Whether you view it as the biggest matchup of the history of the rivalry — or are perhaps more partial to 1971 or another edition — one thing cannot be disputed: Both teams seem to have an equal shot at winning Saturday’s game. Yes, top-ranked Alabama will enter Jordan-Hare Stadium as double-digit favorites, but that should come as no surprise. The Crimson Tide have captured consecutive national titles, after all, and haven’t been tested in this rivalry in the past two years, winning by a combined score of 91-14.
With all of that being said, Auburn can’t be taken lightly.
And to back up this statement, here’s seven reasons the Tigers will topple the Tide on the Plains this weekend.
1. Nick Marshall will be the X-factor.
Ask any player or coach what has been the biggest difference between Auburn’s team this year and the one that went 3-9 last season, and they would quickly point to the Tigers’ starting quarterback. He hasn’t put up eye-popping passing stats this year, but he hasn’t had to given how well the Tigers have run the ball. And the most worrisome part for Alabama? The only time its vaunted defense has given up more than 330 yards of total offense this season came against Texas A&M. The overwhelming majority of those 628 yards the Aggies collected were created by none other than Johnny Manziel.
While he isn’t as polished a passer as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Marshall can do many of the same things. That’s exactly what he will do Saturday to keep the Tide’s defense guessing on every play.
2. Tre Mason will be the best running back on the field.
T.J. Yeldon is a fantastic running back on his own merit. But he’s not Mason. Auburn’s junior running back is tops in the SEC in both rushing yards (1,153) and touchdowns (17) and has only continued to get better as the season has progressed. In fact, more than half of those scores (nine) have come in his past four outings. Mason hasn’t been mentioned as a contender for the Heisman, but a strong showing against Alabama could put him on the short list for next season — assuming he doesn’t decide to bolt for the NFL, that is.
3. Corey Grant will be more motivated than he has ever been.
Obscured by the achievements of Mason and Marshall this year, Grant has been a key cog in the Tigers’ running machine as well. He’s averaging 9.9 yards per carry and has scored five touchdowns this season. Of greater pertinence to this game, he’s also a former member of the Crimson Tide. The Opelika native redshirted at Alabama in 2010 before transferring to Auburn and sitting out another year to satisfy the NCAA’s transfer requirements. Don’t think head coach Gus Malzahn is unaware of this little tidbit; expect Grant to get a couple of touches when the Tigers get near the goal line for Grant to be able to relish the chance to score on his old teammates.
4. Auburn’s defense will come through once more.
There’s no debating that Auburn’s defense isn’t of the same caliber as Alabama’s — few are. But that hasn’t hurt the Tigers all that much this season; while they have given up yards by the bushel, they are one of the top teams in the league in scoring defense (22 points per game, fifth in the SEC) and red zone defense, as opponents have scored on just 73.7 percent of incursions inside Auburn’s 20-yard line, second-best in the league after Alabama’s 60 percent.
And in the moments that count the most, the defense has delivered clutch performances. Though many only recall the game-winning drives led by Marshall, the Tigers’ defense has actually sealed the team’s two biggest victories this season, over Texas A&M and Georgia, respectively.
Also, senior defensive end Dee Ford, one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC, should figure quite prominently Saturday.
5. Nick Saban’s past history with top-level Tiger squads.
It’s rare that Alabama’s head coach finds a school that can best him on multiple occasions. And it’s nearly impossible to find a school he hasn’t beaten when given more than one shot to game plan for them. But it’s a stat that has been oft-cited this week: Saban has squared off against five Auburn teams that finished with nine or more wins in a season. Each time, Saban walked away with a loss.
After Saturday, make that 0-6.
6. America needs Auburn to win.
Any team that wins with regularity — and often methodical, if not downright boring dominance — starts to wear on people after a while. It’s safe to say Alabama has reached that point with the majority of college football fans not residing in the Southeast. The nation is suffering from Crimson Tide fatigue, and if the Tigers don’t stop them, only Missouri or South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game can prevent the two-time defending champs from appearing in the BCS National Championship Game for the fourth time in five years.
After watching how the final two minutes of the Georgia victory played out, is there any reason to doubt Auburn at this point? Somehow, someway, the Tigers are going to find a way to win. (The LSU loss notwithstanding.) And each victory seems to have been a little different in its own respect. Some have been dominant. Some have been close. One even needed a miracle tipped pass to keep its dream of an SEC Championship (and possibly even bigger things beyond that) alive.
While lightning likely won’t strike twice in that regard — plays like Ricardo Louis’ 73-yard touchdown catch come around once every decade or so — the Tigers won’t need anything of the sort Saturday. They will beat the Crimson Tide straight-up.
And because of that, Auburn can make reservations for Atlanta once Saturday evening rolls around.