in the team's home finale. At 11-0 overall and 7-0 in SEC play, the only thing standing between Alabama and the SEC Championship Game is the Auburn Tigers.
Gus Malzahn has to be the frontrunner for national coach of the year, as he took a team that finished a dismal 3-9 a year ago and has it seeking its 11th win of the season. Of course, the 10-1 Tigers (6-1 SEC) have a huge hurdle in the two-time defending national champions, but they gave themselves an opportunity with a thrilling last second win over Georgia (43-38) two weeks ago. Auburn was idle this past weekend in preparation of this winner take all SEC West battle.
This series dates back to 1893, with Alabama holding a 42-34-1 advantage all- time. The Crimson Tide have won two straight and four of the last five meetings.
The Crimson Tide may be known for their stellar defensive play, but the offense is getting it done as well, with great balance. Alabama is averaging just under 40 points per game and doing so on over 200 yards both rushing (211.5 ypg) and passing (233.3 ypg).
It certainly helps to have one of the all-time winningest quarterbacks under center in A.J. McCarron. the senior signal caller has capped off a brilliant career in Tuscaloosa with a Heisman run in 2013, completing 68.9 percent of his passes, for 2,399 yards, with 23 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
McCarron has a wealth of talent on the outside, including Christion Jones (35 catches, 342 yards, 2 TDs), Kevin Norwood (33 catches, 493 yards, 6 TDs) and Amari Cooper (30 catches, 437 yards, 3 TDs).
The rushing attack is spearheaded by T.J. Yeldon (1,022 yards, 6.2 ypc, 12 TDs), with Kenyan Drake (661 yards, 7.5 ypc, 8 TDs) showing big play ability as well.
It certainly doesn't get much better on the defensive side of the football than what Alabama sends out on the field each week. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in scoring defense (9.3 ppg), while ranking fourth in rush defense (91.3 ypg), seventh in pass defense (172.6 ypg) and third in total defense (263.9 ypg).
The unit is led by All-American C.J. Mosley in the middle. The senior linebacker paces the Tide in tackles (88) and TFL (9). Safeties Landon Collins (52 tackles, one INT) and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (45 tackles, two INTs) are playmakers in the secondary, while A'Shawn Robinson (31 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks) and Ed Stinson (33 tackles, 1.5 sacks) lead the way up front.
Auburn will test Alabama's front seven early and often in this game. The Tigers come into the season finale as one of the top rushing teams in the country at 320.3 ypg (second nationally), and are putting up just under 500 yards of offense per game (499.9).
Despite a run-heavy gameplan week-in and week-out, Malzahn thinks the key to this game is balance on offense.
"Anytime you play a good defense, you're going to have to be balanced. You're going to have to be able to throw; you're going to have to be able to run to be effective. We understand that. We've been working extremely hard in the passing game," Malzahn said during a special Tiger Talk radio show Monday night. "We hit a couple of passes in the last game, but we're going to have to get better."
Tailback Tre Mason has been the workhorse, rumbling for 1,153 yards (5.5 ypc) with 17 touchdowns. Quarterback Nick Marshall creates problems for a defense with his ability to run first and foremost. Marshall has rushed for 823 yards this season and nine TDs. Marshall had two TD runs in the win over Georgia, but will now always be remembered for an improbable 73-yard TD pass to Ricardo Louis, who hauled in a tipped ball with 25 seconds remaining on a 4th-and-18. On the year, Marshall has completed 58.4 percent of his throws, for 1,530 yards, with nine TDs and just five INTs.
Sammie Coates is a dangerous threat on the outside, despite just 30 catches on the season. His 22.9 yards per receptions though is tops in the SEC and among the national leaders.
Saban knows his defense faces a tough challenge with the Tigers.
"Their offense is one of the leading offenses in the country. Gus (Malzahn) has always done a fantastic job with the offense with their ability to run the ball effectively and throw it when they need to, score the points that they have been able to score on a pretty consistent basis against just about everyone in this league. They have a good offensive line and good runners. Nick Marshall does a very good job of implementing their offense, and he's very athletic and makes a lot of plays as a rusher as well. Tre Mason is the leading rusher in the league. Nick Marshall has almost 1,000 yards rushing himself, so they create a lot of issues and a lot of problems."
The Tigers have found themselves caught up in some wild games, but despite allowing a generous 406.9 yards of offense to the opposition, Auburn is yielding just 22.0 ppg.
Senior cornerback Chris Davis leads the Tigers in total tackles with 55. Junior Robenson Therezie (50 tackles) is another strong presence in the back seven with a team-best four INTs, while senior end Dee Ford (22 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 8.0 sacks) must be accounted for along the defensive line.