- The West representative in next week's SEC title game in Atlanta could come down to the individual efforts of one of these X-factors.
The crown jewel of the final weekend of the 2017 regular season is the Iron Bowl, which has direct SEC title implications for the first time since 2013 and will affect the national championship picture for the first time since the BCS gave way to the playoff. The winner on Saturday will face Georgia the following week in Atlanta, and the winner of that game has a close to guaranteed shot at the playoff. Expect the margins to be slim in this rendition: Two-loss Auburn has fallen only to Clemson and LSU (after squandering a 20-point lead) and is riding a four-game winning streak during which the Tigers have averaged a 24.5-point margin of victory. Alabama is, of course, undefeated. If history is any indication, this one is going to be fun.
With that in mind, here’s a look at six players who will figure big in the game.
Raekwon Davis, Alabama DL: At 6' 7" and 306 pounds, Davis deserves a space on his list due to his size alone. In the past three weeks, he has logged 23 of the 54 tackles he’s put up this season, and he has 6.5 sacks on the year. The hulking sophomore is primarily a run-stuffing defender who plays inside, but he has the rare ability to disrupt the passing game when he’s not plugging gaps. He may well be Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s worst nightmare on Saturday.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn QB: The Baylor transfer has been just what Auburn needed at quarterback, completing 67.8% of his passes this season for 2,445 yards, 16 touchdowns and just four picks. Auburn’s offense sits No. 17 in all of FBS (two spots and 3.3 yards behind Alabama) with 475.9 yards per game. That’s in large part thanks to what Stidham has done under center—just two of those interceptions have come in the past eight games, and while he isn’t the running threat past Auburn quarterbacks have been, he has worked well as a distributor for the Tigers’ multi-pronged ground game.
Jonah Williams, Alabama OT: Williams moved over to left tackle this fall after spending his freshman year on the right side. And though he plays on an offense that’s known for running the ball and a mobile quarterback, protecting Jalen Hurts will be key against Auburn’s ferocious defensive line. Hurts has rushed for 1,855 yards over his two seasons at Alabama and isn’t asked to be a pure passer as often as other quarterbacks, but he has also been sacked 19 times this season. Auburn’s defense has been one of the best in the country at getting to the quarterback, averaging 2.91 sacks per game so far, and it’ll be on Williams to step up when Alabama takes to the air.
Jeff Holland, Auburn LB: Holland has been the most disruptive player on Auburn’s defense this season. The junior has 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss to go along with one pass defensed, one fumble recovery and four forced fumbles. Alabama has struggled on passing downs at times this season, and Holland could do some damage should Auburn be able to slow the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack and force Hurts to look to the passing game more often. Holland had an injury scare last week against Louisiana-Monroe, but he should be good to go for the season finale.
Henry Ruggs III, Alabama WR: The freshman is the Crimson Tide’s fourth-leading receiver, with fewer yards this season than Calvin Ridley (858 yards), Jerry Jeudy (208) and Cam Sims (194). But five of Ruggs’s seven catches have gone for touchdowns. It’s easy for the electric Ridley to carry the passing game against lesser opponents, but that won’t be the case against Auburn, which should have a talented enough defense to force Alabama’s offense into balance. Ridley will be Ridley, but Alabama needs someone to complement him, and I’m nominating Ruggs.
Kerryon Johnson, Auburn RB: Since Kamryn Pettway fractured his scapula, Johnson has been the heart and soul of the Tigers’ offense. In nine games this year, he’s racked up 1,172 rushing yards, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground, plus 18 catches for 166 yards and two more scores. In November, Johnson has averaged 149.7 yards per game on 27.7 carries—and his 568 yards are good for more than a third of Auburn’s total offense this month. If Johnson can get things going against Alabama’s run defense and begin to wear down the Crimson Tide on that side of the ball, Stidham will have opportunities to open up the passing game.