Photo by Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers
Regardless of last week’s historic loss, it was always going to be a tall task for Hugh Freeze and his Tigers to upset Alabama amidst their late-season playoff run in year one.
“We quickly have to turn the page and put that behind us. We all know what the Iron Bowl means to so many, and you can fix your feelings a whole heck of a lot with a good performance in that game,” Hugh Freeze said on Monday.
In the 87 previous Iron Bowls, only once has an unranked Auburn team ever upset a top 10 Alabama squad – when the Tigers won 17-7 in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2002. It just so happens the Tigers may need a similar recipe for success when they take the field this Saturday.
“Everybody has a choice in how you respond to whatever you’re dealing with, and we’ll all have that choice this week,” Freeze said. “You sure hope that if they have any type of competitive spirit in them as an individual, they’re going to shake off the cobwebs and get ready for this war that they’re getting ready to go into, and it will be that.”
The Tigers certainly can’t start slow against the Crimson Tide on Saturday afternoon. Alabama has won 53 of their last 54 games when scoring a touchdown on the first offensive possession, with the lone loss coming at Texas A&M back in 2021.
Tuberville’s Tigers walked into Tuscaloosa a 10.5 point underdog but found a way, with the help of freshman running back Tre Smith, to mount a 17-0 halftime lead against an Alabama team on a five-game win streak that saw an average margin of win of 24.5 points.
“No one is running too much on that defensive front. We’ll have a good plan. Our backs are good, our tight ends are good, and our O-line is competitive, but we do need to establish the run game,” Freeze said. “It will be no fun if you’re having to drop back and throw every down; that won’t work.”
Photo by Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers
Auburn’s upset Iron Bowl victory in 2002 was fueled by an all-time performance in the ground game from one of the most unlikely prospects. Tre Smith, a freshman tailback out of Venice, Florida, was forced onto the biggest stage with injuries to Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, and Chris Butler. Smith ran for 126 yards on 25 attempts and finds his unlikely performance a part of the rivalry’s lore.
Now, running back and associate head coach Carnell Williams will have a lot more to work in terms of depth ahead of the 2023 Iron Bowl. But, the Tigers weren’t able to lean on their depth and experience against New Mexico State a week ago with only 27 combined yards on 9 total attempts between Jarquez Hunter and Damari Alston.
It was an uncharacteristic performance for a running back room that finds itself ranked third in the conference and 21st nationally in rushing offense, averaging 194.3 yards per game.
“A lesson in humility, for sure. I will say offensively I think we could’ve run the ball, but we never had the chance, truthfully, and that’s not an excuse. We had, what, 42 true offensive plays, and as the game went on, it was obvious they were controlling the clock very well, and you’ve got to press a little bit,” Freeze said. “Whenever we did get on schedule, we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties, so I’m not sure how effective we could have been running the ball or not, truthfully. It was just that type of game.”
Quarterback Payton Thorne led the Tigers in rushing with just 38 yards on 17 attempts, several of which were after the original play had broken down. Thorne only had four incompletions against New Mexico State, but the lack of a rushing attack allowed the Aggies to lean on their secondary and stop any sort of progression through the air.
It seems that could be the plan for both the Tide and Tiger defenses in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday – stop the run, avoid the big, chunk plays, and force the quarterbacks to throw intermediate passes several times to get down the field.
Photo by Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers
Similar to Thorne, Alabama quarterback Jalen Milore has been boom or bust through the air for the Crimson Tide. Milroe enters this weekend’s contest with 19 passing touchdowns on the season. All but three of those scores have been from at least 15 yards out with seven scores from 40-plus yards.
“We didn’t fare well against a kid similar to him at LSU. Now he is playing at a very high level with good receivers and good running backs. It is a very difficult task for sure. I don’t know that you completely do that,” Freeze said. “You got to hope that you do limit those explosive plays somewhat. Stopping him, no one has really done that. We got to mix up the coverages and mix up the plan.”
What has made Milroe such a threat this season has been his ability to scramble and turn a busted play into a big gain. In the last few weeks especially, Milroe’s presence in the ground game has been crucial for Alabama’s success.
Against LSU, Milroe set the Alabama single-game record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with four, a total that tied for the second-most rushing scores in a game in program history. He followed that up by accounting for six total touchdowns at Kentucky to become the only quarterback in Crimson Tide history to throw for three and rush for three in a single game.
It will be up to Ron Roberts' defense to turn the page from last week and get back to their “bend-don’t-break” mentality. Auburn was able to hold on to a 17-point lead back in 2002 due to their defense’s ability to live up to that mentality late against Alabama.
The Tiger’s defense in 2002 stopped the Crimson Tide on downs three times in the fourth quarter, all of which Alabama had crossed midfield. The same side of the ball just over twenty years later has some of those same key traits that could help formulate an upset.
Photo by Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers
Auburn currently leads the SEC in red zone defense (.778) and is third in the league in third-down defense (.309) and fourth in scoring defense (21.5) and pass efficiency defense (127.84).
The Tigers are also tied with Arkansas for the lead in the conference in turnovers forced with 17– 11 interceptions and six fumbles recovered. But, last Saturday’s disappointing performance saw the end of Auburn’s 18-game streak of forcing a turnover.
“The most discouraging thing is our inability to get off of the field and stop their explosive plays, defensively,” Freeze said. “As good as we were with the offensive line, defensive line, special teams at Arkansas, we were equally as bad in all three Saturday.”
There’s a lot that will need to happen in order for Auburn to pull off a type of upset like the shocking 2002 result. But, the final piece might just have to come from a defense that has had a knack for pulling off a game-changing play all season long.
The Tide and the Tigers are scheduled for kickoff inside of Jordan-Hare Stadium for the 88th Iron Bowl at 2:30 pm CT with television coverage on CBS. The game can be heard from around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network.