TUSCALOOSA — Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has always found ways to confuse opposing defenses.

It’s also why the originator of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense does, in fact, deploy huddles — or more accurately, sugar huddles.

A staple of Malzahn’s uptempo attack since before arriving at Auburn, the sugar huddle is effectively another way the 15th-ranked Tigers can quickly deploy a seemingly trick play without revealing the set until seconds before the snap, thus leaving opposing defenses little to no time to adjust.

It’s something No. 5 Alabama is immensely aware of entering this year’s Iron Bowl.

“Auburn’s a little different, they try to do a lot of eye-candy stuff and get your eyes going everywhere and not doing your job,” linebacker Anfernee Jennings. “So you have to be disciplined and know what you’re doing and execute the game plan.”

Given the surprise nature of the sugar huddle, it’s used sparingly and often involves a wide spectrum of plays that all begin with a spread-out cluster where the offensive line is aligned with its back to the defense about 2 yards from the line of scrimmage.

“It’s kind of hard to judge what they might come out in because they’ve got a whole bunch of different formations,” safety Xavier McKinney said. “So when they do come out, we’ve got to be prepared to make the call and make it quick.”

Ultimately, the sugar huddle is about subterfuge and keeping defenders guessing even after the snap of the ball.

Auburn often likes to disguise what it’s doing and will occasionally show its Wildcat formation coming out of the sugar huddle, with its quarterback splitting out wide.

“Most of the time when they do that they have a particular different look that they want to give you that requires some form of adjustment,” coach Nick Saban said Monday. “I think the players all have to stand in (a similar) sugar huddle on defense and definitely see how the players come out of the huddle.”

The Tigers did this exact formation in the 2017 Iron Bowl when running back Kerryon Johnson came in from the sidelines early in the fourth quarter and quarterback Jarrett Stidham left the huddle with the receivers and ran to the right hash while Ryan Davis flanked out left.

Seconds later, Auburn broke the sugar huddle with three receivers, an unbalanced six-man offensive line, an offset fullback and Johnson in the shotgun.

Just before the snap, Davis went in motion on a reverse and took the handoff from Johnson as Stidham faded back away from the play. Without breaking stride, Davis flipped the ball to Stidham about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and immediately cut upfield down the right sideline.

As Stidham flipped his hips to get into a throwing stance, Alabama defenders scrambled to get back in coverage, but by that point it’s was too late as Stidham hit a wide-open Davis for a 25-yard gain to the 20-yard-line.

Two plays later, Stidham took advantage of a flustered Crimson Tide defense for a 16-yard touchdown run to put a sixth-ranked Auburn ahead for good, 26-14, with 12:49 left in the game.

That was Alabama’s last visit to Jordan Hare Stadium, a fresh reminder of how much Alabama’s pre-snap discipline could ultimately be the difference in Saturday’s return trip to The Plains.

Alabama’s communication on defense has been an issue at times this season as true freshmen middle linebackers Christian Harris and Shane Lee have had to learn on the fly after early-season injuries forced both into action before either were necessarily ready.

And while both Harris and Lee have shown progress throughout the regular season, their ability to properly adjust to Auburn’s affinity for the sugar huddle will be a true litmus test of how much the entire Crimson Tide defense has developed over the last 14 weeks.

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