Top-ranked Alabama ready for anything in Iron Bowl vs. Auburn

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) passes the ball against the Citadel Bulldogs during the first half at Bryant-Denny Stadium.Photo: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Xchange

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Every year you hear the same thing about the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, on how to throw out the records and statistics because anything can happen.

Actually, anything often does happen in the game dubbed the Iron Bowl. From “The Kick” to the “Kick Six,” there’s a long history of not only the two sides not liking one another but playing atypical games.

The 83rd meeting on Saturday (CBS, 2:30 p.m. CT) figures to be another.

This will be the sixth time Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) will face Auburn undefeated during the Nick Saban era, five of which it was ranked No. 1 (the other it was second). Yet twice the Tigers managed to win, in 2013 with the previously mentioned Kick Six, and last season, 26-14.

“The players all know what happened last year,” Saban said. “I think they don’t feel great about it. They didn’t feel good about last year. They’ve had to live with it for 365 days.”

“I don’t necessarily think that the revenge factor is the best form of motivation out there, but I think it certainly plays into a guy that’s a good competitor who wants to come back and do well if he didn’t perform well the last time, he played someone.”

Alabama still went on to win the national championship, but there’s a big difference on the other side. The 2017 Tigers were ranked sixth when they pulled off the upset at home and went on to play in the SEC Championship.

The 2018 season hasn’t been on the same level.

Auburn (7-4, 3-4) went from being a popular preseason choice to contend for the SEC West title yet will head into Bryant-Denny Stadium tied for fourth with Mississippi State.

“You don’t have to do a lot of motivating this week,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said, as the Tigers have no problem playing the role of spoiler.

However, statistically the teams are not close.

On offense, Alabama ranks in the top three in the conference in each of the four major categories (rushing, passing, total and scoring), while Auburn is between No. 8 and 11 in all of them.

It’s similar on the defensive side.

The Crimson Tide is again in the top three across the board, while the Tigers are fourth in scoring defense, but seventh or eighth in the other categories.

Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis said this might be the best Alabama team he’s seen. Malzahn wouldn’t go so far but called Alabama “impressive.”

The two teams have played six common opponents, with Alabama 6-0 and Auburn 3-3. The Tigers beat Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, but lost to LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee.

Since the surprising loss to the Volunteers on Oct. 13 (a week before Alabama dominated in Knoxville, 58-21), Auburn is 3-1, but got run over by No. 5 Georgia, 27-10.

The Bulldogs ran for 303 yards, while the other Bulldogs from Mississippi State tallied 349 on the Tigers on Oct. 6.

Auburn’s biggest strengths were supposed to be its defensive front seven and quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Baylor transfer was 21-for-27 (75 percent) for 237 yards and ran in a touchdown during last year’s win against Alabama, but his numbers have regressed this season.

In 2017, he completed 66.5 percent of his passes while averaging 225.8 yards per game and had a passer rating of 151.0. This year those same numbers are 61.6, 208.5 and 132.2, respectively.

“Jarrett Stidham is a really good quarterback,” Alabama safety Deionte Thompson said. “He and I both played in the 4A division in Texas in high school and I remember him at Stephenville he was a really good quarterback, and in seven-on-seven and remember him at different camps. He’s got an arm on him and he’s pretty good. He runs their offense very well. Up-tempo, get the ball, nickel and dime down the field.”

The real problem with the Auburn offense has been with the running game and the struggling offensive line. Four times this season the Tigers were held to under 100 rushing yards, including a season-low 19 yards on 21 carries against Texas A&M.

A lot of that would be forgotten, or at least forgiven by Auburn’s fans if the Tigers could find a way to top their rivals again.

“It’d be huge,” Malzahn said. “Anytime you play the Iron Bowl and you win, that’s big on both sides. That’d be huge.”