By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – Not that Alabama and Auburn needed any more motivation heading into their annual Iron Bowl showdown, but this year’s renewal of the rivalry will carry even more weight than usual.
Not only will pride be on the line in this one, but the winner of Saturday’s game will also claim the Southeastern Conference Western Division crown and punch its ticket to Atlanta on Dec. 7. Beyond that, there are also national championship ramifications, as unbeaten Alabama currently sits atop the Bowl Championship Series standings and one-loss Auburn holds an outside shot of qualifying if the dominoes fall into place.
It’s safe to say, with so much on the line, that the magnitude of this game has not been lost on either side. Despite the considerable buzz, both teams are doing their best to approach this as business as usual.
“The focus needs to be on playing your best football, which goes back to preparing the best, playing with the best fundamentals, having the best discipline, try to do the job the best you can against a very good team,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban told media this week.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn shared a similar tone at his weekly press conference.
“We are taking it one game at a time, and each game is bigger,” Malzahn said. “Our guys understand that. We aren’t going to hype up things. It’s already big enough. We are going to do exactly what we have done to get here, and we are going to prepare.”
On the field, the biggest matchup could come be that of Auburn’s prolific running game against Alabama’s stingy rush defense.
Auburn (10-1, 6-1 SEC) enters the contest ranked first in the SEC in rushing and third nationally with 320 yards per game on 6.4 yards per carry. On the other side of the ball, Alabama (11-0, 7-0) currently sits at No. 1 in the league and fourth in the nation in rush defense with 91.2 yards per game allowed on the ground on just 3.0 yards per attempt.
“Tre Mason is the leading rusher in the league,” Saban said in reference to Auburn’s star running back. “[Quarterback] Nick Marshall has almost 1,000 yards rushing himself, so they create a lot of issues and a lot of problems.”
Together, Mason and Marshall have combined for 1,976 yards and 26 scores on the ground. The duo has powered an Auburn offense that rushes for 80 yards per game more than the second-leading team.
“Obviously, they’re very good against the run, and we are pretty good running the football,” Malzahn stated. “I think that will be a big key, but at the same time, they’ve got an outstanding offense, and we’ve got to find a way to make them uncomfortable and slow them down.”
AJ McCarron leads an Alabama offense that has put up 39.7 points per game against an Auburn ‘D’ that has allowed exactly 28 points per game against SEC competition this year.
The Tigers have not been stellar against the run or the pass this season, ranking eighth and 13th in the conference respectively. With TJ Yeldon in the backfield and Kevin Norwood and Amari Cooper on the outside, Alabama will have its opportunities for big plays and points.
No matter what transpires come Saturday afternoon, the eyes of the nation will be focused squarely on The Plains this weekend.
"The Iron Bowl is a great rivalry game, one that is recognized all over the country in college football,” Saban said. “If you are a competitor, it's a great opportunity to compete and to play in a game like this that means a lot to a lot of people on both sides.”
Kickoff from Jordan-Hare Stadium is set for 3:30 p.m. on CBS.
This Saturday’s game will be the 78th meeting between Alabama and Auburn…The Crimson Tide leads the all-time series by a 42-34-1 tally…Auburn has won six out of the last 10 meetings and 11 of the last 20 overall…Five of the last 10 meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer, and 19 of the last 25 games have been decided by 10 points or fewer…The last time the Iron Bowl featured one or fewer combined losses was in 1994 when Alabama entered the game at 10-0 and Auburn came in at 9-0-1…Since the game moved to each school’s campus after the 1998 season, the visiting team has posted a 9-5 record.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012 – Alabama 49, Auburn 0 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
2011 – Alabama 42, Auburn 14 (Auburn, Ala.)
2010 – Auburn 28, Alabama 27 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
2009 – Alabama 26, Auburn 21 (Auburn, Ala.)
2008 – Alabama 36, Auburn 0 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
AJ McCarron led Alabama to a big win over Auburn on Nov. 24, 2012, with a four-touchdown effort. McCarron’s performance coupled with a 131-yard, two-touchdown outing from running back Eddie Lacy proved to be too much for Auburn, which fell 49-0 in Tuscaloosa to cap off a winless season in SEC play. The Crimson Tide did not waste much time jumping out in front of the Tigers, hanging 42 points in the first half and taking a six-touchdown advantage into halftime before coasting to the finish line. For Alabama, the win provided a springboard into the SEC Championship Game, which it eventually won over Georgia before moving on to the BCS National Championship Game.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Auburn – Tre Mason, Junior, Running Back
Auburn leads the SEC in rushing by a wide margin, and Mason is the straw that stirs the Tigers’ drink. The 210-pound junior leads the league in rushing yards with 1,153 on 5.5 yards per carry, and his 18 total touchdowns are the most by any non-quarterback in the conference (17 of those have come on the ground). Alabama has excelled in stopping the run, ranking seventh nationally in that department, but the Tigers’ explosive duo of Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall – who has run for 823 yards and nine TDs on 6.7 yards per rush – and will challenge the Alabama ‘D’ as much as anyone in 2013. Mason enters the Iron Bowl on a roll, having rushed for over 100 yards in three straight games, scoring eight times over that span to boot. On the season, Mason has hit the 100-yard mark six times overall. The Tide hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since its season-opening win over Virginia Tech, so Mason will have his work cut out for him against Alabama.
Alabama – AJ McCarron, Senior, Quarterback
McCarron has ascended in the Heisman conversation in recent weeks, and he will have an opportunity to elevate himself even more in the eyes of voters with a national stage this weekend. McCarron has been a beacon of consistency in his three seasons as the starter in Tuscaloosa, and he’s thrown for 23 touchdowns in 2013 compared to just five interceptions. Against Auburn this weekend, McCarron will have opportunities to throw against a defense that ranks 13th in the SEC against the pass. Alabama’s defense has been stellar this year, but the Crimson Tide showed they have the firepower on offense to win a high scoring affair in its early season win over Texas A&M. In that game, McCarron threw for 334 yards and four scores against a pass defense that ranks right along Auburn’s. While many describe McCarron as a “game manager”, he has shown that he can make big throws for Bama, and he could make a few more of those this weekend at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Auburn – Chris Davis, Senior, Cornerback
Auburn has struggled to stop teams through the air this season, and Davis will be an important player in the Tigers’ secondary this weekend as they try to limit Alabama. To this point in the year, Auburn has ranked 100th in the nation in pass defense. With playmakers like Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones and Amari Cooper coming to town, Davis and his fellow defensive backs will need to be on high alert on Saturday afternoon. Through 11 games, Davis has broken up 11 passes and recorded a team-high 55 tackles. Along with the versatile Robenzon Therezie, who plays a hybrid linebacker-defensive back role in Ellis Johnson’s defensive scheme, Davis will need to make some plays against a very solid quarterback in AJ McCarron. In addition to his duties on defense, Davis makes an impact for AU on special teams. His 22.5-yard per punt return average leads the nation, and he took one return 85 yards for a score against Tennessee.
Alabama – C.J. Mosley, Senior, Linebacker
Alabama plays suffocating defense, and the Tide is led by its outstanding senior linebacker C.J. Mosley. Possessing elite instincts, Mosley is constantly around the ball and, as a result, he’s often involved in big plays for the Bama defense. Mosley is incredibly athletic and has the versatility to line up inside or outside, and he will be a key to Alabama’s success on Saturday against Auburn’s potent rushing attack. The Tigers enter this weekend’s clash sitting atop the SEC in yards per carry while Alabama is first in yards per carry allowed defensively. Something will have to give in that regard and Mosley will have a say in whether or not the Crimson Tide is able to corral Tre Mason, Nick Marshall and the rest of the Tigers’ ball carriers the way it has limited the rest of its opponents in 2013. Expect to hear Mosley’s name called often on Saturday afternoon, as it has been all season.
• In its first season under Gus Malzahn, Auburn has posted the biggest turnaround in the nation through 11 games, going from 3-8 at this point last season to 10-1 entering this weekend.
• With Auburn moving up to the No. 4 spot in the Associated Press poll, it will be the highest ranked team Alabama has ever played in a regular season game when the Crimson Tide has been ranked No. 1.
• The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing at 320.3 yards per game (84 yards better than second-place Missouri), and rank second nationally; Auburn is one of seven teams nationally to have had four different 100-yard rushers this season and the only team nationally with four 500+ yard rushers.
• Alabama has an 18-game winning streak away from Bryant-Denny Stadium, which is the longest active streak in the FBS and a span of more than three calendar years.
• Auburn has scored at least 30 points in seven consecutive games for the first time since 1994.
• Alabama reached the 10-win milestone for the sixth consecutive season in 2013, boasting an 11-0 record. The six straight years with 10 wins is a school record, breaking the mark of five straight set by Bear Bryant’s teams from 1971-75.