As we welcome in the final month of the college football regular season, it’s worth keeping very close watch on two surging SEC squads: Alabama and Auburn.
Yes, for all the talk about the state of Mississippi -- and it sure has been fun to see the Magnolia State shine -- there is still a very good chance the SEC Western Division will be decided by the Iron Bowl in a couple of weeks.
With plenty of football left and a couple of tough road trips looming for both schools, this certainly isn’t a given, and it’s not like Mississippi State (the No. 1 team in the country) and two-loss Ole Miss are out of the hunt -- far from it. But there is just a feeling in the Southern air when it comes to Alabama and Auburn.
Both are starting to hit their stride, and with Auburn topping Ole Miss on Saturday and Mississippi State showing some weaknesses in the past two weeks, the Egg Bowl’s shine is starting to fade.
There is just something about Auburn. Notice anything familiar with how Auburn is starting to win games? Two weeks ago, the Tigers escaped with a wild win against South Carolina after a controversial final play in which refs missed that two Auburn players wore the No. 1 on the field at the same time.
Saturday, on a brisk night in Oxford, Mississippi, the Tigers won in the most 2013 way possible. There were clutch third-and-long conversions by Mr. Find A Way, quarterback Nick Marshall, that doomed Ole Miss’ defense, especially in the second half. Maybe no third down was bigger than Marshall’s 41-yard pass to D'haquille Williams on third-and-11 with the Tigers down 10 in the third quarter.
Immediately after that it appears Auburn got away with having 12 men on the field before scoring a touchdown three plays later.
Then came an excruciatingly unfortunate play for Ole Miss when star receiver Laquon Treadwell was awkwardly tackled just before the goal line and fumbled the ball into the end zone. What appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown with 1:30 left resulted in a turnover and the loss of Treadwell to a broken leg.
"Yeah, it was a big play," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday. "Our guys find ways to win when it is close. Our guys truly believe they are going to win the game if it is close. They made plays defensively and offensively to win the game."
There is some luck in the air, but don’t think the Tigers aren’t good. Marshall is throwing the ball better than ever, and Auburn’s running game is back atop the rushing charts (277.5 yards per game). The offense has eclipsed the 500-yard mark four times this season, averaging 532 yards and 37.2 points per game in conference play (both league highs).
Right down the road, Alabama hasn’t been as glitzy as the Tigers, but the tough-nosed ball fans are accustomed to in Tuscaloosa appears to be returning. Alabama’s defense ranks fourth nationally in total yards (277.3), second in scoring (14.0) and has allowed a nation-low 12 touchdowns.
The offense, which actually ranks ahead of Auburn’s in the SEC, is churning out 508.9 yards per game and registered 1,071 yards and 93 points in the past two. Blake Sims is getting more comfortable under center, and Amari Cooper continues to be the country’s best receiver.
Nick Saban thrives in these situations. He understands the stakes and the planning needed. He won’t be bothered by a trip to LSU this weekend, or next week’s home date with Mississippi State, a team Alabama hasn't lost to since 2007. Alabama is favored against LSU, and it wouldn’t shock anyone if the Tide is favored next week against a Mississippi State team new to the limelight.
Alabama is a little beat up on offense, specifically with running back T.J. Yeldon and left tackle Cam Robinson hobbled, so that is worth keeping an eye on, but Alabama’s back is firmly against the wall when it comes to the SEC, and there is a ton of fight in an Alabama team that is growing closer and has been here before.
An early loss to Ole Miss hasn’t diminished the Tide’s season, just like that loss to Mississippi State hasn’t ended Auburn’s. It hinges on these next two weeks, but Alabama and Auburn appear to be on a collision course for an Iron Bowl that could be as big as last year’s.