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Preview: the Blueprint

Screw up for us one time, won't ya Greg?
Screw up for us one time, won't ya Greg?

It’s Wednesday, and in this strangest of all Iron Bowl weeks that means we’ve already reached de facto Gameday Eve. And on Gameday Eve, it’s been WBE’s habit to preview Auburn’s upcoming opponent in statistical detail, probing the numbers for weaknesses, insights, advantages, etc.

I’m not doing that this week. Because the stats show what we all already pretty much know to be true: if both teams play their best game, Alabama wins. They are third in the nation in rush defense. They are first in the nation (first!) in yards-per-passing attempt allowed and opponent’s QB rating. Their offense averages exactly as much per-play as Auburn’s does and their greatest offensive strength–rushing straight ahead, which they’ve done to the tune of the eighth-best yards-per-carry average in the country–unfortunately matches up with what teams like Kentucky and Georgia have shown to be arguably Auburn’s greatest defensive weakness. If Greg McElroy has truly busted out of his midseason slump, this is a team that is poor at covering kickoff returns but basically has no other identifiable weaknesses.

But ah, as this site has documented throughout this week, that does not mean there is not hope. There are ways around statistics, ways to blur the lines of which team is “better,”  ways towards victory. There is always hope.

And so here is that hope as committed to the Internet version of paper, the blueprint that must be followed for an Auburn win on Friday. If you wanted, you could boil it down to “Auburn plays really well and gets the breaks and Alabama plays really bad and doesn’t,” but where’s the fun in that?

Without further ado, what Auburn must do:

1. Commit no turnovers. None. 50-yard interceptions on 3rd-and-14 excepted–because I’d much prefer that, actually, to punting to Javier Arenas–Auburn simply can’t afford to make that kind of nuclear-grade mistake against this kind of team. Doesn’t matter where on the field; whether it’s handing the Tide easy points in Auburn territory or throwing points away in Alabama territory, Auburn won’t be able to survive either way.

2. Get off to a fast start. Alabama has been a slow-starting team throughout the season, rarely scoring early in the game and occasionally giving up early touchdowns, even to the likes of Florida International (who they trailed in the second quarter). They haven’t yet put together the kind of blitzkrieg that puts the game away by halftime a la their 2008 win over Georgia, at least not against SEC competition.

This means that Auburn may have a chance to burst out of the gate a la their 2009 visit to Athens. The early part of the game is when the Tide will have the least amount of time to adjust to Malzahn’s trickery and the defense will get the greatest boost from the emotional buzz in the stadium. Auburn has to put that to use.

The cynic will point out that Auburn didn’t win that game in Athens two weeks ago and that big leads against superior Tide teams in the past have rarely lasted, and the cynic would be right about the facts. But this Tide team has not trailed on the road at all this season (where they’ve faced Kentucky, the struggling pre-McClusterbomb version Ole Miss, and Miss. St.), much less in the kind of atmosphere Jordan-Hare ought to provide on Friday. An early Auburn lead will keep the crowd at a fever pitch and create a kind of pressure for Alabama they simply have not faced yet this year, and anyone who says they know for certain how the Tide would respond to is lying.

3. Convert makeable third downs. The Auburn offense has to stay on the field. The Tiger defense is facing its tallest task of the entire season in stopping Ingram and the Tide rushing attack, and it simply won’t have a chance if it has to race onto the field every 90 seconds after a series of hyperdrive three-and-outs.

Some offensive failures are inevitable. The Tide defense is too good to expect Auburn to put together even the kind of game they managed against Tennessee. (Probably.) But they can make first downs even when they don’t score. They can score from time-to-time. And that starts with converting the 3rd-and-3’s, 3rd-and-1’s, 3rd-and-5’s that have been such a problem for this offense the second half of the year. For Malzahn, this means no passes to Lee Ziemba, and (if you’re asking me) not as many of the straight drop-back passes that failed so miserably against Kentucky. Draws, screens, etc. please.

Now, aside from keeping the defense from sucking oxygen the entire game, what’s the other reason Auburn third downs are so important (and, for my money, the single biggest factor in the game)?

4. Push the pace. Yeah, the usual Malzahnian tempo will put the defense at tremendous risk, but there’s two things to remember here:

1. That pace is what Auburn does. The pace is why Auburn has had the kind of success it’s had. The 12th game of the year against the best team on the schedule is no time to try and do something that the offense–which Malzahn has entirely designed around the idea of pace–has not done all year. Auburn doesn’t need to change. They just need to do what they do* better than they’ve done it.

2. If this Alabama defense does have a weakness, defending the no-huddle might be it. The only Auburn drive into scoring territory we got last year took place at the end of the first half, in the no-huddle. Utah tore them apart with the no-huddle in the Sugar Bowl. Tennessee’s greatest success came at the end of the game in … wait for it … the no-huddle.

Which makes some sense. Saban’s excellence in defensive play-calling can’t have as much of an effect when there’s less time to call anything special. The front seven is built around the goliath in the center of the line who, while obviously a tremendous player, is not built to withstand staying on the field for an 8-play drive that takes place in 1:45 of clock time (as Utah proved). As good as the Tide are, all the usual truisms about defenses being uncomfortable playing at Auburn’s preferred pace hold true for the Tide as well. They are, after all, still human.

So the pedal needs to be pushed. If you ask me, it needs to be floored: Auburn has nothing to lose.

Speaking of which …

5. Gamble, coaches. Auburn can’t coach against Alabama the way they coach against other teams. There’s no reason to hold anything back here, no reason to expect Auburn to be able to trade conventional field-position blows and hang with a team this good, no reason not to crank up the variance in this game as high as Auburn can crank it. This game must be as unpredictable as possible, because if it goes according to predictability, Alabama wins.

So: if it’s 4th-and-6 on the Alabama 34, screw the pooch punt, no matter how good Todd is at it. The lost points are far more costly than giving up bad field position. If there’s a killer fake punt in the playbook, this game is the time. The six-man blitz Roof has been withholding all year? Bring it. Provided it’s not 3rd-and-short, if Malzahn has something special he’s got confidence in? Damn the torpedoes.

Remember: there is nothing to lose. Auburn will not be able to trade normal drives and normal plays against Alabama. It will take some big, big plays and big, big drives to pull this off, and that means coaching with some big, big cojones. (The good news: Gene Chizik may understand this, and I guarantee you Malzahn does.)

5. Return kickoffs like a bunch of crazed barbarians. This is the one genuine soft spot in the Alabama armor; you don’t fall all the way to 116th in the country–even worse than Auburn!–by accident. And so Auburn has to take advantage. If McCalebb is healthy, he and Washington–pretty clearly Auburn’s two biggest threats back there–have to be on the field, and blocks have to be made, and returns have to go past the 30 at minimum and one or two have to go into Alabama territory.

There are not many places where Auburn can make hay. This is one, and hay must be made.

6. Likewise, keep Arenas in check without murdering field position. I’d rather not kick to him. But the kind of shenanigans we had against LSU–squibbing to an up-man who crosses midfield anyway–are also not acceptable if Auburn wants to win this game. As with the turnovers: Auburn will have enough struggles down-to-down and winning field position battles with the offense and defense. They can’t struggle in special teams and lose field position battles here, too.

(As for how doable this is, Auburn, well, the Georgia game looked like a big improvement, but Arenas is a terror. I trust Durst to keep the ball away from him, but we’ll see about kickoffs.)

7. Watch McElroy have a bad game. Same-ol’, same-ol’: Yes, Alabama is tremendous as a running team, and yes, moreso than any other team on Auburn’s schedule they are capable of simply cramming the ball down our throat and never even bothering to put the ball in the air. But from time-to-time, even the best running teams face 3rd-and-long. And McElroy will have to produce, and Auburn will have to stop him, just as they had to do vs. Jon Crompton, Morgan Newton, and as it turned out, Joe Cox.

So: Roof can do his best to disrupt him with the blitz, and a sudden, miraculous turnaround from the secondary (which, you’ll recall, had their worst game of the year vs. Georgia) would be a gigantic help. But if McElroy is on his game the way he was early in the season or against LSU, there’ll be only so much Auburn can do.

The good news: McElroy is certainly capable of being off his game. His running four-week yards-per-attempt numbers against Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Tennessee: 5.7, 4.6, 4.4., 4.1. Auburn may not have the defensive horses to reproduce those last three results, but if they and McElroy’s inner Evil Greg can keep the Tide passing game under 6, there will be stops to be had.

One other thing: if Auburn gets its sweaty mitts on a McElroy pass, it must be picked off. Ingram just doesn’t fumble, so to have any hope of winning the turnover battle Auburn will have to grab an interception or two. That McElroy has thrown only four picks all year isn’t encouraging, but hey, maybe he’s due?

7. Catch the breaks. As with any monster upset like this, the underdog will have to get a little lucky. Any Auburn fumbles will have to bounce back right back into our arms. Officials will have to see penalties on Alabama that maybe aren’t there while overlooking obvious Auburn infractions. Tiger passes that get batted at the line will have to fall harmlessly to the turf, while batted Alabama passes will float lovingly into the hands of, say, Josh Bynes. Etc.

Auburn will have to make a lot of their own luck. But a heaping helping of natural good fortune will go a long, long way towards victory, too.

In conclusion, these are a lot of what-ifs. The Alabama version of this post is a lot shorter: run the ball, don’t give up easy scores on special teams or with turnovers, let the defense do its thing.

But just because there are a lot of them doesn’t mean they won’t happen. Unlike last year, when in retrospect Auburn never had the coaching or the talent to have a snowball’s chance in Saban’s living room, Auburn is plenty capable of winning this game. It’s not too tough to see an early Auburn TD and field goal while the hyped-up defense puts together a couple of stops for a 10-0 lead. It’s not too tough to see Washington returning a kickoff 67 yards to set up another first-half touchdown for a 17-10 halftime lead, or Auburn coming out of the second-half gates with another field goal to go up 10 points. It’s not too tough to see Alabama getting the tiniest creep of worry into their play as they pick up a couple of penalties and turn to McElroy more often than they should, leading to a couple of stops and a 20-13 deficit entering the fourth. It’s not too tough to see a late Tide touchdown, but it’s also not too tough to see the one calamitous turnover that hands Auburn another 3 points.  It’s not too tough to see Ben Tate bulling his way for a critical first down or an exhausted, wounded, prideful defense raising up for one final fourth-quarter stand that preserves the victory of their lives.

No, a 23-20 Auburn win may not be likely. But I can see it. Yeah, I can see it.

*Of course this is intentional.

Photo found here.

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