College Football

This Year’s Iron Bowl is a Trap — and Everyone’s Falling into it.

The Iron Bowl: (#1) Alabama at (#6) Auburn.

Saturday 25 November

3:30pm (EST) CBS // 8:30pm (GMT) BT Sport ESPN

It’s that time of year again — and I’m not just talking about the Iron Bowl. As the Alabama Crimson Tide prepare to face in-state rivals Auburn in a game that determine the fate of the SEC West, we’re now firmly in the annual “Alabama on upset-alert” week — and the media is getting its fill.

Anyone with a sense of recent history will know precisely what I mean. Last year, it was Texas A&M’s Week 8 visit to Tuscaloosa that drew out the wave of hopeful doubters. And the year before that, it was the Week 10 clash with #2 LSU that induced (more plausible) projections of an Alabama loss. Even this season, some had the Tide on upset-watch ahead of the opener with Florida State. All three, of course, were false alarms, and the Tide continued to roll on each occasion.

Alabama’s trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium this Saturday has a similar feel to the aforementioned games. Doubts about the team’s readiness for Auburn have been rumbling throughout the sports media landscape for weeks, and now, just 24 hours out, predictions of an Alabama loss are very much in vogue, if not the default setting. None of this, it should be said, is without foundation. The injury-hit Tide defense does appear to have regressed in recent weeks, and their opponent is undeniably hitting its stride just when it counts. It’s also true that Auburn has played in the bigger games this season having traveled to Clemson in Week 2 before hosting #1 Georgia just two weeks ago. The Tigers’ recent uptick, symbolized by their signature win over the Bulldogs, has led many to ask one simple question: How do we know that this Alabama team is better than Auburn?  

Benefit of the doubt?

The Tide’s schedule has been undeniably soft this year. We all know that. But the media — along with bettors and analysts — have interpreted this fact as a reason to start doubting Alabama in the final weeks of the year, when the competition begins to stiffen. However, there’s a problem here: the sheer volume of focus heaped on Alabama’s relatively weak strength of schedule has served as a diversion, distracting observers from the team’s less-glamorous accomplishments. The Tide, after all, found ways to win on the road in tricky spots against Mississippi State and Texas A&M; and, more than that, managed to hold off LSU in a way Auburn could not.

The media fixation with the Tide’s pedestrian schedule is producing far too much focus on the wood and not enough on the trees. Yes, when taken together it is not awe-inducing, and the Tide do not have that ‘signature’ win. But imbedded within Alabama’s underwhelming 2017 resumé is enough evidence to suggest that the team is capable of securing a vital road win. And at the very least, there is no evidence to suggest that the Tide cannot. The benefit of the doubt, then, has to remain with the team that just 11 months ago was playing for a National Championship.

No more poison

Moreover, it isn’t just past-experience and the coaching match-up that Alabama has in its favour. If you’ve been paying close attention this year, you’ll note that Saban has his team, the media, and, most importantly, his opponent, in precisely the right spot. Following the Tide’s too-close-for-comfort victory over the Aggies in College Station just over a month ago, Saban remarked that the media’s almost-incessant praise for the Tide was deeply detrimental, going as far as to liken it to “rat poison”. Such praise, of course, rolled in following two eye-wateringly large wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt — wins that put the rest of the country on notice. However, since then, the poison has dried up, and the Alabama locker room will be cognisant that the team’s public reputation is beginning to slide and depreciate. And this is something that will do the Tide no harm.

None of this, it’s true, is by design. Saban would, of course, rather have had a healthy linebacker core all year, as well as a more convincing win at Mississippi State. Auburn’s late-season resurgence, which presents a material threat to Alabama’s title hopes, is similarly less-than-ideal. But this perfect storm of factors has served to create a trap for not only Auburn, but also for analysts and bettors. What we will see on Saturday afternoon is a doubted #1 team — a team that will not earn the respect it deserves until it logs that marquee road win. The Tide’s players know this, and thankfully for them, they have Auburn in their way. For a coach concerned with poison, a late season trip to the #6 team is just what the doctor ordered.    

Prediction: Look for Alabama to exceed expectations and successfully contain Auburn’s rushing game. Full strength or not, the Tide’s rush defence is by some way the best in the SEC, and they should be able to crowd the box and limit Kerryon Johnson (as they did last year). This will be a low scoring one, as both teams look to establish the run game early, but Alabama will have enough explosiveness on offence to pull away at the end. I’ll lay the points and take the Tide -4.5.

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