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Game Preview: No. 13 Auburn Tigers at No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (via Crimson Magazine)

23 Nov 2016 Stan J. Griffin

By Stan J. Griffin: November 23, 2016

Although the line for Saturday's Iron Bowl showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 13 Auburn at Bryant-Denny Stadium (2:30 p.m. CT, CBS)  has hovered anywhere between 17 and 20 points, there are several items that point toward a closer game than some observers might expect.
These include an Auburn scoring defense that allows only around 17 points per game, a Tiger rushing defense that is ranked No. 4 in the Southeastern Conference, allowing only about 134 yards per game and an Auburn rushing offense that has been strong all season long, averaging nearly 267 yards per contest.
So there is good talent on both sides of the ball for Gus Malzahn's Tigers (8-3 overall, 5-2 in SEC play), and weapons that cause a host of issues for just about any team, including Nick Saban's top-ranked Crimson Tide squad (11-0 overall, 7-0 in league play).
That is if the Tigers are healthy.
Defensively, Auburn appears to be in good shape physically heading into Saturday's affair, the 81st meeting of the intrastate archrivals, but a major storyline entering the contest is the health of key offensive leaders for the Tigers, including sophomore quarterback Sean White and sophomore tailback Kamryn Pettway.
Malzahn, the fourth-year Auburn coach, has said this week that he expects Pettway to return from a leg injury suffered against Vanderbilt, but has yet to name a starting quarterback for Saturday's contest, meaning there is the possibility of senior Jeremy Johnson starting his second straight game.
There are also injury concerns regarding sophomore H back/tight end Chandler Cox and fellow sophomore running back//receiver Stanton Truitt. So even if all four are able to play against Alabama, all may be at least partially limited in what they are able to do in an actual game situation.
Saban said at his Monday press conference that he and his staff are preparing as if all of Auburn's offensive cogs will playing, and said the game in general will be a mighty challenge for his top-ranked team as it attempts to complete a perfect 12-0 regular season.

"Auburn, I think is an outstanding team and (Malzahn) has done a really good job there since he's been there, but especially this year with how this team has developed and improved throughout the season," he said. "They've made adjustments throughout the year relative to issues they've had on their team, whether it be injuries or whatever. But they've still managed to score a lot of points, run the ball very effectively, they've been able to make explosive plays in the passing game. Their defensive has been probably as good as any defense that we've played against all year long. They're very good upfront, they've got good pass rushers. They create negative plays. They play good in the back end. They're very well-coached. (Defensive coordinator) Kevin (Steele) has done a really good job with them. I think (junior defensive lineman) Carl Lawson and (senior DL) Montravius Adams are especially a handful upfront. They do what they do on offense regardless of who plays quarterback, and they've been able to do that pretty effectively all year long, relative to how they've been able to run the ball on people and make explosive plays in the passing game. They've got probably one of the best placekickers in the country in (junior) Daniel Carlson, and this is a very, very good team."
He added that he has been impressed with White, Johnson and junior John Franklin III, and said that regardless of who lines up behind center for the Tigers, the Tide will have to deal with a player that has unique and solid abilities.
White has been by far the most consistent passer for the Tigers, as he has thrown for 1,644 yards, along with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. Johnson, meanwhile, has thrown for 185 yards in his limited attempts, with a touchdown and an interception.
Pettway leads a very explosive and ball-hogging Auburn ground corps with 1,106 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games, averaging 138 yards per contest and over six yards per carry. 
Sophomore Kerryon Johnson has totaled 823 yards with 11 TDs and Franklin III has 400 yards rushing and two scores, averaging 10.5 yards per carry.
Senior Tony Stevens is the leading pass catcher for the Tigers, hauling in 29 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns, while sophomore Ryan Davis has 25 receptions for 194 yards and a score. Redshirt freshman Darius Slayton and freshman Kyle Davis have 236 and 235 yards receiving respectively.
Auburn as a team averages just over 34 points per contest and just over 473 yards of total offense per game.
Defensively, junior defensive back Tray Matthews leads what Saban calls one of Auburn's better defenses with 67 total tackles, with senior defensive back Johnathan Ford adding 57 and junior linebacker Tre' Williams 53. Lawson leads Auburn with 12.5 tackles for loss while Adams has tallied 8.5.
Lawson also leads Malzahn's team with nine sacks.
Senior defensive back Joshua Holzey leads the Auburn secondary with three interceptions.
There is no denying the status of Carlson as perhaps the nation's best field goal kicker as he has converted 22 of his 25 attempts this season, including a long kick of 53 yards.
Senior Kevin Phillips has punted 36 times for an average of 41.6 yards, including a long kick of 68 yards.
In a contest where the two defenses might control things for the majority of the game, this edition of the nation's finest rivalry may come down to which team is able to get a hot hand with its running game and control the ball as it may not be a great day for either passing attack, especially with the health questions regarding White.
An Auburn team with nothing to lose, and a prime opportunity to put a huge damper on Alabama's stellar season,  will no doubt be counting on the return of Pettway to give its offense a huge lift, while the Tide needs to take care of the ball with its running game, and it will need strong games on the ground from quarterback Jalen Hurts and Damien Harris or Joshua Jacobs as well.  Time of possession will certainly be a pivotal statistic in this clash.
It will also be important for Saban's team utilize its home field advantage with a quick start to get the Tide crowd loud early and to also perhaps put the Tigers in an early deep hole.
Alabama may also need one of its patented non-offensive touchdowns to perhaps provide some breathing room in what might be a tight contest for all four quarters.

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