Part two of our look ahead to the Iron Bowl will be considerably shorter than yesterday's installment focused on the offense. As potent as the Auburn offense has been, their defense has been almost equally as inept. The Tigers currently rank #50 in the nation in total defense and a dumbfounding #100 in pass defense. They do boast respectable numbers against the run (#11), but those stats are a little skewed due to the secondary being easy picking and many of Auburn's games turning into shootouts.
Much like the offense, the Auburn D is powered by one spectacular player, defensive tackle Nick Fairley. If something good happens for their defense, Fairley is usually the catalyst. His combination of power, quickness, and technique has generated 7.5 sacks, and he currently sits in the top 10 in tackles for a loss (18). I wasn't able to find a metric for the number of times he's blown up a play without getting tackle credit, but, trust me, it's happened a ton. (Again, I'm resisting the urge to make snide remarks about his penchant for putting questionable hits on the QB. 'Cause I'm classy like that. But, for real, he's dirty.) Most of Bama's focus in this game will have to be on reducing his impact. If they can keep him from busting up plays from the snap, the Tide should be successful attacking this D.
So here's some thoughts on how they might go about all that...
The interior Offensive Line needs to man up. On the offensive side of things, this has been my biggest disappointment of the year. The OL has unexpectedly lost the ability to dominate a game the way the 08 and 09 units did, and it's short-circuited what was supposed to be the strength of this year's offense: the two-head monster of Ingram and Richardson. Part of their struggles could be attributed to injuries (as of this writing, it's still unclear if All-SEC guard Barrett Jones will play on Friday), and part of it could be the result of all these teams with bye weeks coming up with special schemes to stop the run...But, if anything, the 2010 Tide offense is FAR less one-dimensional than the 09 squad and especially the 08 offense. Yet those lines rarely failed to assert their control over loaded boxes. These guys have just lost that will to dominate. I don't know if they don't have the right mix of guys or what, but there's really no excuse for how badly they were whipped by Drake Nevis at LSU. They even let GEORGIA STATE win the battle inside at the goalline and forced Ingram to run wide to score last week. That's embarrassing. And wouldn't you know it...the weakness of this offense is going to be matched up against the best Auburn has to offer in Fairley. If this OL can't find it within themselves to muster one solid 2009-caliber effort, it's going to be a "Honk if you sacked McElroy" kind of game. If they do, well, then you've got a ball game.
Jim McElwain is going to have to call another 09 SEC Championship Game. With the deficiencies at the point of attack duly noted, it's going to take another gem from McElwain if Bama is going to be successful. He's going to have to keep Auburn guessing all day like he kept the Gators guessing last season. This can't be a game where they run Ingram up the middle into the teeth of the defense for a quarter or two, and do nothing, before deciding to cut it loose. It didn't work against LSU, it didn't even work in the early going against Mississippi State. And if they go that route against Auburn, Bama is going to find themselves in a hole, playing catch up. A losing proposition, for sure. The offense must come out guns blazing. I mean, if this is the only game left that means something, then call it that way. Cut it loose. I actually liked some of the wrinkles McElwain threw into the Mississippi State game to blow it open (lining up Ingram out wide and throwing a screen to him, giving it to Julio on a speed sweep). MORE OF THAT. And if you're going to run Ingram, do it to the OUTSIDE. Hit them with those toss sweeps and counters. Keep the play away from Fairley and let those struggling interior linemen flatten linebackers and defensive backs on the edges.
Get the ball in Julio's hands. Look, guys...I understand how much you love Ingram. He had a legendary year in 09, and minus any lingering issues from the knee injury, he's probably an even better player now. I love him, too. But the offensive line has failed him. He's a square peg (literally, have you looked at him?) and they've become a round hole. It's just not happening. This is Julio's year. GIVE HIM THE BALL. The coaching staff has been fighting it all season, but it's been clear over the second half of the schedule that Julio is playing the best football of his career and is by far the best player right now. He caught 7 balls for 100+ yards AFTER he broke his hand against South Carolina. He beat a future Top 10 Draft pick to the point of it being a no-contest against LSU. This offense HAS to get him the ball more often, especially in this game. There is no one in Auburn's secondary that's a match for him. He's ready to dominate these guys. If the coaching staff can engineer at least 15 opportunities for him to get the ball in his hands, in the air or on the ground, starting early in the game, I think Bama is going to be in great shape to win it. It may cut into Mark's carries, but he'll have to understand. And they're buddies, so they can hash it out over a fishing trip or something.
And that's basically all. It's a seemingly simple task: minimize Fairley's impact. If Bama can do that, and then unleash Julio, they should have no trouble scoring enough points to win the game.
But will they?
I still have another 40 hours or so to figure that out. Be back with The Pick some time between now and then...