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Breaking down the Iron Bowl

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn remembers the intensity of the Iron Bowl. The former offensive coordinator at Auburn experienced the high and lows of this state's biggest sporting event in his three seasons on The Plains.

"You know it's a great rivalry from the outside looking in," said Malzahn, now the head coach at Arkansas State. "Until you're in the middle of it, you don't really understand it, but it's such a special game."

Malzahn was 1-2 against Alabama, losing a hotly contested game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2009 by five points in his first introduction to the rivalry. The next season, his offense went into Tuscaloosa and rallied from 24 points down to beat Alabama 28-27 en route to an SEC championship and the school's second national title.

"It was probably one of the most memorable games I've ever got a chance to coach in," he said. "When it was 24-0, that place was going bananas."

Since leaving Auburn, the Tigers have gone 3-8 and 0-7 in SEC play. The usually potent offense has been lackluster, averaging less than 21 points per game. Malzahn's former head coach, Gene Chizik, finds himself on the hot seat just two years after hoisting the BCS National Championship trophy.

Malzahn said he hasn't had a chance to speak with Chizik since the start of the season, but he knows what he would say to him if he could.

"With coaches, you're wrapped up in doing what you're doing," Malzahn said. "I definitely feel for him and the rest of the staff and their players."

Now at Arkansas State, Malzahn gets to view Auburn and Alabama from afar. His no-huddle, spread offense averaged 21 points a game against Alabama from 2009-11. The next closest SEC West team? LSU at 12 points per game.

Auburn hired more of a pro-style coordinator in Scott Loeffler to replace Malzahn, but there's a chance the Tigers return to some of their spread principles as they enter Tuscaloosa undermanned and outmatched physically. It worked for Malzahn and it's worked against Alabama in the past, as evidenced by Texas A&M's upset of the Tide two weeks ago.

"You see these teams running with pace in their offense. I think you can see advantages after they get initial first downs," Malzahn said. "I don't care if it's Alabama's defense or anyone's defense -- the teams that can run their offense at a fast pace will have an advantage."

If Auburn can start a drive with a first down, it could have a chance. Alabama's defense has struggled against uptempo offenses this season, failing to align properly when the pace picks up. The problem, Malzahn said, is how good the Tide defense is on first, second and third down. Those 10 yards to move the chain are hard to come by.

"The hard thing with Alabama is getting the initial first down to get that momentum," he said. "They have a good scheme and they let their players play."

• Read TideNation's five storylines to the game hereInsider.

Alabama players to watch

1. WR Christion Jones: Saban reiterated on Monday that Jones is the starting punt returner, not freshman Cyrus Jones or anyone else. The statement came on the heels of Jones fumbling two punts against Western Carolina this past weekend, one falling into the hands of the Catamounts inside Alabama's 30-yard line. If Jones makes similar mistakes against Auburn, a team Saban said has the best special-teams unit the Tide will face all season, will Jones be able to hold down the job?

2. RB T.J. Yeldon: This will be an interesting game for Yeldon in two respects. First, he is coming off an ankle injury that limited him early in the week. Second it will be his first time facing the team he scorned when he flipped his verbal commitment from Auburn to Alabama during his senior season. The former four-star running back from Daphne, Ala., was the No. 1 running back in the state and chose Saban over Chizik shortly after Malzahn left for Arkansas State.

3. CB Geno Smith: With each week, more responsibilities are being placed on the true freshman's shoulders. And the rookie cornerback has responded, breaking up a pass against Western Carolina. "He's come a long way," safety Robert Lester said. "He's continued to get better. He's one of the guys I've mentioned before that takes it upon himself to prepare for the games, learn the defense, which is such a complicated defense, go out there and execute the way the coaches and the players expect him to."

Auburn players to watch

1. QB Jonathan Wallace: The freshman has three games of starting experience, and they've been a mixed bag. He's won games against New Mexico State and Alabama A&M, but struggled against an SEC opponent in Georgia. All three games were at home. Now he gets to travel to Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl and face the country's No. 1 defense.

2. DE Corey Lemonier: If Auburn's defense has a hope, it's Lemonier getting after AJ McCarron and creating negative plays or possibly a fumble. Alabama's pass protection has stepped up in a big way the past few weeks, but they did struggle early in the season with speed off the edge. That just so happens to be Lemonier's specialty. Combined with fellow defensive end Dee Ford, who is sixth in the SEC in sacks, and Auburn might have a spot to attack the Alabama offense.

3. RB Onterio McCalebb: McCalebb is boom or bust at running back for the Tigers. If the slight speedster can find the edge, he's dangerous. If he can't, he's more than likely going down for no gain or a loss. Auburn's hope is he finds a few seams and can get to the second level of the defense on Saturday. If he does, he has the speed to take it to the end zone every time.

Key matchup

LB C.J. Mosley vs. the designed QB run: It's not likely we'll see Auburn attempt to throw the ball around the field much on Saturday. Wallace is a quarterback who is more apt to tuck the ball and run rather than drop back and pass at this point in his career. That said, watch for Mosley to spy the quarterback and take charge when Auburn attempts to run the wildcat.

By the numbers

100.75: Just how bad is Auburn's offense? Its average national ranking in the four major statistical categories (rushing, passing, scoring and total offense) is 100.75 out of 120.

21: McCarron set the record for touchdown passes in a single season against Western Carolina at 21. With three games remaining, how will the junior pad his lead?

0: Barring a major upset, Auburn will go winless in SEC play for the first time in more than 30 years.