November 17, 2006

Crimson Tide, Tigers tangle in Tuscaloosa

The Alabama Crimson Tide (6-5, 2-5 in SEC) will try to snap a four-game losing streak to rival Auburn (9-2, 5-2) when the 15th-ranked Tigers visit Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday (2:34 p.m. CT/CBS). The Tide is coming off a 28-14 loss to LSU, while Auburn was upset by Georgia last week.

BOL senior writer Travis Reier takes a look at this week's match-up.

Alabama running game vs. Auburn run defense: After averaging 181 rushing yards in wins over Duke and Ole Miss, the Tide has averaged 85 yards per game in it last four contests. UA has struggled in recent weeks to establish its base power running play, but Kenneth Darby and Jimmy Johns did have some success on the edges against LSU. Marlon Davis appears to have established himself as the new starter at right guard.

Edge: Florida and Georgia rolled up big rushing numbers against the Tigers, but both offenses did it out of shotgun spread formations. The Bulldogs burned the Auburn defense repeatedly with the zone read a week ago. Alabama has the play in its arsenal as a part of the Johns quarterback package, but it might want to give it some run with John Parker Wilson this week. Though he's not known for his speed or elusiveness, UGA quarterback Matthew Stafford torched the Tigers for 83 rushing yards on seven carries. Edge to Auburn.

Key match up: Alabama offensive guards Marlon Davis and Justin Britt vs. Auburn defensive tackles Josh Thompson and Sen'Derrick Marks.

Alabama passing game vs. Auburn pass defense: Improved protection and a quick passing game at LSU helped UA rebound from its sub par performance against Mississippi State. Even if Keith Brown (knee/ankle) can't go this week, Wilson's confidence in Will Oakley, Nikita Stover and Matt Caddell appears to be on the rise.

Edge: Stafford hit the AU secondary for big plays in the first half last week. Look for Wilson and DJ Hall to attack either Jonathan Wilhite or Pat Taylor in the early going Saturday. Taylor replaced Wilhite at right corner after Wilhite was beaten twice in the first quarter a week ago. Also of concern for Auburn is the health status of Eric Brock (ankle), the Tigers' top safety. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama offensive tackles Andre Smith and Chris Capps vs. Auburn defensive ends Quentin Groves and Marquies Gunn.

Mike Shula's first offensive play call will be: Flat route to fullback Le'Ron McClain.

Don't be surprised if: If Johns throws a pass to Wilson.

Auburn running game vs. Alabama run defense: Given Alabama's struggles against the run in recent weeks, it's hard to imagine Auburn not pounding tailback Kenny Irons and Brad Lester on toss sweeps and stretch plays this week. Containing both plays requires strong linebacker play at the point of attack, something UA hasn't had much of this season. In addition to establishing Irons and Lester early, the Tigers will come with a reverse or two to wide receiver Courtney Taylor, who is also a threat to throw.

Edge: When looking at matchups on the inside, the Tigers have the advantage with standout guards Ben Grubbs and Tim Duckworth and undersized-but-serviceable center Joe Cope. Auburn got away from the run much too quickly against Georgia. Alabama won't be as fortunate this week. Edge to Auburn.

Key match up: Alabama's linebackers vs. Auburn tailbacks Irons and Lester.

Auburn passing game vs. Alabama pass defense: AU quarterback Brandon Cox has thrown seven interceptions in his last three games. The junior's right leg woes are obviously a problem, as he appears tentative in the pocket and doesn't have the same zip on the ball he had earlier in the season. Depending on how Cox feels this week, the bootleg and waggle action that plays a prominent role in the AU attack may or may not be effective this week.

Edge: With each passing week, opposing offenses have taken more and more shots at Alabama corner Ramzee Robinson. And without a free safety who has legitimate SEC ball skills, opponents are finding plenty of room to work in the middle of the field. Taylor and Rod Smith are both capable of making big plays, but they're not on the same level as what Alabama saw last week. Look for Tide corners to challenge those guys this week, with a safety committed largely to the Auburn running game. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama cornerbacks Ramzee Robinson and Simeon Castille vs. Auburn wide receivers Taylor and Smith.

Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges's first play call will be: Stretch to Irons or Lester.

Don't be surprised if: Borges goes to his bag of tricks early, calling for a reverse pass.

Special Teams: If there is an area where one of these teams holds a decisive edge, this is it. Auburn punter Kody Bliss is averaging 45.4 yards per punt and leads the SEC in net average. John Vaughn has made 103 consecutive PATs dating back to the 2004 season, and has made good on 19-of-22 field goal attempts this season, including a long make of 55 yards. Matt Clark, who has 46 touchbacks this season, is the SEC's top kickoff man. Tristan Davis leads the SEC and ranks 13th in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 27.2 yards per return.

Edge: Given his two misses at LSU last week, one has to wonder about UA placekicker Jamie Christensen's confidence heading into the biggest game of the season. Meanwhile, punter P.J. Fitzgerald continues to come through on an every-other-kick basis. It's hard to envision a scenario where the Tide wins the field position battle this week. Large edge to Auburn.

Game prediction: Slow down the Auburn running game and play the Tigers even in the kicking game. For Alabama, those are musts because the chances of AU turning the ball over four times for the second straight week are not good. Alabama's struggling running game won't magically breakout, but Wilson and his receivers should be able to strike for at least two big plays. Alabama 19, Auburn 17

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