Despite disappointing season, Auburn has chance to play spoiler vs. Alabama
Kris Frost is in his fifth season at Auburn, so by now he has learned how to limit his social media presence. This season the Tigers’ senior linebacker hasn’t tweeted since Oct. 25, when he posted a simple “Beat Kentucky” ahead of his team’s trip to Lexington. Why the social media silence? Because it’s November in the SEC, and to Frost, it’s time to avoid distractions.
But Frost is still a college student, which means he can’t keep his hands off his phone for long. This week, as Frost scrolled down his Twitter timeline, the senior was reminded why it’s probably wise to keep his app closed. “Social media is a lot crazier this week,” Frost says. “You just hear from more fans, you hear a lot of jokes. A lot of people are just amped up about it, and that’s to be expected.”
It’s Iron Bowl week in Alabama, an unofficial holiday in the state. Auburn’s matchup with Alabama has been played 79 times since 1893, and the winner in the series has won the SEC for three straight years. By any objective measure, the Iron Bowl ranks among the sport’s best rivalries, one that almost annually impacts the SEC race. “It’s always heavy on our mind throughout the season,” Frost says.
But this Saturday’s installment of the Iron Bowl might feel a bit different. As Alabama sits at No. 2 in the playoff rankings as legitimate national title contender, Auburn has already suffered five SEC losses. The Tigers won’t vie for the conference crown even if they upset Bama. Instead, Auburn can only play spoiler for rival Alabama’s championship hopes, and an upset of the Tide could serve as silver lining in an otherwise disappointing season on the Plains.
Last week Auburn earned its sixth win in a 56–34 triumph over Idaho. The victory meant the Tigers are now bowl eligible, just about the only achievement in reach this season. But on Tuesday coach Gus Malzahn shook off the notion that his players won’t get up for Alabama. “We know we’re going to a bowl, but this is the Iron Bowl,” Malzahn told reporters. “All that stuff is great, but you focus in on this game.”
While Alabama has again emerged as a title contender, Auburn’s free-fall began early in the season. It proved unworthy of its preseason No. 6 ranking by mid-September when it needed overtime to escape FCS Jacksonville State. It followed that with consecutive losses to LSU and Mississippi State, all before the calendar turned to October.
The Tigers’ issues took place on both sides of the ball. New starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson threw six interceptions in his first three starts, prompting Malzahn to replace him with redshirt freshman Sean White. Meanwhile, Auburn’s defense failed to make an immediate turnaround under first-year coordinator Will Muschamp. The unit currently ranks 12th in the league in total defense, allowing 5.49 yards per play.
But the Tigers have showed bright spots in the second half of 2015. They beat Texas A&M 26–10 on Nov. 7, and despite losing 20–13 to rival Georgia the following week, they held the Bulldogs to 243 total yards, the fewest Auburn has held an SEC opponent to since ’11. Amid a disappointing season, Malzahn said he has seen progress from his defense under Muschamp’s tutelage. “It’s starting to become what he wants it to be,” Malzahn said.
Auburn’s players watched their national championship dreams disappear early, but instead of folding, they’ve managed to rally and reach the postseason. “Anytime you lose games you don’t feel you should lose, especially early in the season, there are some letdowns,” Frost says. “But one thing I’ve always noticed since I’ve been here is this team always stick together. That’s what allowed us to come out and be bowl eligible.”
If Auburn is improving, it will still need a herculean effort to upset Alabama. The Crimson Tide have emerged as one of the most dominant teams in the country, again defined by a stifling defense. Alabama ranks No. 1 nationally in yards allowed per play (4.12); its last two national championship squads in 2011 and ’12 allowed yards-per-play averages of 3.32 and 4.18 yards. This year’s defense has gotten better as the season has unfolded, as well: Since losing 43–37 to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, Alabama has forced 17 turnovers in eight games.
The linchpin of the Tide’s defense has been its front seven, a unit headlined by names like tackle A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland that has limited opponents to 2.47 yards per carry. In Alabama’s 30–16 win over LSU on Nov. 7, it held Tigers running back Leonard Fournette—the nation’s leading rusher—to 31 yards on 19 carries. Malzahn said the Tide’s defensive front sets itself apart from the rest of college football. “They put their twos in, and they’re like most people’s ones,” Malzahn said. “Maybe better.”
Added offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee: “They're probably as solid up front as they've ever been.”
Auburn’s offense could be hitting its stride as the Alabama game creeps closer. Johnson has returned to the starting role in the Tigers’ last three and completed 69% of his throws with three touchdowns and just one pick. Lashlee praised the quarterback’s newfound confidence in the pocket.
But to have a chance, Auburn’s defense, which ranks 12th in the SEC against the run, must find a way to limit Heisman Trophy candidate Derrick Henry. Otherwise Malzahn’s offense will struggle to keep up the Tide.
Although the 14-point spread for Saturday’s game looms large, the Iron Bowl isn’t without crazier chapters in its history. Just two yeas ago, Auburn stunned Alabama on the Kick Six, which is already steeped in football lore. The home team has taken the last three games in the series, a trend that boosts the Tigers this year. Plus, the last time Alabama lost to an unranked opponent was in the 2007 Iron Bowl, when Auburn beat an also-unranked Tide squad 17–10. This week Malzahn described the possibility of upsetting Alabama as “very important to us and very important our state."
Yet Frost says Auburn’s roster has approached this week like any other Iron Bowl week. “We can play loose, but the Iron Bowl’s always the Iron Bowl, regardless of wins, losses, the schedule,” Frost says. “The severity and how important the game is to us has always been the same.”