Alabama's John Parker Wilson has thrown five interceptions over his last three games and faces a tough task on the road in turning around his recent struggles. The weather could be nasty, and the No.1 scoring defense in the SEC could be nastier. For the season, Wilson is 224 of 404 for 2,477 yards. His TD-INT ratio, once 2-1, has fallen to 3-2 (15 TDs, 10 INTs). Expect high-percentage throws early as Wilson looks to find a groove.
Auburn's Brandon Cox hasn't had a stellar senior season by any stretch. He's thrown more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (9), and averages only 159 yards per game. His completion percentage is a bit higher than Wilson's (59% to 55%). Unlike Alabama, however, Auburn has a change-up at the position. Kodi Burns is unproven as a passer but has been effective as a runner for the Tigers, ranking fourth on the team in rushing attempts with 41.
What was a solid unit for the Crimson Tide early in the season has become far less reliable as lineup changes have been necessary on almost a weekly basis in the second half of the season. With their suspensions lifted, Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis should provide a boost up front. But how the line will fare as a group against the league's fourth-rated rush defense remains a question mark. If Wednesday's practice was any indication, Caldwell man the right tackle position that plagued UA in this game a year ago.
Auburn has started as many as three freshmen on its line at times, including two weeks ago against Georgia. The first-year trio of Chaz Ramsey, Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh has played above expectations, particularly later in the season. Pugh has split time with veteran King Dunlap at the left tackle spot. Pass protection has been an issue for this line at times, but it's gotten a stronger and stronger push in the running game as the season has worn on. Auburn's line is less experienced than UA's, but has had more continuity of late.
Alabama could start any of three different backs Saturday, and any of them could end up carrying the bulk of the rushing load. Terry Grant has handled the workhorse load at just 185 pounds this season, but he has worn down physically and is playing with hip pain. He needs 109 yards to become the first freshman back in UA history to reach 1,000 yards. Glen Coffee, just off suspension, gives UA a bigger, fresher back who might fare better on wet turf than Grant's slashing style. Jonathan Lowe, who has earned a rushing role over the last three games, could also factor heavily.
Ben Tate leads the Tigers in rushing by far (779 yards, 6 TDs), but Brad Lester has emerged as a consistent threat since coming off a suspension. In five games, Lester has 375 yards and gives the Tigers a combination of power and quickness. Although his role has been diminished, Mario Fannin's 5.3-yard per carry average is better than Tate or Lester. AU fullback Carl Stewart is one of the league's best, an excellent receiver who will get a few touches.
Defenses have slowed Alabama's DJ Hall of late with what has amounted to double coverage, and his one-half suspension against Louisiana-Monroe didn't help his production last week, either. Hall still leads the SEC in receiving at 83.5 yards per game and needs 82 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the year. Matt Caddell has 35 catches on the season and has been a solid third-down option, often from a slot position. Keith Brown has seen the field more of late, and his deep speed can keep defenses more honest. This is Alabama's deepest and strongest position.
Auburn's Rod Smith leads the team in every receiving category with 45 catches, 614 yards and five touchdowns. After that, the Tigers have struggled to find a consistent performer at this position. Montez Billings has been more productive of late and now has 24 receptions for the year. AU plays three tight ends, led by Gabe McKenzie (13 catches, 117 yards), but Auburn doesn't throw to them often.
While Alabama hasn't shown much improvement as a team over the second half of the season, its defensive line has. Wallace Gilberry has notched all nine of his sacks since a mid-season Homecoming game, and he leads the conference in TFLs with 22. Alabama's last three opponents have averaged fewer than three yards per rush. Noseguards Lorenzo Washington and Brian Motley have spelled each other well since Motley returned from injury, and Brandon Deaderick is getting the most consistent playing time of his college career.
Auburn's defensive line, in a word, is special. While Quentin Groves moved to linebacker a few weeks ago, his pass rushing prowess still makes him a better fit to be mentioned here. He has only three sacks on the season but has a whopping 20 QB hurries and seven TFLs despite playing through some pain. His move to linebacker accomodated the emergence of Antonio Coleman who leads the team with seven sacks. At the other end spot, Sen'Derrick Marks is underappreciated and leads the line with 39 stops. Tackle Pat Sims is a playmaker as well. Among AU's 63 TFLs on the season, the defensive line has 40 of them.
Alabama's linebacking unit got a warrior-like performance from weaksider Darren Mustin last week with a career-high 14 tackles. He and Prince Hall will be challenged to contain Auburn's inside running game, and don't be surprised if freshman Rolando McClain gets more snaps that he's been receiving of late. Strongsider Ezekial Knight has completely overcome a high ankle sprain and made three tackles for loss last week.
Auburn's Chris Evans leads the Tigers in tackles with 59, and has chipped in four pass break-ups and an interception. Outside LB Tray Blackmon has outstanding speed but has not been the big-play man he was expected to be this season (no TFLs). Youngster Craig Stephens has picked up valuable experience this season. Groves, as noted above, should see action with this unit.
Safety Rashad Johnson and freshman cornerback Kareem Jackson have been UA's most consistent performers this season. Johnson is now the team leader in tackles with 76. The nickelback position belongs to Simeon Castille once again, thanks to the injury to Javier Arenas. As a result, cornerback Lionel Mitchell is seeing action again. However, given Auburn's preference for running the ball, UA may not be in its nickel look too often on Saturday.
Auburn cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Pat Lee have combined for seven interceptions on the season, while safety Zac Etheridge ranks second on the team in tackles with 51. The Tigers will likely spend extensive time in their nickel package to help contain Alabama's receivers, and that means more action for Jonathan Wilhite, who got a start at the nickelback spot two weeks ago against Georgia. The Tigers' defensive backs are outstanding in run support.
It was back to the drawing board for UA's special teams this week after ULM blocked a field goal and a UA punt caromed off a coverage man for a turnover. Leigh Tiffin, despite the block last week, has been impressive of late. How well Jonathan Lowe handles punt return duty in the expected absence of Arenas will also play a key role. Punting averages can suffer greatly in rainy weather, which doesn't bode well for P.J. Fitzgerald.
First-year kicker Wes Byrum has connected on 15 of 19 field goals, but has been inconsistent from longer distances (3 of 6 from 40-49 yards, and untested from 50 and beyond). Byrum has seven touchbacks in kickoff duty. Robert Dunn has been rock solid as a punt returner with a 9.1-yard average this season. Punter Ryan Shoemaker has been outstanding with a 44-yard average, killing 12 inside the 20 with only one touchback all year.