Monday Morning QB Column: Iron Bowl Week

It's a big football week in the state of Alabama and across the Southeastern Conference with rivalry games on the schedule including the Iron Bowl.

Nick Marshall (above) and his Auburn teammates will travel to Tuscaloosa looking for a second consecutive victory vs. Alabama.

It’s that time again. It’s the best and worst week in the state of Alabama. It’s Iron Bowl time.

Growing up in Sylacauga it was always the week you looked forward to as a kid, but now it’s a week you just look forward to getting behind you because of the angst that comes along with the best rivalry in college football. The hatred that has come from this rivalry the last few years thanks in large part to a tree poisoner has pushed things over the edge and things don’t show any signs of slowing.

The good news in this game is the way things are done on the field. Unlike other rivalry games around the country the Auburn-Alabama game is played cleanly between the lines with a great amount of respect between the two sides. My hope is that would show itself in both fan bases as well, but in this day and age of Twitter and Facebook I know that’s just wishful thinking.

Turning The Tide

Several times in the last three decades an Auburn team with big things on the line has lost to a Alabama team with nothing to lose. Back-to-back years in 1984 and 1985 Auburn dropped games to unranked Alabama teams. It happened again in a big way in 2001. While the Tigers have won games against higher-ranked Alabama teams over the years most of those teams were also ranked. The defining win in that department for Auburn came in 2002 when Tre Smith and Robert Johnson led the Tigers to a win over No. 9 Alabama.

Twelve years later Auburn has the chance for another defining game in the series. With Alabama playing for a shot in the college football playoffs the Tigers could end that in one night at Bryant-Denny Stadium and also earn a ninth win on the year. With the opportunity to win 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1988-89, Auburn has plenty of incentive to get a victory in Tuscaloosa, but none more than playing spoiler to its biggest rival.

Auburn Defense: By The Numbers

With one regular season game left, Auburn’s defense is quietly putting up some decent numbers in terms of total yardage. While it’s far from a dominant unit, giving up too many big plays because of busts and missed assignments, the group is allowing just 375 yards per game so far in 2014. If that holds it will be the first defense at Auburn to average less than 400 yards since 2010. Even though the group that helped the Tigers win a national championship allowed 24.1 points per game, the yardage total of 368.4 was the best of the last five years for any Auburn team.

In 2011 the totals went above the 400-mark with Auburn giving up 408 yards per game of total offense. The next year the total spiked to 420.5 as the Tigers struggled mightily on both sides of the ball. Even with a team that advanced to the BCS National Championship Game and won the SEC title, Auburn’s 2013 defense gave up 420.7 yards per game and 24.7 points. While there is still a long way to go before the defense is one Auburn can count on to win games on days the offense is struggling, the Tigers have taken some small steps forward this season. Without costly turnovers on offense and special teams the numbers for the defense and how it’s perceived could be different.

Schedule Strength

Heading into the final game of the season Auburn has played nine bowl eligible teams with the 10th coming this weekend against Alabama. Throw in Samford and that means 11 of Auburn’s 12 regular season opponents will be .500 or better at the end of the regular season. When you add road games against two of the top four teams in the college football playoffs (Mississippi State and Alabama), a team that is tied for the lead in the Big 12 (Kansas State), Ole Miss and Georgia, it’s hard to imagine a team facing a tougher slate than the Tigers this season.

Showdown Weekend

If you’re the Southeastern Conference it’s hard to imagine a better time for the league with plenty of drama still left in both divisions heading into the final week of the regular season. Friday it will feature Missouri trying to earn a spot in Atlanta for the second consecutive year, but standing in its way is a hot Arkansas team fresh off back-to-back shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss.

After the season opener I thought the Razorbacks were a much-improved football team, but it has taken them a little longer to get going than I thought. The crazy thing is that Arkansas gave away a game against Texas A&M, should have beaten Alabama and could have beaten Mississippi State without some red zone stumbles.

Missouri has quietly gone about its business playing good defense and not beating itself in enough times to put the Tigers in position for another trip to the SEC Championship Game. They will need to play well one more time to get by Arkansas on Friday afternoon.

On the other side of the league, if Alabama wins and the Tide is in the SEC Championship Game, but a loss to Auburn leaves the door open for Mississippi State in more ways than one. Still fighting to be included in the college football playoff, winning the SEC title with one loss would guarantee the Bulldogs a spot in the four-team field. First they will need to finish the regular season against an Ole Miss team looking to salvage its season with a win in the Egg Bowl. With national championship hopes of their own going into the month of November, the Rebels are trying to avoid a fourth loss while also dashing the hopes of their biggest rival. After a less than exciting week of SEC football, fans should have plenty of good games to watch in the coming days.

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