Although Auburn, like Alabama, comes into Saturday's game with a disappointing (6-5) record, it would be a mistake to underestimate the Tigers. Auburn was ranked among the nation's top teams in pre-season, with some even predicting the Tigers to win the national championship, and the reason for that optimism was a stable of excellent players.
This is the 68th meeting of these two rivals, with Alabama leading in the series by a margin of 38-28-1. The Tigers will be looking for their first win at home against Alabama since 1997. In fact, the visiting team has won every game in the series from 1999 to the present. Overall, Auburn is 4-2 versus the Crimson Tide in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
This is Tommy Tuberville's ninth game against Alabama, and despite rumors to the contrary, he insists it will not be his last on the Auburn sideline. In his previous eight meetings with the Crimson Tide, Tuberville's teams have fallen six times. This is his fifth year as Auburn's head coach, where he has won 36 games while losing 23.
Being in the same state, there are many connections between players on the Crimson side of the ball and the side wearing orange and blue-sometimes even blood connections. Freshman defensive back Kelcey Luke (who signed with Auburn last year after being promised a chance to play his position of choice, quarterback) is the brother of Tide senior wide receiver Triandos Luke and redshirt freshman Bama fullback Nic Luke. Kelcey has not played this year.
There are numerous examples of former high school teammates now being on opposite sides in this game. Auburn's Karlos Dansby attended Woodlawn High School in Birmingham with Bama's John Paul Bevel. Tiger fullback Brandon Johnson played with the Tide's Antwan Odom at Alma Bryant High School in Bayou La Batre. Auburn's Mayo Sowell, who has switched back and forth from linebacker to the defensive line, was high school teammates with Bama's Brandon Brooks. Auburn OL Thomas Anderson and Bama's DeMeco Ryans attended Jess Lanier High School together. At Prattville, Auburn center William Ward and Bama's Roman Harper and Kyle Tatum played together. And Tiger deep snapper Jeremy Wells played with Bama's Brandon Dean and Matt Lomax at UMS-Wright.
Two Auburn linebackers, Dontarrious Thomas (6-4, 241, Sr) and Karlos Dansby (6-5, 234, Sr), were on the Butkus Award watch list to begin the season and Dansby is a semifinalist. Dansby leads the team with 68 tackles, with 10 of those being for a loss. The rangy senior also has four sacks.
Thomas is not far behind, however, with 63 tackles, and the mountainous middle linebacker also has one interception this season.
Carnell Williams (5-11, 204, Jr) was on some early Heisman watch lists, but after being a relative no-show in some of Auburn's earlier games, those hopes were dashed. Williams has picked it up as of late, though, and has had a solid season. The junior from Etowah has picked up 1,035 yards and has scored 13 touchdowns this season for a 94.1 yards per game average. He is the 11th player in Auburn history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Running the football is the Tigers' forté. However, it has not been uncommon for Auburn to come out trying to establish the pass with junior quarterback Jason Campbell (6-5, 228). Campbell has been fairly efficient this year, completing 153 of 244 passes with only five interceptions. However, Campbell is averaging only about seven yards per pass attempt and has hit the endzone only nine times.
Jason Campbell is 16-9 (.640) as a starter, which is fourth among SEC signal callers in victories and winning percentage. Campbell is 11-5 for his career as a starter in SEC games. Campbell has thrown for 1,000 yards both of the past two seasons. He's within 141 yards of becoming only the eighth player in Auburn history to pass for 2,000 yards in a season.
The Tigers appear strongest when they allow Williams to line up in power sets behind their excellent fullback, Brandon Johnson (6-1, 234, Sr) and pound the ball into the defense. Auburn especially likes to run behind big right guard Monreko Crittenden (6-5, 332, Sr), a nimble blocker for a player his size.
When Campbell takes to the air, he has mostly looked to senior receiver Jeris McIntyre. McIntyre leads the team in receptions (36) and receiving yards (523) by a large margin, and also has the most receiving touchdowns (3). Last season, Devin Aromashodu (6-2, 205, So) showed flashes of greatness at wide receiver, but he has hit a sophomore slump in 2003 with only three catches for 22 yards. Auburn's Courtney Taylor was recruited by the Tide. He's caught at least one pass in all 11 Tiger games this season.
Defensively, the Auburn Tigers can match up with about any team in the country. This senior laden unit was a big reason for all the pre-season hype on the plains, and more often than not, they have proved themselves to be worthy of much of that praise.
Senior tackles DeMarco McNeil (6-2, 291) and Spencer Johnson (6-3, 289 provide a good pass rush from the inside and fellow upperclassman Reggie Torbor (6-3, 256) can give the Tigers a great speed rush from his end position. McNeil is enjoying his best season since earning Freshman All-America honors his first year. He has registered a team-high 12 tackles for a loss, including five sacks.
The work of Thomas and Dansby at linebacker has been well documented, but the Tigers also feature a good young linebacker on the weak side in Travis Williams (6-1, 209, So). Although not as big as his "co-workers", Williams plays from sideline to sideline and has a good nose for the football. Dansby, Thomas and Williams ranked 1-2-3 on the Tiger squad in tackles.
The weakness of this Tiger defense has been the secondary, where teams have picked on redshirt freshman Will Herring (6-4, 210) and former walk-on cornerback Kevin Hobbs (6-0, 179, So). Hobbs leads the team with three interceptions, but the picks came against Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky, and Louisiana-Monroe. Junior Carlos Rogers (6-1, 194) shores up the other corner position, and has been a much more consistent defender.
Special teams have been hot and cold. They have been blessed with quality punting from true freshman Kody Bliss (5-11, 172), who is averaging 42.7 yards a kick and has downed 20 of his 55 punts inside his opponents' 20-yard line. He ranks fourth in the SEC and 26th nationally.
However, placekicking has been shaky at best. Phillip Yost (6-0, 187, Jr) is listed as starter for Saturday's game, and has connected on five of nine field goals this year. He hit a 57-yarder earlier this season, but is three of six from the 39-yard line in. Auburn has not, however, missed an extra point all year.
Carnell Williams and Devin Aromashodu have both returned 11 kicks this year, and both average about 20 yards per return. Tre Smith (5-10, 200, So) has handled most punt returns this year, but as of late the Tiger coaches have put Williams back with him in a double safety formation. When this occurs, Smith almost always yields the punt to the quicker Williams.