Since I started this bloggin’ thing way back in early 2006, yours truly and leading ‘Bama blog RollBamaRoll have not always seen perfectly eye-to-eye. Them being Tide fans and me being an Auburn fan, specifically one that believes Nick Saban slits the throat of cheetah kittens for fun, that’s the sort of thing that happens. But we’ve also managed to find some common ground of respect and rationality along the way, and so we got together this week for the usual exchange of information. I appeared on RBR’s weekly radio hour last night–you can listen there, if you wish–and Todd answered a series of questions I threw his way. Those are below.
1. OK, now that the six-year streak is out of the way (sigh) and that the Tide is once again on the cusp of playing for a national title (double sigh), how focused do you think the Tide is going to be on this game? I know it’s the Iron Bowl and all, and I know the Tide are coached by a guy who sleeps 30 minutes a day like bees and was liable to have fourth-quarter emergency plans in place for Chattanooga last week … but we’re jus’ little’ ol’ harmless Auburn. We wouldn’t hurt a fly! You’d best be worryin’ ’bout them big bad Gators and them Longhorns, I’d say. Any chance that in the back of the Tide’s mind, they’re agreeing with me?
“Hate to say it (for you), but there’s not even a little chance. If there’s one big area where Saban is earning his money it’s in treating each week as if it’s the only game of the season and every opponent as if they are an NFL All-Pro team. And even beyond that, Saban understands the nature of college football rivalries and their importance to the fanbase and boosters. He’s riding a three game win streak over Tennessee and after each one he’s made sure to mention that he’s pleased with the victory because he knows how much it means to the fans and players, and he’s made similar comments after the last two wins over LSU and last year against Auburn, so even though he himself probably doesn’t discriminate against opponents (they’re all just another team to beat) he is smart enough to know that dominating rivalries is what’s going to get him whatever he wants from the administration. So there’s no way he and the staff are looking past this game to Florida.
“As for the players, yeah there might be a few of the younger guys that are taking a win for granted, but all the starters and key reserves have all bought into the Process so much and taken on Saban’s personality to such a degree that you won’t find an on the record remark from a single player that deviates from the “all we’re focused on is the next game” company line. I’m sure your picturing the team cuffed into chairs and brain washed a la Clockwork Orange as the reason, but I prefer to believe all the new recruits are actually being replaced with robot surrogates a la The Stepford Wives, but, you know, more menacing.”
2. I’m guessing that far and away Auburn’s best chance at actual live victory Friday is for Greg McElroy to toss up the same kind of stinker he tossed up against Tennessee, Ole Miss, etc. Since I didn’t see the Miss. St. or Chattanooga games, fill us in: how has McElroy looked these past few weeks and what are the chances he makes the critical mistake or two Auburn will need to stay in the game?
“He’s shown a steady improvement since the South Carolina game (his worst effort of the season) with a passer rating that has trended upwards ever since, so I think he’s settled down and gotten the feel of playing against SEC defenses. Also, it seems like the staff has regeared their game plans and play calling around getting McElroy back into his comfort zone as a QB. For example, against Tennessee we dinked and dunked the whole game and just generally didn’t do well at moving the ball effectively through the air, yet after the game both McElroy and Saban expressed their pleasure with his performance and, just paraphrasing here, how he did a great job at knowing who to go to and getting the ball to them. So even though you might look at the box score and stat lines and think he stunk it up in that game, instead he executed the game plan to the satisfaction of the coaches and has worked his way back into the “gunslinger” throw-to-setup-the-run role he was playing earlier in the year.
“All that said, there’s always a chance with a first year starter that he’s going to have another bad game, but even if he does I doubt that’s really what’s going to give Auburn a shot at victory. We’ve shown that we have zero problem putting the ball in Mark Ingram’s hands and grinding it out when the passing game isn’t clicking and, given y’all’s lack of depth on defense (and especially if Freeman can’t go) I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a steady dose of Ingram and Trent Richardson throughout most of the game anyway.”
3. Okay, Alabama’s defense. I don’t really want to talk about it. Are there any weak spots, Achilles heels’, chinks-in-the-armor, etc. that you’re aware of? If you were Gus Malzahn, where would you try to attack this defense?
“Nope. Ok, well there is one thing that concerns me about our defense relative to how we face y’all’s offense, and that’s the fact that Malzahn’s offense (at least to me) appears to geared towards getting the ball outside and forcing a defense to take proper pursuit angles while also disguising which way the play is actually flowing. As aggressive and fast as we play, that could very easily come back to bite us especially if the backside contain doesn’t do his job. There’s just so many moving parts to the offense that one blown assignment can give up a huge gain, and even though we’ve played pretty disciplined so far this season the sheer aggressiveness and “playing fast” that the defensive coaches prize could be a liability at times.”
4. Either side of the ball, special teams, whatever: who or what about this Auburn team (or, more broadly, this game) worries you, assuming anything genuinely does?
“Like I said in the previous response, the “moving parts” aspect of y’all’s offense does concern me, as does our seeming reversion back to the horrible kick coverage from the start of the season. Should y’all’s offense click right away and get some early scores, the last thing we’ll need is to give up big yardage or scores on special teams as well. ”
5. OK, since we’re now five questions in and each of them has been some variation on “can you give us some kind of hope? please?,” we’ll flip it around: what about Auburn’s team makes you cackle with evil glee, knowing that Alabama will brutally exploit whatever that sore spot happens to be?
“To be honest, the lack of depth in the front seven makes me warm in horrible places, as I’m sure it does Mark Ingram, et al. Earlier in the season we found ourselves having to “create” our ground game from a lot of smoke and mirrors (running out of the shotgun/pistol, designed outside runs, etc.) instead of just lining up and bullying everyone in front of us like last year. This year’s offensive line has done a remarkable job considering the talent drain (All-American LT, All-SEC C, and three year starter at RG all gone), but it’s a smaller, more athletic unit and we aren’t just essentially leaning forward for five yards anymore.
“They’ve really come on as a group though, and even though they aren’t as big or physically imposing as last year’s unit, they are more athletic and have shown they are just as adept at run blocking while also arguably being a little better at pass blocking as well. So I’m sure they are looking forward to manhandling probably the weakest line we’ve faced (at least in conference) so far.” (Miss. St.? Arkansas? C’mon.–ed.)
6. So … Friday … yeah. Give me your take on the game’s scheduling move.
“I don’t like it, honestly. I said on RBR when it happened that I thought it was a shameful cash grab by the universities, and even though that was a bit overblown on my part, I still feel like the universities should have put up at least a token fight over it instead of releasing smug “we’re looking forward to our great rivalry getting such great national exposure!” press releases. And even beyond that, I just don’t like it because of the way it effects the teams (no one’s going home for Thanksgiving this year…), the way it effects preparation for the game (especially for us since y’all got a bye this past weekend while we at least had to show up for UTC), and the way it completely disregards the fans (guess what, busiest shopping day of the year means a lot of people that would normally be at the game or at least watching on TV won’t have the opportunity because of that pesky job).”
7. Lastly, a big-picture question: I think you and I both have bemoaned the fact that it’s been a while since the Iron Bowl has been the kind of nationally-important game it ought to be (as it turns out, maybe that was just me–ed.), since aside from the 2005 blip neither team has really managed to be top-15ish quality at the same time as the other since the early ’90s. I’m hopeful that with Chizik’s success on the recruiting trail and excellent staff decisions, maybe we’ll see that change. Do you think it’s possible for both teams to be legitimately good at the same time? Do you think we’ll see that happen these next few years? And would you be happy seeing this rivalry return to the greatness of the ’80s/early ’90s, or would you prefer an Auburn that’s less of a threat?
“I think it’s possible for both teams to be “good” at the same time, though good is obviously a relative term. I think the biggest reason for the perception only one team can be good at a time is that, up until recently, both programs were heavily dependent on instate/regional talent and the team that was winning the most was drawing the better talent. But with teams recruiting on a much wider/national scale, its easier to stay competitive with an instate rival even if they are bringing in the better local kids. Each team has certainly benefited from the other’s down times (especially in matters of recruiting) and I don’t necessarily see that changing anytime soon, but you are right to point out Chizik’s recent recruiting coups and stellar staff hires as evidence that the Auburn program is at least taking the right steps towards getting back to having a team that can compete for the division and conference on a regular basis even with Alabama doing the same.
“To answer your last question, yes I want to see Auburn be a solid football team instead of a doormat because it helps Alabama. Beating up on an instate rival that isn’t a threat doesn’t really give you anything as far as national credibility goes, while losing to an instate rival that isn’t much of a threat does all kinds of damage to your national reputation. And just personally, it’s far more satisfying to rip out the heart of a fanbase that still has a heart to rip out.” (Likewise, as our side found out in 2006-2007.–ed.)