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November 25, 2010

Tigers know title shot goes through Tide

They've been in the top 10 since early October. They posted consecutive victories over Arkansas and LSU. They clinched the SEC West in mid-November, have notched 11 consecutive victories, have beaten four ranked opponents and even ascended to No. 1 in the BCS standings for a while.

But none of the Auburn Tigers' accomplishments this season really matter unless they beat archrival Alabama on Friday.

"Those guys are undefeated, going to the SEC championship, and if they win out, they'll play for the national championship," Alabama running back Mark Ingram said of the Tigers. "All the pressure is on them."

The Iron Bowl is a fierce rivalry that divides the entire state more than Interstate 65. It's played with unsurpassed intensity and ferocity. Add national title implications, and the already high stakes are raised substantially.

Auburn (11-0) needs a victory to maintain its standing among the top two in the BCS standings and stay on track to play in the national championship game. Defending national champion Alabama (9-2) still has a shot at getting into a BCS bowl. But perhaps an even greater motivation for the Crimson Tide is the chance to derail the Tigers' national title hopes and, in the process, provide a stern reminder that they aren't even No. 1 in their state, much less the country.

"This is a game that regardless of the records -- 0-11, 2-9, 9-2 or 11-0 -- it's still about Alabama and Auburn," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "It kind of defines the quality of your season."

It's been an amazing season for Auburn. The Tigers opened ranked 22nd, while Alabama was No. 1.

Alabama held that top spot for six weeks, until an upset loss at South Carolina on Oct. 9. Meanwhile, Auburn steadily climbed in the polls and even reached No. 1 after defeating LSU on Oct. 23.

Auburn since has dropped to No. 2 behind Oregon, but even when it was No. 1, numerous bowl projections did not include the Tigers in the BCS national championship game because many prognosticators thought they would lose to Alabama.

That changed to some degree after Alabama fell to LSU on Nov. 6, but the questions remain.

Can Auburn's high-scoring offense, which averages more than 42 points per game, light up the scoreboard against Alabama's defense, which allows an average of just 12.8 points, the third-lowest in the country?

Perhaps an even more intriguing question is whether Auburn's defense, which has been vulnerable at times, can contain Alabama's offense, which features Ingram and backup running back Trent Richardson and big-play wide receiver Julio Jones.

"We're going to have to be good on those early downs and try to get some negative plays," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "It's going to start with our defensive line and all four of those guys up front. That's going to be a great challenge for us.

"It's going to be our job on defense -- it will be a huge challenge -- to try to get in there and disrupt some things early and try to get a rhythm of our own."

Auburn's defense is ranked just 50th in the nation. The Tigers have allowed more than 30 points to Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Georgia, so they can't count on a suffocating defensive effort to provide a victory.

But they're used to that. Whether it's been a 65-point explosion against Arkansas, 51 against Ole Miss or 49 against Georgia, Auburn has won with quarterback Cameron Newton leading an offensive onslaught.

"You can't just stop him. You've got to contain him," Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus said. "We've got to keep him [running] east and west. It's pretty hard to do, but we're going to try to do it and buckle down."

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Auburn rush offense vs. Alabama rush defense: The Tigers are ranked third in the nation in rush offense, averaging 307.9 yards per game. Three players have rushed for more than 600 yards. QB Cameron Newton, who has 1,297 rushing yards, is the focal point of the offense. He's big, fast and powerful, and defenses have to key on him, which opens opportunities for speedy RBs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. Alabama is 22nd in the country against the run, and the Tide held Mississippi State without a rushing touchdown in their most recent game against an SEC opponent. But LSU ran for 225 yards against the Tide and Tennessee RB Tauren Poole ran for 117. Edge: Auburn

Auburn pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense: Though Newton's strength clearly is as a runner, he's also a solid passer. He has completed 68 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,038 yards and 21 touchdowns, with only six interceptions. Darvin Adams is a big-play threat at receiver. So are Emory Blake and Terrell Zachary. RB Mario Fannin has made big plays as a receiver out of the backfield, too. Alabama hasn't had an overpowering pass rush, and that's made the going a little tougher for the defensive backs. Still, Alabama has allowed just eight touchdown passes all season while grabbing 21 interceptions. FS Robert Lester has seven interceptions. SS Mark Barron and CB Dre Kirkpatrick have three each. Alabama has held four of its past five opponents to fewer than 200 passing yards. Edge: Alabama

Alabama rush offense vs. Auburn rush defense: Though others have gained more yards, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson may be the most talented tandem of running backs in the country. Ingram has rushed for 780 yards, while Richardson has 634. Richardson has missed the past two games with a knee injury, but he is expected to play in the Iron Bowl. Alabama has rushed for 175 or fewer yards in four of its past five games against SEC competition. Auburn allows just 111.5 rushing yards per game and is 11th in the nation in run defense. Only one SEC opponent has rushed for more than 140 yards against the Tigers. LB Josh Bynes leads in tackles and T Nick Fairley has 18 tackles for loss. Edge: Auburn

Alabama pass offense vs. Auburn pass defense: Greg McElroy has thrown for more than 200 yards in five consecutive games against SEC opponents and has eight touchdowns and just two interceptions in that span. Explosive WR Julio Jones draws most of the attention from defenses, but Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks are capable of big plays, too. Pass defense is a major area of concern for Auburn, which is 100th in the nation in that category. The Tigers have allowed 19 touchdown passes. Auburn needs a strong pass rush. Given adequate protection, good quarterbacks have found gaping holes in the Tigers' coverage. Edge: Alabama

Auburn special teams vs. Alabama special teams: When healthy, Richardson makes Alabama dangerous on kickoff returns. Maze is accomplished on punt returns, too. Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster have shared kicking duties, with Foster trying the longer attempts. They've combined to convert 17-of-23 field-goal tries. P Cody Mandell averages 39.8 yards per attempt. Auburn P Ryan Shoemaker has a 39.2-yard average. Demond Washington has breakaway ability on kickoff returns, but Auburn's punt returners haven't done much. The Tigers are solid in coverage, though. Senior K Wes Byrum has converted 15-of-19 field-goal attempts, and he has five winning field goals in his career. Edge: Auburn

Alabama coaching staff vs. Auburn coaching staff: Alabama coach Nick Saban has 42 victories with the Tide and 133 in his career. That includes national championships at Alabama last season and LSU in 2003. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is one of the best in the country and figures to be a prime target for programs needing a new coach. The same could be said for Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who has turned the Tigers' offense into one of the nation's best. Coach Gene Chizik is 19-5 in a little less than two seasons at Auburn. If the Tigers remain undefeated, it will be the third undefeated team he's been associated with in seven years. He was defensive coordinator on Auburn's undefeated team in 2004 and Texas' national championship team in 2005. Edge: Alabama

X-factor: It's not often that a reserve offensive lineman is viewed as a key figure in a big game, but that could be the case with Alabama's Anthony Steen. Starting RG Barrett Jones is hampered by an ankle injury and his status is uncertain. If he cannot play, Steen will step in and line up across from Fairley, who has been a big-play machine this season. Steen will get help, but overall he'll have the primary responsibility of keeping Fairley from wreaking havoc.

Auburn will win if: The Tigers must run effectively and sustain long drives to wear down Alabama's defense and keep the Tide's offense on the sideline. In addition, the defense has to limit Alabama's big pass plays and contain the running game. It's important for Auburn to get an early lead. That won't take Alabama's fans out of the game, but it may lessen their enthusiasm. If the Tigers fall behind early, they could be in trouble at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Alabama will win if: McElroy, Jones and Maze have to exploit holes in Auburn's pass coverage. They should be able to do that if the offensive line can slow down Auburn's pass rush. The Tide's defense has to find a way to force passing situations, then make Newton pass rather than scramble for big gains.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Auburn 24, Alabama 21. Look for WR Julio Jones to have a big game, maybe a couple of touchdown catches. The Tide's defense will slow down Cameron Newton, but he'll make the pivotal plays when most needed. Don't be surprised if Wes Byrum wins another game with a last-minute field goal.

Tom Dienhart: Auburn 35, Alabama 31. Nobody has stopped -- let alone slowed down -- Cameron Newton. And Alabama won't be any different. I expect a lot of points in the Iron Bowl, with the Tigers scoring late with a Newton touchdown to claim victory and stay on course for the BCS title game.

David Fox: Alabama 35, Auburn 28. Has anyone else noticed that Auburn's only road games this season have been against Mississippi State, Kentucky and Ole Miss? Alabama will have a good defensive plan for Cameron Newton, thanks in part to extra time to prepare. Mark Ingram and a healthy Trent Richardson also will play a part in keeping Newton off the field.

Mike Huguenin: Auburn 34, Alabama 30. I think both defenses are going to be overmatched. If Alabama had trouble with South Carolina's Stephen Garcia and LSU's duo of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, how in the world are the Tide going to be able to handle Cameron Newton? Conversely, Tide QB Greg McElroy should enjoy a productive day against Auburn's porous secondary. In the end, the best player on the field will make one or two more plays than anybody else, so Auburn wins behind Newton.

Steve Megargee: Alabama 31, Auburn 21. Alabama won't necessarily be able to stop Cam Newton, but the Tide's offense might manage to keep him on the sideline for much of the game. Alabama should run the ball well enough to end Auburn's chance at a perfect season.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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