AUBURN — Auburn’s defense has witnessed firsthand exactly what Alabama’s offense is capable of.
A little more than one year ago, Kevin Steele’s group was on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa when the Crimson Tide turned what was a 17-14 game at halftime into a 52-21 demolition in the 2018 Iron Bowl, thanks touchdown passes of 46, 33, 40, 22 and 53 yards.
A little more than two weeks ago, during their bye week, players had the chance to watch the shootout that took place between No. 1 LSU and then-No. 2 Alabama on TV. The Crimson Tide lost that game by five points, but it wasn’t because of the offense, which racked up 541 yards and five touchdowns.
Both of those offenses, though, were led by all-everything quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a prolific passer who was completing 71.4% of his passes for 315.6 yards per game and had thrown 33 touchdowns to just three interceptions before suffering a season-ending hip injury on Nov. 16.
The Alabama offense that takes the field for the 2019 Iron Bowl on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium will be led by Tagovailoa’s backup, Mac Jones, who has attempted only 77 passes this season.
But that doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide isn't plenty dangerous. DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Montgomery’s Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle will make sure of that — together, they make up maybe the most electrifying set of wide receivers in all of college football.
“Man, it’s a challenge,” Auburn defensive back Christian Tutt said. “We’re always up for the challenge to go out there and compete, get better, execute. They’re going to make plays; we’re going to make plays. It’s all a game. It’s a chess game. We just got to go out there and make more plays than they do.”
Smith has caught 60 passes for 1,120 yards and 13 touchdowns; Jeudy 66 for 933 yards and nine scores; Ruggs 32 for 620 yards and six scores; and Waddle 28 for 455 yards and three scores. And they’re incredible playmakers no matter which quarterback is throwing the ball.
Jones’ two starts this season, in lopsided wins over Arkansas and Western Carolina, offer proof of that. The sophomore completed 28 of 34 passes in those games — high efficiency, but low volume — and he still managed to total 510 yards through the air in those two games, or 15 yards per attempt.
The high completion percentage and high yardage total despite the relatively low number of attempts has a lot to do with those wide receivers. Of those 34 throws, only seven traveled more than 20 yards in the air. Jones completed four of those for 137 yards (19.6 per attempt) and two touchdowns, according to SEC StatCat.
Fourteen of the other 27 throws did not go past the line of scrimmage. Jones completed every single one of those for 216 yards (15.4 per attempt) and four touchdowns. That’s all catch-and-run — Smith and Waddle scored receiving touchdowns of 57 and 54 yards, respectively, on Saturday, both of which came on wide receiver screens. Smith and Ruggs lead the SEC averaging more than 11 yards after catch.
Given how talented Auburn’s defense is up front — end Marlon Davidson just won his fourth SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honor, tackle Derrick Brown is a finalist for what feels like every major award, and buck Big Kat Bryant is one of the nation’s leaders in quarterback hits — there seems a good chance Alabama will try to play that way again Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium; get the ball out of Jones’ hands and into the hands of his playmakers (including running back Najee Harris) as quickly as possible.
Of course, the back end of Auburn’s defense will challenge Alabama much more than either Arkansas or Western Carolina did, even if that group will be without Jamien Sherwood during the first half after he was ejected for targeting in the second half of Saturday’s 52-0 win over Samford. The Catamounts are an FCS team, and not a good one. The moribund Razorbacks rank 102nd nationally giving up 8.1 yards per passing attempt and second-to-last in the conference allowing 4.7 yards after catch.
The Tigers rank third nationally allowing 5.6 yards per attempt and third in the SEC giving up just 2.7 yards after catch, which is a testament to their open-field tackling. Safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas lead the team in that area with 69 and 60 tackles, respectively. Noah Igbinoghene has been a shutdown No. 1 cornerback. Roger McCreary ranks third in the SEC with 10 pass breakups, and Javaris Davis has played exceptional coverage of late.
Collectively, Auburn’s defensive backs have 32 pass breakups, six interceptions, three forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries through 11 games this season.
"They are real long and they are real physical at the line, so (it's about) just working releases and being more physical at the line with them,” Waddle told reporters in Tuscaloosa on Monday.
But while that secondary has been remarkably consistent this season — only three opponents have topped 250 yards passing — it has been susceptible in one particular area; long passing plays. Auburn has given up eight of 40 or more yards this season, which ranks 63rd nationally.
Two weeks ago, Thomas bit on a play-action fake, and Georgia’s Dominick Blaylock ran right past both him and Tutt to catch a 51-yard touchdown from Jake Fromm. That was the quarterback’s only completion of more than 15 yards, but it proved significant in a 21-14 loss.
Those are the types of plays that Auburn will have to avoid Saturday against an Alabama team that is so adept at making them.
But there is confidence that it can. LSU has a similar stable of standout wide receivers (Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson are both over 1,000 yards for the season), and while that duo combined to catch 15 passes for 183 yards in an Oct. 26 win over Auburn, and Burrow completed 32 of 42 attempts for 321 yards and a touchdown, the second-best scoring offense in the country mustered only 23 points that day in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Repeat that effort in the Iron Bowl, and the defense will give an Auburn offense that has struggled to score points against top defenses this season a chance to compete.
“I’m looking forward to it. I really am,” McCreary said. “They’re good. We’re good. We’ll just see how it’s going to roll.”