2016 Iron Bowl Shaping Up to Be the Real SEC Title Game

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In 2013, Auburn hosted Alabama in the Iron Bowl to end all Iron Bowls. 

For the first time since the divisional split in 1992, the nation’s best college football rivalry served as the de facto SEC West championship game that season. You know how that went—Chris Davis ran 109 yards for a touchdown off a missed field goal as time expired to etch that game in college football history as the “Kick-Six.” Auburn went on to win the SEC championship and came within 13 seconds of the national title.

After Auburn survived a scare from Vanderbilt and Alabama shut out LSU in Week 10, we are headed full steam ahead toward a meeting between the two intrastate rivals with the same stakes.

Just like in 2013, the 2016 Iron Bowl will be the real SEC title game.

Despite Auburn having a September loss to Texas A&M on its resume, the Tigers and Tide are the two best teams in the SEC right now—by far. Should they hold serve this weekend against Georgia and Mississippi State, respectively, another Iron Bowl for the ages would be set two weeks later in Tuscaloosa.

Auburn and Alabama—Remaining 2016 Schedules
Date Auburn Alabama
Nov. 12 at Georgia (5-4, 3-4 SEC) vs. Mississippi State (4-5, 2-3 SEC)
Nov. 19 vs. Alabama A&M (3-6, 3-5 SWAC) vs. Chattanooga (8-1, 6-1 SoCon)
Nov. 26 at Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC) vs. Auburn (7-2, 5-1 SEC)


The Tigers are currently eight-point favorites at Georgia on Saturday afternoon, according to Odds Shark, while Alabama is giving 28.5 points to Mississippi State.

If you haven’t bought into Auburn yet, what are you waiting for?

In Saturday’s 23-16 win over Vanderbilt, Tigers quarterback Sean White proved his importance when he came in after halftime—gimpy shoulder and all—and completed 10 of his 13 passes for 106 yards and one touchdown.

“He was banged up,” head coach Gus Malzahn said in quotes emailed by Auburn. “He was hurt and couldn’t practice, didn’t take one practice snap, so we just built our game plan around John [Franklin] and the first nine and everything that goes with that. Sean threw some in warm-ups and moved around. It was one of those deals where he thought he could go.

“At halftime, we just made the move. He was ready to go and obviously gave our offense a spark. It looked like our offense. I’m real proud of him. He showed a lot of toughness.”

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Auburn QB Sean White

If you’re looking for your leader, there he is.

Auburn has another injury issue to deal with, as running back Kamryn Pettway pulled “something” in his leg late in the win over Vanderbilt, Malzahn said afterward. Pettway has been awesome this year, rushing for 1,106 yards and seven touchdowns in just seven games.

But prior to Pettway emerging as a monster, sophomore Kerryon Johnson ran like a man possessed, racking up 93 yards against LSU and 146 against Louisiana-Monroe before getting hurt versus Mississippi State. Johnson isn’t the bruiser that Pettway is, but the 6’0″, 211-pounder is more of a home run threat outside and is capable of taking some punishment between the tackles.

“He’s still not 100 percent,” Malzahn said. “He’s probably somewhere around 80 percent, but KJ is a tough guy. He’s a savvy guy, too, between the tackles. The run he made for a touchdown was phenomenal. We’ve got to get him healthy.”

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Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson

The defense? Yeah, that’s just fine.

At 356.3 yards per game allowed, first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has improved Auburn’s unit by nearly 50 yards per game from last year’s squad under former coordinator Will Muschamp.

But how does Auburn match up with Alabama?

What we saw the Crimson Tide do against LSU—combined with their work all season—should terrify Auburn fans.

The Alabama defense is much more versatile side-to-side this year than it was in 2013, when ultra-talented defenders like end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster were true freshmen just getting their feet wet in college football.

White isn’t as quick as former Tiger quarterback Nick Marshall, but Auburn has weaved former wide receiver Stanton Truitt into the mix at running back as an edge threat, used true freshman wide receiver Eli Stove as the quick-hitter on jet sweeps and can exploit Johnson and Pettway in a variety of ways.

It doesn’t look the same as Malzahn’s offense when Marshall was at the helm, but the combination of power and quickness achieves the same effect.

Auburn’s receiving weapons can be matchup nightmares for Alabama’s smaller defensive backs if that effective rushing attack buys White enough time in the pocket. 

Darius Slayton is a 6’2″ burner who caught White’s touchdown pass against the Commodores, while Kyle Davis is a 6’2″, 219-pound clone of former Tiger Sammie Coates who can roast opponents deep and position his body to make circus catches. At 6’4″, 212 pounds, leading receiver Tony Stevens is a brutal cover downfield as well.

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Alabama CB Minkah Fitzpatrick

Compare those players to Alabama’s defensive backfield that has tall safeties but no cornerback on its most recent depth chart over 6’1″. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey are excellent, but they might need help at times over the top.

That’s how Auburn’s passing attack works. Motion, tempo and multiple run options off every play create eye conflicts with safeties and favorable matchups in the passing game that the Tigers exploit thanks to White emerging as the most accurate (69.1 percent) and efficient (159.84) passer in the conference.

The bigger question in the upcoming Iron Bowl is whether offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts can succeed against Auburn’s defense.

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Alabama QB Jalen Hurts

LSU bottled up Alabama—which didn’t feel the need to get creative—until Hurts burned the Tigers on a designed rollout and took off for the game’s lone touchdown. But what the Tide have done with their offense—mixing run-pass options with tempo and attacking defenses’ weak spots—has transformed them into an offensive juggernaut.

The Tigers specifically keyed on Hurts for most of the game and made it a point not to let him beat them. Hurts made one play when his team needed it most, while LSU was clearly gassed.

After the game, Saban commented on Hurts’ abilities, according to LSU:

There are things that we need to do better at every position and there are things we need to do better at the quarterback position. He made some errors early in the game that were costly, and he made some plays at the end that his athleticism allowed him to make. I think as we grow with him, we’re going to have to live with both and I like the second part more than the first.

Auburn’s defense is similar in that it has a monster off the edge in Carl Lawson, a terror in the middle in Montravius Adams and the depth and versatility to mix and match players based on the specific game situation.

Get ready for one of the biggest Iron Bowls in the rivalry’s history.

Who will win the Iron Bowl?

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    Who will win the Iron Bowl?

  • Auburn by 10+


  • Alabama by 10+


  • Auburn close


  • Alabama close


Alabama looks better and more versatile than it has since Saban took over prior to the 2007 season, and Auburn has evolved into the clear-cut No. 2 team in the conference. 

The two powers of the Yellowhammer State should take care of business over the next two weeks and meet in Bryant-Denny Stadium at the end of the month with everything on the line. The winner will cruise over whoever wins the SEC East in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta the following week and be prepared to make noise in the College Football Playoff.  


All statistics via CFBStats unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information is courtesy of Scout. Odds provided by Odds Shark.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @BarrettSallee.