The most casual Alabama football fan has an appreciation of the week that is and at least some knowledge of the personnel who will be involved on the other side when the Crimson Tide goes to Auburn for the final regular season game of the season.
Nevertheless, in his regular Monday press briefing, Alabama Coach Nick Saban got more questions about the opposition than he did about the Crimson Tide team that is 10-1 and ranked second in the nation and in place to wrap up the Southeastern Conference Western Division title with a win at Auburn Saturday.
That was not a problem. Saban is obviously well versed in Auburn’s players, coaches, and likely plans as he prepares his team for the Tigers, who improved their record to 6-5 and reached bowl eligibility last week with a 56-34 win over Idaho.
Alabama is coming off a 56-6 win over Charleston Southern as about half the SEC played games against so-called cupcakes (though don’t tell that to South Carolina, or even Georgia and Florida).
Alabama and Auburn will kick off shortly after 2:30 p.m. CST Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn with CBS televising the game. Auburn has already wrapped up last place in the SEC Western Division, but can knock Bama out of the chance for meaningful post-season play. If the Crimson Tide gets a win, it will play Florida in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 5 in Atlanta. If Bama loses at Auburn, it would need a win from Mississippi State against Ole Miss to win the SEC West, but a loss to the Tigers would eliminate the Tide from national championship contention.
Saban was quick to wrap up last week’s win with a positive statement. He said, “I was pleased with the way the players responded and competed in the game. [The players] overcame human nature a little bit and went out and played a lot better than we had against some of the nonconference teams that we played earlier. That was all a good thing.”
He also had positive injury news, saying back-up halfback would start back work this week and would be “day-to-day.” Two starters who were injured a couple of weeks ago – offensive tackle Dominick Jackson and nickel back Minkah Fitzpatrick – are back in practice. He said linebacker Keith Holcombe had injured his knee Saturday, but was expected back in practice Tuesday.
And then he got to the obvious. “I don't think I have to tell anybody anything they don't already know about this game,” he said. “The Iron Bowl is one of the great rivalries in college football. It means a lot to a lot of people in this state as well as all over the country. It's certainly an opportunity you appreciate as a competitor.
“Our team has created an opportunity for themselves. I think it's all about staying focused on what you need to do to play your best football on the road. Not let the outside noise sort of affect your ability to do what you need to do to play well against a very, very good team.”
Although by all accounts Auburn has been one of the nation’s under-achievers this year – picked by some to win the SEC and be in the national championship picture – Saban said, “Auburn's probably is playing the best they've played all year. They've gotten better and better, which I think is a tribute to Gus (AU Coach Gus Malzahn) and his staff and the good job that they do with the players that they have.
“They're running the ball effectively on offense. The quarterbacks are playing a little bit better. They've got two running backs that have been very effective for them, and they have shown some big-play ability with their receivers, mostly Ricardo Louis, who is their leading receiver and definitely has made some big plays this year.
“Defensively, I think they've gotten better and better and better. Their front's playing better. They've created a lot of turnovers and negative plays for people and they've got some good players that can play on the line of scrimmage up front.
“This is going to be a challenge for us. They do a really good job in the red zone because they can run the football effectively, which is usually the case. All the way around, this is a very, very good team. They've played some really good....their best football the last few weeks of the season.”
(Auburn is eighth in the SEC in scoring, 13th in scoring defense, 10th in total offense, 12th in total defense.)
Saban then got a few questions about Alabama.
Regarding the Alabama passing game, Saban said, “We've made some good plays in the passing game in every game. I just think consistency and eliminate negative plays, pressure on the quarterback, cleaning up the routes a little bit; just developing overall confidence in the passing game, I think, would help the consistency of it. I think it's everybody's responsibility on the entire offense, not just the quarterback's, but everybody to do his job a little bit better so that we can be a little more consistent in the passing game.”
(Alabama’s Jacob Coker is sixth in the SEC in passing and in pass efficiency, and will be the highest ranked quarterback in both those categories in Saturday’s game at Auburn.)
Saban was asked about the progress of junior linebacker Reuben Foster, who came to Alabama from Auburn High School.
Saban said, “Reuben has played well for us this year and he's made a lot of plays. I'm really pleased with the progress that he's made, the production that he's had. He has a better understanding of what he's supposed to do. He's very instinctive. He runs well, plays hard, plays with a lot of toughness. He's done a really good job for us this year.”
Regarding effort by his team, Saban said, “We put a big emphasis on trying to finish the year better. We made some adjustments in how we prepare and how we try to keep our players fresh. We've also tried to do some things to psychologically keep them where they need to be to try to have the best opportunity to finish. But I also think that internally, from inside out, the players themselves have affected each other in a positive way to try to finish the season the way they want to. I think that's probably the most important thing."
Saban was quizzed on Auburn’s quarterback situation, which started the season with Jeremy Johnson (a perceived Heisman Trophy candidate), shifted to Sean White, then went back to Johnson when White was injured.
In Saban’s view, “Both guys have played very well at times. I think Jeremy Johnson's a really good athlete who has made a lot of big plays, extending plays as well as with his feet. He is a threat to run the ball, and he's made some big plays passing. I don't know who's going to play in this game. We've got to be ready for either guy. We have a lot of respect for both guys. We think they're capable. They both do a good job with their offense and they're very capable of making plays and I think they have a very good understanding of what they want to try to do.”
Asked if there is a difference in the offense when quarterbacks change, Saban said, “I think they run their offense, regardless of who's playing quarterback. I think the fact that one of their quarterbacks (White) has been a little bit injured probably has limited his mobility a little bit and maybe how much they ask him to run, relative to what Jeremy Johnson does. When both guys were healthy I didn't see a whole lot of difference in what they try to do with them. You have to respect them, whether it's pulling the ball on the zone option or running a read sweep, whatever it is. You've got to respect them to do those things. And both guys are very capable of passing the football.”
As for tailback Jovon Robinson, Saban said, “He's quick, explosive, can run with power, has make-you-miss ability. He's done all those things effectively. He can run inside and he can bounce the ball outside. Both of their guys to me do a really good job of what they ask them to do. He's played better and better as the season's gone on.”
Saban was reminded of the pop pass to Sammie Coates for the tying touchdown in 2013 and asked whether Bama has focused on that play. He said, “I just think that's a part of their offense. I think all these teams that run spread have run-pass options built into their plays. Each one of those things, we had played correctly in the past and when we played it incorrectly, we paid the price for it. They still do it. They still have them. Our players have got to be disciplined in the way they play them."
When you prepare for an offense with different personnel groups like this, how do you prepare for that?
"Well, I think that they have used a lot of personnel groups. They have used a lot of different players in different positions, but I think what we try to focus on is what plays are they running and how do we have to react to the plays that they're running, and adjust to the formation that they're in with those personnel groups. They have a lot of good players on offense and they do a good job of utilizing their skill set. I think the thing we try to focus on with our players is 'Here's the formational adjustments we need to make. Here's the plays they run from these sort of locations. This is what you have to be ready for and respond to.'"
Does Saban enjoy preparing for a rivalry game? He said, "I've said it before, this is an opportunity you really appreciate as a competitor. I know our players get excited about playing this game as all of the participants in this game really do. A lot of them know each other, have played against each other in the past. And you know, our team has put themselves in a position where they have the opportunity to sort of keep their goals in front of them if we can have success and play well and do the things we need to do to give ourselves the best opportunity to be successful in the game. It's going to take our best effort of the year. I'm excited about the opportunity that we have."
Asked if Auburn’s top defensive player, end Carl Lawson, has a positive effect on his teammates, Saban said, “To me, Carl has always been a really good player. Very good rusher. The guy has some power to go with it, so you can't just take it for granted that he's going to run by you. I think he's a really, really good player. I think some of the plays he makes impact and excite some of the other players on their defense. They have several guys we feel are really, really good football players on their defensive football team.”
Saban agreed with a question that Jordan-Hare is a difficult place to play. He didn’t agree that Auburn’s win there two years ago would have an effect on this year’s game.
Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, formerly worked under Saban and the Tide’s coach got a couple of questions about Muschamp. Saban said, "I think it's pretty evident that everywhere he's coached, his mark is on that group of players in terms of how they compete and how they play as well as the system and the soundness they play with. These guys play hard. They play with toughness. They get after it. That's sort of the trademark that Will takes wherever he goes with how he wants his players to play on defense. I think they've played better and better and better as the year has gone on and they've gotten healthier too, which has helped. I think they're playing some of their best football right now."
Saban said Muschamp didn’t necessarily do the things he has done in the past. "I think we all change a little bit in terms of what we do and how we try to evolve,” Saban said. “I see some of the things that Will has done that he's evolved into doing. I think basically, he's trying to do the best he can with the players that he has in terms of system because he's played even and odd [defensive fronts] before. I think he can implement both of those things if he needs to. He does what he thinks his players should do best against whatever the team that they're playing against features. I do see similarities in some of the things that he's done in the past, but I also see some new wrinkles that are very effective."