TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s march to the College Football Playoff continued Saturday as the Crimson Tide won their third consecutive Iron Bowl. Here are three thoughts from a 30-12 Alabama win against Auburn that will keep the Tide atop the selection committee’s rankings.
1. The game attempted to be a statistical anomaly before Alabama settled down on offense
Late in the second quarter, Alabama led 10–9 even though the Crimson Tide had gained 204 yards and Auburn had gained 34. This was weird, but not as weird as the point earlier in the second quarter when Alabama led 10–6 and Auburn had gained seven yards.
How did Auburn manage to keep the game close early without actually moving the ball? The Tigers’ first Daniel Carlson field goal came after Stephen Roberts returned a JK Scott punt 58 yards to the Alabama 21-yard line and the Tigers promptly lost three yards on the next three plays. Carlson was called upon to kick a 52-yarder in the second quarter after Auburn followed a Daniel Thomas interception return to the Alabama 41 by gaining six yards. Later in the second, Carlson hit a 39-yarder after another Thomas interception of Jalen Hurts set up the Tigers at the Alabama 41 and Auburn nearly tripled its previous offensive production with a 19-yard drive.
Alabama eliminated the turnovers and special teams gaffes in the third quarter while the Tide defense continued to clamp down on the Tigers. Hurts completed 11 of 16 passes for 106 yards with a touchdown—and most importantly, no interceptions—in the third, and touchdowns by ArDarius Stewart and Hurts on consecutive drives put Alabama comfortably ahead.
2. If Alabama has a weakness, it is when Hurts is forced to throw the ball vertically
Against an opponent with a functional offense and a defense as good as Auburn’s—this describes most playoff contenders—those two first-half interceptions could have put Alabama in a hole that would have forced the Tide to throw more in the second half and risk more interceptions.
This might be the only glimmer of hope future Alabama opponents have, because Alabama’s defense continued to dominate even after cornerback Tony Brown was ejected for targeting while blocking on a punt return in the first quarter. Through the first three quarters, Alabama allowed 3.6 yards per play. If Alabama’s defense continues to play the way it has all season, the only way a team can beat the Tide is by forcing turnovers and then putting the ball in the end zone when its defense hands it the gift of great field position. The rub is that a team still has to get past Alabama's defense to get in the end zone, and that is still monumentally difficult even if the possession starts in Alabama territory. Florida will attempt to do this next week against Alabama in the SEC title game in Atlanta.
The problem for potential playoff opponents is that Hurts (who finished 27-for-36 for 286 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions) would have an extended bowl practice to get more comfortable the offense. Remember, he’s a true freshman who had to compete for the job in preseason camp. He hasn’t had much time to practice as the starter without a game looming at the end of the week. He may make a leap during that period that could cut down on mistakes such as the ones he made Saturday.
3. Auburn is a different team when quarterback Sean White can play, but White couldn’t go Saturday
That forced the Tigers to turn to senior Jeremy Johnson. Tide defenders harassed Johnson most of the day, and they didn’t seem surprised when backup John Franklin III came in to operate what is essentially a Wildcat package. (They did seem surprised when Franklin threw to Eli Stove for a 55-yard gain in the third quarter.)
Even the return of back Kamryn Pettway (hamstring) after missing two games couldn’t jump-start the Tigers’ run game. Pettway finished with 17 yards on 12 carries, and the Tigers averaged only 2.5 yards a carry for the game.