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What to watch: Iron Bowl edition

Auburn and Alabama face off for the 85th edition of the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa today. Many things have changed in 2020, including some circumstances around this game, but the Tigers and Crimson Tide will kick off in their traditional Saturday-after-Thanksgiving slot.

Alabama enters the contest 7-0, ranked number one in the country and boasting the most dynamic offense in college football. The Tigers are 5-2 on the season, have recently moved into the Top 25 rankings at No. 22 and are currently on a three game winning streak.

Alabama is favored by more than three touchdowns at home by those who make odds for a living, and many people will feel comfortable in picking the Tide to win by more than that. Auburn has struggled on the road in general this season and has not won in Tuscaloosa since Cam Newton was taking snaps for the Tigers. The biggest storyline heading into the game is that Alabama head coach Nick Saban will not be able to be on the sideline for the matchup because of a positive COVID-19 test earlier in the week.

Take a look at how Nick Saban’s absence and two other factors may play into the out come of the 85th Iron Bowl today:

Saban gets sidelined

Saban was on track to miss a game due to COVID-19 earlier in the season already against Georgia. However, it was determined that Saban had a false positive test, so he was able to coach for the Crimson Tide that week. This time Saban’s positive test result was apparently correct as he exhibited some “very mild symptoms” to go along with the test result. Thankfully, Saban seems to be doing well and is currently expected to make a full recovery.

Yet, due to COVID-19 protocols, he will not be on the sideline for the game against Auburn. The Alabama staff has been aware of this reality since Wednesday, so that has given them time to make arrangements. Saban would be the first to tell you that he hasn’t made a block or tackle in several decades, so Alabama’s success is all about what the players do on Saturdays with the coaching that they have received during the week.

He is, of course, right about that — but it will no doubt be strange for the team to hear a voice other than Saban’s leading the charge for the Crimson Tide this week. How will the players respond? Will interim head coach Steve Sarkisian be able to manage game situations well and bring out consistent play like Saban? My guess is the Alabama players will respond fine. Sarkisian has been a head coach before, so he won’t be overwhelmed. But, this is definitely something to watch, as someone other than Saban leads the Tide into a game for the first time since 2006.

Can Auburn’s defensive line disrupt Alabama?

Alabama’s offense leads the SEC in scoring at more than 49 points per game. The offense is led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris (who is likely to leave Alabama as their all-time rushing leader) and wide receiver Devonta Smith, who is the Crimson Tide’s career leader in touchdown receptions.

So, it is sufficient to say that this group is extremely talented and providing historic production. The guys who often get overlooked in this run of domination is the Alabama offensive linemen, who have done a really good job of protecting Jones and opening lanes for Harris and company to work in the running game.

In order for Auburn to have a chance at slowing down the Crimson Tide offense, the Tigers’ defensive front is going to have to play by far its best game of the season. Auburn must be able to generate pressure and make Jones uncomfortable in passing situations in hopes of disrupting Bama’s offense.

This has not been one of Auburn’s strengths on defense this year, so defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will likely have to go deep into his bag of tricks to try and pull out some things that confound Jones and the offensive line if the Tigers are going to hold the Crimson Tide to under 35 points for the first time in over 20 games.

Auburn’s rushing attack

In order for Auburn to be in position to win against Alabama, the Tigers must be able to run the ball with consistency. A strong Auburn ground game would open up the Tigers’ passing attack and help control the game clock, limiting Alabama’s offensive possessions.

The potential trouble with this (in addition to the fact that Alabama is always good) is that we do not know the status of at least three key players in Auburn’s running game. Standout tailback Tank Bigsby and two starting offensive linemen, Alec Jackson and Brodarious Hamm, exited the game against Tennessee with injuries and did not return in the Tigers’ last game.

It is very unlikely that these athletes will be at full strength, if available at all, against Alabama. So, it is critical that the next players on the depth chart are ready to go and that offensive coaches develop a plan that will minimize personnel losses if Auburn is going to compete in this year’s Iron Bowl.

Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: zack@new-yhn.local or on Twitter @z_m_shaw