After the way Gus Malzahn’s Tigers dominated SEC East champion Georgia two weeks ago, it would be easy to make the case that Saturday’s Iron Bowl clash between Auburn and Alabama is the conference championship game.
“The good thing for us is that we’re playing at home,” said Malzahn of the game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. “We do have experience playing the No. 1 team.”
Indeed, the Tigers (9-2, 6-1 SEC) have the challenge of closing the regular season every year against the Crimson Tide (11-0, 7-9 SEC), who have won four national titles since Nick Saban took the reins in Tuscaloosa in 2007. Alabama was on the verge of winning its fifth national championship under Saban until Clemson pulled out a last-second victory in January.
Meanwhile, Auburn won the national championship in 2010, sandwiched by two of Alabama’s titles in 2009 and 2011.
Other than a 27-23 loss at LSU on Oct. 14, no SEC school has been within two touchdowns of the Tigers this season. Their closest margin of victory came in a 15-point win at Texas A&M.
Unbeaten Alabama has dominated its conference schedule, claiming three SEC games by 56 or more points with its only real scare a 31-24 win at Mississippi State.
While the Crimson Tide appear destined to win another SEC championship by facing off against Georgia on Dec. 2 in Atlanta, its Malzahn’s intent to spoil those plans.
“We’re a stronger team than we were five weeks ago,” Malzahn said, referring to the loss at LSU. “Our goal is to win the SEC Championship. We’ve made that clear from Day 1.”
Currently ranked No. 6 in the College Football Playoff poll despite two losses, the Tigers would receive a significant boost if they were to beat top-ranked Alabama to advance to the SEC championship game.
Auburn is led by running back Kerryon Johnson (1,172 yards, 16 touchdowns) and quarterback Jarrett Stidham (2,445 yards, 16 touchdowns).
Saban said both players are among the best in the SEC at their positions, but Johnson’s shiftiness and power as a running back causes him concern.
“The guy has a burst, speed, power, he can make you miss …. He’s as complete a player at running back as anyone in our conference.”
Meanwhile, Auburn’s defense is tasked with slowing down dual threat quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has thrown for 1,828 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for nearly 700 yards and eight more touchdowns.
“The scariest thing is, when things break down, he takes off like a running back.” Malzahn said of the Crimson Tide’s Hurts.
The two rivals rank among the top five in the conference in most team statistics.
Alabama is No. 1 in scoring offense (41.36 points per game) and scoring defense (10.2 ppg). Auburn is No. 3 in both categories, averaging 37.6 points on offense and allowing 16.5 points.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
(All times Central)
Mississippi 31, Mississippi State 28, Thursday
(Mississippi improves to 6-6, 3-5 SEC; Mississippi State 8-4, 4-4 SEC)
Missouri 48, at Arkansas 45
(Missouri improves to 7-5, 4-4 SEC; Arkansas 4-8, 1-7
Georgia (10-1) at Georgia Tech (5-5), Saturday 11 a.m. CT, ABC
Florida State (4-6) at Florida (4-6), Saturday 11 a.m. CT, ESPN
Louisville (7-4) at Kentucky (7-4), Saturday 11 a.m. CT, SEC Network
Alabama (11-0) at Auburn (9-2), Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT, CBS
Vanderbilt (4-7) at Tennessee (4-7), Saturday 3 p.m. CT, SEC Network
Clemson (10-1) at South Carolina (8-3), Saturday 6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN
Texas A&M (7-4) at LSU (8-3), Saturday 6:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network
- Alabama (11-0, 7-0): Last Week – W, Mercer, 56-0. The Impact – If you trust comparative scores, the Iron Bowl will be a breeze for Crimson Tide. In addition to their common SEC opponents, Nick Saban’s team is coming off a 56-0 rout of Mercer, which only lost 24-10 to Auburn. Tide will be well rested with quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa sharing QB reps and both throwing three TD passes. Nine players had carries, combining for 265 yards rushing.
- Auburn (9-2, 6-1): Last Week – W, UL-Monroe, 42-14. The Impact – Gus Malzahn’s squad will have the homefield advantage on The Plains for Saturday’s Iron Bowl against rival Alabama and they need a win to leapfrog the Tide for a date with Georgia in the SEC title game. Kerryon Johnson, the SEC’s leading rusher, got in good workout against UL-Monroe with 137 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. QB Jarrett Stidham passed for 235 yards and two scores.
- Georgia (10-1, 7-1): Last Week – W, Kentucky, 42-13. The Impact – With Nick Chubb rolling to 151 yards and two touchdowns, including a 55-yarder in the fourth quarter, and Sony Michel adding 87 yards and three touchdowns, Georgia bounced back from its loss at Auburn to get back on track for Saturday’s home game against rival Georgia Tech. Then its on to the SEC Championship game against the Alabama-Auburn winner.
- Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3): Last Week – W, at Arkansas, 28-21. The Impact – Nick Fitzgerald continues to stake his claim as the SEC’s best dual threat quarterback after torching Razorbacks for three touchdowns, 153 yards passing and 101 rushing. He also found Deddrick Thomas for the winning TD with 17 seconds left. Now they get to finish strong with Egg Bowl home game against Ole Miss.
5. LSU (8-3, 5-2): Last Week – W, at Tennessee, 30-10. The Impact – Tigers cashed in on pair of muffed punts by Tennessee’s Marquez Callaway for 10 points. But LSU has had its own special team’s issues in last two weeks with kicker Connor Culp missing three PATs and making just one of four field goal attempts. After being held to just nine yards rushing in the first quarter, Ed Orgeron’s squad finished with nearly 200 yards and four rushing touchdowns.
6. South Carolina (8-3, 5-3): Last Week – W, Wofford, 31-10. The Impact – Linebacker Skai Moore tied the school’s career record for interceptions with his 14th against Wofford. QB Jake Bentley passed for nearly 200 yards but used his legs to reach the end zone three times, taking over the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six – all in past four weeks. Gamecocks have been talking a good game but can they play one against rival and defending national champion Clemson? If USC doesn’t take an early lead, Will Muschamp may end up regretting all the bulletin board material his players have given Dabo Swinney’s team this week.
7. Kentucky (7-4, 4-4): Last Week – L, at Georgia, 42-13. The Impact – Mark Stoops program failed to get above .500 in SEC action for first time, but Wildcats could reach eight wins overall if they can beat rival Louisville on Saturday. That would soothe some of the disappointment of finishing only third in SEC East despite a road win over South Carolina.
8. Texas A&M (7-4, 4-3): Last Week – W, Mississippi, 31-24. The Impact – Freshman Nick Starkel passed for 272 yards and ran for a touchdown but it was a Pick-6 that put the Aggies over the top against Ole Miss. Will it be enough to save Kevin Sumlin’s job? Doubtful, which frankly amounts to unreasonable expectations by the fan base.
9. Mississippi (5-6, 2-5): Last Week – L, Texas A&M, 31-24. The Impact – After scoring 24 points in the first half, the Rebels were shutout by Texas A&M and again fell back under .500 for the season. Ole Miss will need to pull off an upset of rival Mississippi State on the road in the Egg Bowl to qualify for a bowl game.
10. Missouri (6-5, 3-4): Last Week – W, at Vanderbilt, 45-17. The Impact – Barry Odom’s Tigers have scored 45 or more points in five straight games, averaging 52, while becoming bowl eligible heading into regular-season finale at Arkansas. Missouri is only the sixth Power 5 school to become bowl eligible after losing five of its first six games. Mizzou defense also has gotten better, coming away with nine turnovers in last three games.
11.Arkansas (4-7, 1-6): Last Week – L, Mississippi State, 28-21. The Impact – Bret Bielema saw Razorbacks lose late lead last week, blowing their last chance at qualifying for a bowl. Proving the grass isn’t always greener on other side of fence, he’s headed into the final game of his fifth season at Arkansas with a 29-33 overall record and 11-28 in SEC. That, after going 68-24 in seven seasons at Wisconsin, including 37-18 in Big Ten.
12.Tennessee (4-7, 0-7): Last Week – L, LSU, 30-10. The Impact – Vols need to beat Vanderbilt on Saturday to avoid their first season with eight losses in program history. A win would also prevent Tennessee from going winless in the SEC after going 9-4 overall in 2016.
13.Florida (4-6, 3-5): Last Week – W, UAB, 36-7. The Impact – Gators stepped out of conference and used five field goals from Eddie Pineiro, including two from 50 yards, to bring a five-game losing streak to an end. With no chance to earn a bowl bid for just the third time in 31 seasons, Gators season will end with a rivalry clash at home against Florida State.
14.Vanderbilt (4-7, 0-7): Last Week – L, Missouri, 45-17. The Impact – Commodores dominated the third quarter, outscoring Missouri 17-3, but they were already down 35-0 at that point. The loss denied Derek Mason any chance of evening the Vols’ won-loss record this season. Vanderbilt will now end season battling Tennessee to escape the SEC East cellar with both teams looking for first conference win of season. Ralph Webb became ninth SEC player to finish career with more than 4,000 yards rushing.
(Predicted winners in Bold Caps)
Mississippi 31, at MISSISSIPPI STATE 28
MISSOURI at Arkansas
GEORGIA at Georgia Tech
Florida State at FLORIDA
LOUISVILLE at Kentucky
Alabama at AUBURN
Vanderbilt at TENNESSEE
CLEMSON at South Carolina
Texas A&M at LSU
LAST WEEK: 8-1
OVERALL: 77-17 (81.9 %)
Note: Each week during the college football season, I’ll be updating how things are unfolding in the Big Ten by Wednesday, the SEC by Thursday and ACC by Friday.