AUBURN — It is believed by some that every Auburn football result should be viewed through the lens of whether the team can beat Alabama and Georgia, the two college football titans that form a geographic rival sandwich around Auburn.
This year, everything No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1 SEC) does is viewed through the Georgia lens. Alabama is looking up at the Bulldogs for once. For Crimson Tide fans, the 2021 Iron Bowl (2:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS) is merely the final survival test before the most anticipated matchup of the college football season.
For Auburn (6-5, 3-4), it's an opportunity to save itself from a three-game spiral. Is there any chance for the Tigers to tarnish the Tide's playoff hopes? Here are three keys and a prediction.
Tide's defensive vulnerabilities aren't the ones Auburn needs
Scrutiny regarding Auburn's run-pass balance has been perhaps the ongoing story of the year. The Tigers' pass play percentage is the second-highest in the SEC (53.74%), but they rank 12th in the league in completion percentage (58.92%). And most of those completions were Bo Nix, who is out for the season. Backup T.J. Finley will make his second start Saturday.
Alabama is not as dominant as past Nick Saban teams, but one of the weaknesses is ... pass defense. Alabama allows 11.18 yards per reception on a 64% completion rate. It's been an inconsistent year; Texas A&M's struggling Zach Calzada had a career game against the Tide (21-for-31, three touchdowns). The next week, Will Rogers of the Air Raid was held to 35-of-55 with three interceptions. Most recently, Arkansas threw for 358 yards and four touchdowns.
Alabama's run defense is elite: fourth in the country with 2.63 yards allowed per carry and fifth with 85.9 allowed per game.
So what does Auburn do: play more to its own strengths or to Alabama's weaknesses? The latter would mean relying heavily on a backup quarterback. The former would require patience in establishing Tank Bigsby, who is 60 yards away from 1,000 this year. He is Auburn's best source of offense, but Mike Bobo tends to avoid running him into the ground.
Steal points situationally and with style
The red zone must become the orange zone if Auburn hopes to pull off the upset. Alabama's defense allows touchdowns on 61.5% of opponents' red-zone trips, ranking ninth in the SEC. But Auburn has struggled to finish drives, also ranking ninth in the league with its 63.2% red-zone offense.
On the other side, the Tide's 74% touchdown rate in the red zone leads the SEC. And Alabama is best in the country on third down, converting 56.5%.
"You want to be clutch," Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said Monday. Auburn has blown big leads twice in a row. Can't shock the nation if you can't make clutch plays in those situations.
Auburn can stay in the game by winning the big moments and taking advantage of the little things. A big thing: Harsin came to Auburn with a reputation for trick-play prowess, but the Tigers haven't successfully executed one all season. If they try to get stylish Saturday, it needs to work. A little thing: field position. Auburn leads the SEC with 43.7 yards per punt, while Alabama is 13th at 36.3 yards.
Alabama's most dangerous players
Thoughts and prayers to Auburn's offensive line, which will try its best to block Alabama edge Will Anderson Jr. He's the nation's leader with 13 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss. Henry To'o To'o leads the team with 84 tackles.
Quarterback Bryce Young has dominated the last five games since Alabama's loss to Texas A&M, completing 74.3% of passes with 18 touchdowns and no interceptions. He's helped by the receiver duo of Jameson Williams and John Metchie III, who account for 56% of Alabama's receiving yards and 51% of receiving touchdowns. Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary needs help.
Running back Brian Robinson Jr. sits at 945 yards on 4.9 per carry, with 14 touchdowns. But Alabama isn't run-heavy, and Auburn has the SEC's No. 5 rushing defense.
Alabama 44, Auburn 16: The Tigers are tired. It's hard to imagine them hanging. But weirder things have happened in the Iron Bowl.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn football vs. Alabama in Iron Bowl: Scouting report, prediction