Picks Column: Iron Bowl Mania
Normally I write some sort of column laced with a few anecdotes, often with a theme that matches the weekend's slate of big games. Then I break down some of the biggest games in chronological order and give some other straight predictions.
But it's Iron Bowl week, and the nation is focused on Auburn, Ala. I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., with the demographics split between the Tide and Tigers. My grandfather had gold seats at Legion Field, which used to regularly host Alabama games, as well as court-side seats to Alabama basketball.
Many of my best friends went to Auburn. I dated an Auburn golfer for a while, and somehow my brother and sister wound up in orange-and-blue. Currently I'm in Birmingham for Thanksgiving, and no one's talking turkey. It's all Iron Bowl.
There are many great rivalries in college football this weekend. Ohio State-Michigan. Florida State-Florida. Oregon-Oregon State. Clemson-South Carolina. Georgia-Georgia Tech. UCLA-USC.
What sets Alabama and Auburn apart isn't the talent or the history. Buckeyes-Wolverines has plenty of that. But it's the sheer lack of other obsessions. It's my family, my hometown and my state, so I'm allowed to say it: Alabama is fat (47th nationally), poor (bottom 10 states by any measure) and not very educated (42nd nationally). We have no professional sports teams and not many Fortune 500 companies. Our beaches are nice, though most people head to neighboring Florida for that. But boy, do we produce some great college football.
We need this. And with that, let's not wait. Here's my longest breakdown of the season (feel free to scroll down if you're burned out on Crimson already).
No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 4 Auburn 17
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Auburn, Ala.)
This game got juicy when Nick Marshall connected with Ricardo Louis to beat Georgia nearly two weeks ago. On paper, this is perhaps the most prestigious Iron Bowl ever, and that's saying a lot. The BCS national champion has emerged from this game each of the last four seasons with a chance at a fifth this year. This is the first time the two hated rivals face each other for the right to play in the SEC championship game as well.
Auburn (10-1, 6-1) is getting attention not only due to its seven-win improvement under coach Gus Malzahn, but because of its relative freshness compared to the same, boring Alabama "Process." Most fans are quick to shelve the Tigers under a clear label: "Lucky" or "Good."
How about both? Auburn needed a late touchdown to knock off a feisty Mississippi State team early in the year, fell to LSU by two touchdowns, knocked off Texas A&M only after a shoulder injury sidelined Johnny Manziel late and beat Georgia by a miracle. Analytics, if you value such things, say the Tigers should be no better than 9-2.
Marshall, the starting quarterback, threw just 15 passes combined in back-to-back SEC road wins before the Georgia game, making AU the most one-dimensional Top 10 team in recent memory. (The Tigers rank second in the NCAA with 320.3 rushing yards per game, and three-fifths of the Top 5 are triple option offenses.)
But running back Tre Mason was a Doak Walker Award semifinalist, and Marshall is doing his best Cam Newton impression in Malzahn's offense, rushing for 823 yards and nine touchdowns. The piece that most impresses me watching the Tigers is unsung fullback Jay Prosch. It's a different twist in that "hurry-up, no-huddle offense" and "blocking fullback" aren't exactly peanut butter and jelly, but watching Prosch trying to block All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley should be a treat.
Having worked for three NFL teams, I've seen the deep differences between NFL and college teams that go well beyond talent. One of those is inherent: College students go to class. Many will claim careers other than football. They're still teenagers or in their early 20s. College teams are bound to emotional peaks and valleys far more than professional athletes. That said, this Nick Saban team may be the most rock solid from a consistency standpoint I've seen in any sport at any level for years. They remind me of the Miami Heat team that went to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive season in June despite the entire NBA world conspiring to knock them off.
Alabama has three potential weak spots. It's hard to call anything a "weakness" for a team that's lost one of its last 29 games (10 against ranked foes), but there is a vulnerable underbelly to this team. Alabama has fumbled 11 times and lost seven of them, which seems low, but running backs T.J. Yeldon and Kenyon Drake have fumbled four times each and receiver/returner Christion Jones has fumbled four times the last two years. The Tide skill players can be stripped.
The offensive line lost D.J. Fluker (San Diego Chargers), Chance Warmack (Tennessee Titans) and Barrett Jones (St. Louis Rams) to the NFL. The Tide has produced some talented offensive linemen in its history, but last year's unit may have been the best complete group Alabama has ever seen. Although it can count on one of the best offensive line recruiting classes in history next fall and still retains Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen, this year's group isn't the impenetrable force it was in 2012. This year's OL has improved, but elite fronts like Virginia Tech have caused it problems. Alabama center Ryan Kelly (knee) also is a game-time decision. Sure, the Tide have allowed two sacks in 29 quarters, but Dee Ford, a menace all game for Georgia's Aaron Murray, may be able to pressure AJ McCarron.
The final hole in Alabama's game is its secondary, specifically cornerbacks in pass coverage. Between Vinnie Sunseri, HaHa Clinton-Dix and the emerging young Landon Collins, the safeties are talented, but teams have been able to pick on the cornerbacks, upon which Nick Saban traditionally relies to play a lot of man coverage. That's where Alabama has benefited from its schedule this year, as the Tide hasn't had to face many elite quarterbacks. Johnny Manziel and Zach Mettenbeger each looked good at times throwing downfield against the Bama defense. Marshall has only thrown nine touchdowns against five interceptions, and Auburn for the most part limits his decision-making downfield to play-action throws that work off the run.
For Auburn to pull off the upset — and don't get it mixed up, the Tigers still are an 11-point home underdog — it needs to exploit at least two of those three potential weaknesses. That means forcing a fumble or two, hitting a couple play-action passes downfield and getting some occasional pressure on McCarron. The Tide defense is too disciplined to beat if the only thing going for you is a great running game.
As for Alabama, a win puts it two games away from closing out the BCS era with another title. With the Heisman candidacies of Jameis Winston, Manziel and Marcus Mariota taking hits, but quarterbacks still in vogue, a signature McCarron performance on the Plains could vault the Sports Illustrated cover boy to the highest individual award in college football.
Thanksgiving Day Special
Texas 28, Texas Tech 24
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. (Austin, Texas)
After playing his way off the plank an inch at a time since mid-September, the Mack Brown era at Texas again is on life support. A new athletic director is headed to Austin, a road game against Top-10 Baylor is on deck and a 25-point home drubbing against Oklahoma State is in the rear-view mirror. There's no David Ash at quarterback and no Johnathan Gray at running back.
Alternately, the Kliff Kingsbury glow faded fast in Lubbock, Texas, as the Red Raiders flashed to a 7-0 start and a lofty ranking, but could close the regular season today with five consecutive losses. Freshmen quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb have turned the ball over 23 times, the majority during the current losing streak. Texas Tech's run defense also is rotten, and the Longhorns will try to exploit that even without Gray.
Texas is a decent team that can't beat Top 25 talent, but Texas Tech's start was a mirage and the Red Raiders have a ways to go. The Longhorns squeak out an eight-win season in this one before taking their medicine next week.
No. 5 Clemson 31, No. 11 South Carolina 30
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Columbia, S.C.)
I'm tempted to classify this as a five-star matchup, but depending on the Missouri outcome, there may not be much on the line other than pride in this one.
That doesn't diminish the entertainment value as one of the best quarterbacks in ACC history, the white-hot Tajh Boyd, faces what could be the last great South Carolina team under Steve Spurrier.
Both of these teams rank in the Top 10 and have talent across the board. Players like Connor Shaw, Mike Davis, Jadeveon Clowney, Sammy Watkins and Vic Beasley make this game worthwhile.
Dabo Swinney's Tigers have fared well against top SEC foes of late, chopping down LSU in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl and Georgia in this season's opener. Each team has a dud on its resume, with Clemson getting relegated to an also-ran in a single half against Florida State. South Carolina lost at Tennessee in addition to falling to UGA on the road early in September.
It's vital that Clemson protects Boyd from the South Carolina pass rush, because the Tigers are unlikely to run the ball on the Gamecocks. While Spurrier's offense is capable, it's not an explosive unit built to erase large deficits or outgun another team in a high-scoring game. If Clemson buys Boyd time, the Tigers can make some big plays downfield and make SC play from behind.
Under The Radar
East Carolina 38, Marshall 35
Kickoff: Noon ET on Friday (Huntington, W.Va.)
While researching this game, I saw a sarcastic comment on one site predicting 118-115 in 8OT. Thing is, the poster may be close. The two quarterbacks, Shane Carden for ECU and Rakeem Cato for Marshall, have combined to throw 64 touchdowns this season.
This game doesn't have as much clout because C-USA doesn't have a potential BCS buster like the MAC (Northern Illinois) or MWC (Fresno State), but it will determine a division and likely the winner of the conference championship game.
Both of these teams came close to upsetting Virginia Tech. ECU beat a bowl-eligible North Carolina and easily handled N.C. State; Marshall's average score in five home games is 51.6 to 10.2. If you're a fan of up-tempo offense, this game should be a clinic.
There's little on paper to differentiate these teams, but I think the Pirates are slightly better. Carden has more talent surrounding him, headlined by receiver Justin Hardy, a tremendous college player (a combined 183 catches, 2,235 yards and 19 touchdowns the last two seasons).
Ole Miss 28, Mississippi State 27
Bowling Green 24, Buffalo 21
No. 12 Oregon 42, Oregon State 28
No. 10 Michigan State 27, Minnesota 10
No. 3 Ohio State 45, Michigan 20
Duke 24, North Carolina 23
Rice 28, Tulane 21
Georgia 31, Georgia Tech 20
No. 8 Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20
Missouri 42, Texas A&M 35
UCLA 28, USC 27
Arizona State 34, Arizona 24
Last Week: 7-8
All rankings refer to Football.com's Power Dozen.