TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Alabama-Auburn game is stocked with a Heisman Trophy candidate, a national title contender and the unrelenting passion of feuding neighbors.
In other words, it’s a pretty typical Iron Bowl.
No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) is still standing in the championship scrum going into Saturday night’s rivalry showdown, and can clinch the Western Division with a victory.
Onetime contender and defending SEC champion Auburn (8-3, 4-3) has been reduced to the spoiler role after two straight stumbles in league games. The Tide is a 91/2-point favorite but a game that suddenly seems like a potential mismatch still has the same hold on the state.
“You just know there’s a special level of intensity that goes with playing in a game like this and both sides are going to have it and that’s what makes it a great football game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Led by Heisman candidate Amari Cooper and a smothering defense, Saban’s team is No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings and like the rest of the state vividly remembers how last year’s game ended. The Tigers won on a rare runback of a missed field goal on the final play.
“Been around a lot of crazy stuff in Iron Bowls,” Tide right tackle Austin Shepherd said. “Always great energy. I know the stadium is going to be rocking for sure. “
The state champion has been the national champ, too, four of the last five seasons. The only exception was Auburn’s runner-up finish to Florida State last season.
The Tide is riding a six-game winning streak and might already be assured of a spot in the SEC championship before kickoff if No. 4 Mississippi State loses at No. 18 Ole Miss.
Auburn has dropped its last two SEC games to Texas A&M and Georgia. A team that was once third in the playoff rankings has revised its goal to shooting for back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1988-89.
“We’re trying to be as good as we can be, and finish this thing as strong as we can,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Our guys are committed to that, and I know our coaches are, too.”
BAMA’S OFFENSE: If there’s a big mismatch in this game, it might surprisingly be Auburn’s defense against Alabama’s offense. Under first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Tide has been especially potent in passing with the Blake Sims-to-Cooper connection. Pass defense has been Auburn’s biggest weakness. But the Tigers have struggled all around defensively in the past five SEC games, giving up an average of 472 yards and 35.8 points to league offenses during that stretch.
TIDE’S TURF: The Tigers are 7-2 in Tuscaloosa, including the largest comeback in school history in 2010. But Bryant-Denny Stadium was a house of horrors two years ago when Alabama roared to 42 first-half points and won 49-0. The Tide has won 15 in a row at home and dominated opponents by an average of 33.5 points (268-67) this season.
PERIMETER RUNS: While Artis-Payne is more of a between-the-tackles runner, Auburn often mixes it up with perimeter runs by receiver Ricardo Louis or speedy tailback Corey Grant, whose role has diminished as the season has progressed. Teams haven’t had much success running into the heart of Alabama’s defense, which has allowed only two rushing touchdowns. “Last year, they hurt us with plays on the perimeter like they hurt a lot of people,” Saban said.
KEEP IT CLEAN: Alabama has had turnover problems at times this season but the Tigers have really shot themselves in the foot. They’ve committed 10 turnovers and been penalized 199 yards in their three losses, coughing it up on the first two plays at Mississippi State.
NO. 4 MISSISSIPPI STATE AT OLE MISS: A few weeks in October, Mississippi State and Ole Miss stood among college football’s elite with undefeated records, star quarterbacks and rare relevance on the national stage.
While the Bulldogs’ dream season remains largely intact, the Rebels have fallen by the wayside — undone by a series of injuries and missed opportunities. Now No. 4 Mississippi State (10-1, 6-1 SEC) must travel to face No. 18 Ole Miss (8-3, 4-3) in the Egg Bowl.
The Bulldogs seem to have the edge in most categories — especially momentum. The Rebels have lost three straight conference games, including last week’s embarrassing 30-0 setback to Arkansas.
But Ole Miss holds one key advantage: The home team has won nine of the past 10 Egg Bowls. And that might just be the equalizer that the Rebels need.
“It’s a tough place to go play,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said with a slight grin. “I don’t think they are big fans of mine in that part of the state.”
But Ole Miss will have to play much better than it has over the past month — especially last week when the Rebels gave up six turnovers against the Razorbacks.
In particular, all eyes will be on quarterback Bo Wallace to see how he responds. The senior had one of his worst games against the Razorbacks, fumbling twice and throwing two interceptions.
Mississippi State expects to get Wallace’s best.
“He’s a guy that can get hot and beat you in a hurry,” Mullen said.
The Ole Miss defense will try and slow down Mississippi State’s productive offense — led by quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Josh Robinson. Prescott threw for 193 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 51-0 win over Vanderbilt.
Some things to watch for
MOMENTUM vs. HOME TEAM: No. 4 Mississippi State is in the midst of a dream season and coming off of an impressive 51-0 victory over Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs have rolled through the SEC — with the exception of a loss to Alabama — and are still very relevant in the SEC West and national playoff picture. But Ole Miss has one important factor in its favor: Home-field advantage. The home team has won nine of the past 10 Egg Bowls.
WHICH BO WILL SHOW? Ole Miss senior quarterback Bo Wallace has had three very good seasons for the Rebels and many of his career numbers are right up there with all-time greats like Archie and Eli Manning. But his inconsistent performances have been maddening for Ole Miss fans. Wallace will try to bounce back from one of his worst last weekend, when he fumbled twice and threw two interceptions in a 30-0 loss to Arkansas.
WALLACE PART II: Speaking of Wallace, the Egg Bowl would seem to be a favorable matchup for the Ole Miss quarterback. Mississippi State does many things well, but is giving up the most passing yards per game in the SEC. One thing to watch: Wallace sprained his right ankle against Arkansas and had trouble getting velocity on his throws during the remainder of the game.
DISTRACTING DAK: Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott bounced back from a three-interception performance against Alabama to throw for 193 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 51-0 win over Vanderbilt. Ole Miss will try to replicate Alabama’s performance and make Prescott uncomfortable in the pocket. The Rebels lead the SEC with 19 interceptions.
BULLDOG DOMINANCE: Under coach Dan Mullen, Mississippi State has been at its best in the Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs have a 4-1 record in the game since Mullen arrived, including last season’s come-from-behind 17-10 overtime victory in Starkville.