SEC INSIDER

Iron Bowl stakes enhance Bama-Auburn clash

Sports Xchange

November 21, 2017 at 2:25 pm.

Nov 11, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers running bak Kerryon Johnson (21) runs behind the block of lineman Marquel Harrell (77) and scores a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs during the fourth quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 11, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers running bak Kerryon Johnson (21) runs behind the block of lineman Marquel Harrell (77) and scores a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs during the fourth quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2013, the Iron Bowl features a winner-take-all matchup for the SEC West Division.

No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) plays at No. 6 Auburn (9-2, 6-1) on Saturday. The winner earns the right to play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2 in Atlanta.

The winner of the Iron Bowl has played in the national championship game in seven of the past eight years. Alabama-Auburn was already one of the top rivalries in college football, but the recent history — and these kind of national championship stakes — has pushed it into another stratosphere.

“The Iron Bowl is a tremendous rivalry game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

“There’s a lot of passion on both sides. Lots of people are interested in it. It’s got lots of ramifications for this year. As a competitor, this is always a game that you look forward to having an opportunity to play in.”

Alabama holds a 45-35-1 advantage in the series and has won seven of the past nine matchups.

“You’ve got the Iron Bowl, it’s big,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.

“You add the Iron Bowl with the possibility of an SEC West championship, it feels like 2013. It feels exactly the same way. It’s a big game and it means more.”

In 2013, Auburn used the infamous Kick Six game to defeat Alabama, thwarting the Crimson Tide’s chance at three straight national championships.

That season, the Tigers defeated Missouri in the SEC Championship Game, and then came a few seconds away from claiming the national championship in a tough loss to Florida State.

Playing the top team in the country is nothing new for Auburn. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Tigers welcomed then-No. 1 Georgia into Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers blitzed the Bulldogs 40-17 in a game that wasn’t that close.

“We do have experience, playing the No. 1 team two weeks ago when we played our best game, and we’re going to have to do that again,” Malzahn said. “Our crowd was unbelievable the last time that we did this, and I expect it to be the same.”

Auburn comes in with an explosive offense.

Running back Kerryon Johnson leads the SEC with 1,172 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns. Auburn, which ranks No. 4 in the SEC in rushing yards per game, almost always features a strong running game under Malzahn, who despite some of his spread principles, believes teams must be physical in the run game.

This season, transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham has given the Tigers a downfield passing game they haven’t enjoyed in a few years.

Stidham, a sophomore, has thrown for 2,445 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, and he leads the SEC in completion percentage (67.8).

“I think he’s an outstanding player,” Saban said.

“I thought he was an outstanding player at the beginning of the season. Obviously being new in the system, he has, I think, improved and is very confident, very good decision-maker. … He’s playing as well as any quarterback we’ve played against. That’s for sure.”

Auburn has been well over 200 yards rushing in seven of its last eight games, with the exception being a 189-yard effort in the loss to LSU. The Tigers have been over 300 yards four times, including last week with 317 against Louisiana-Monroe. Alabama has the No. 2 rush defense in the country, limiting foes to 87.4 yards per game.

The Tide, of course, loves to run, too. Alabama leads the SEC in rushing yards (270.3 per game), yards per carry (6.03) and rushing touchdowns (35).

Which team can run, stop the run and control the line of scrimmage?

“The bigger the game, the more important that is,” Malzahn said. “And obviously this is as big as it gets.”

Injuries could play a role.

Alabama All-American safety Minkah Fitzpatrick sat out last week’s game against Mercer because of a lingering hamstring issue. He was expected to practice through the week, Saban said Monday. Starting guard Ross Pierschbacher (ankle) hadn’t been cleared as of Monday but was considered day-to-day.

And Saban didn’t totally rule out linebackers Terrell Lewis (elbow), Christian Miller (biceps) and Mack Wilson (foot).

For Auburn, linebacker Tre’ Williams suffered a shoulder injury last week and nickel-back Jeremiah Dinson was going through concussion protocol early in the week. Williams has dealt with shoulder issues since the second game of the season but still has 40 tackles in eight games, sixth-most on the team. Dinson has 42 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.