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Alabama Crimson Tide: 5 Keys to Victory In Iron Bowl

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Alabama's 5 Keys to Beating Auburn

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s on! No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0) at No. 4 Auburn (10-1, 6-1) will be an Iron Bowl for the ages. It's the defacto SEC West championship game with a trip to Atlanta on the line. For Alabama, its hopes of completing an unprecedented BCS national championship three-peat hang in the balance. Just one more opponent awaits. As fate would have it, the Tigers represent the biggest hurdle of the season.

There probably isn’t a more well-rounded team in college football than the Crimson Tide. You really have to look closely and nit-pick a little to find any weaknesses worth mentioning. But to win a game as big as this, a team must do more than overcome its shortcomings. To keep its dreams alive, Alabama must also find a way to limit what Auburn does best.

Here’s how the two match up across the board, including where each team ranks among SEC teams in each category:

Scoring offense: Alabama (39.7, T-2nd), Auburn (39.0, 4th)

Total offense: Auburn (499.9, 2nd), Alabama (444.7, 8th)

Rushing offense: Auburn (320.3, 1st), Alabama (211.5, 3rd)

Passing offense: Alabama (233.3, 8th), Auburn (179.6, 11th)

First downs: Alabama (5th), Auburn (6th)

Red zone offense: Auburn (1st), Alabama (T-5th)

Scoring defense: Alabama (9.3, 1st), Auburn (22.0, 5th)

Total defense: Alabama (263.9, 1st), Auburn 406.9, 10th)

Rushing defense: Alabama (91.3, 1st), Auburn (152.1, 8th)

Passing defense: Alabama (172.6, 2nd), Auburn (254.8, 13th)

Opponent first downs: Alabama (1st), Auburn (9th)

Red zone defense: Alabama (1st), Auburn (2nd)

As you can see, there really isn’t a whole lot of separation between the Tide and Tigers statistically speaking. So what could tip the scale in favor of Alabama? Here are five keys to victory for the Crimson Tide.

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5. Keep it High and Tight

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama has a problem holding on to the football away from home. This could be the game that the Tide’s epidemic of road game fumbles finally does them in. A late T.J. Yeldon fumble at Texas A&M cost Bama an opportunity to bury the Aggies late, and Johnny Manziel and company were nearly able to tie the game. Early fumbles at Kentucky stalled several Alabama drives. Fumbles by Yeldon and Kenyan Drake at Mississippi State kept an over-matched Bulldogs team in the game two weeks ago. Those are only the fumbles that Alabama lost. Auburn has only recovered five fumbles all season, which is tied for fewest in the SEC. That means the Tigers haven’t benefited much from their opponents’ lack of ball security en route to a 10-1 record. Auburn is better than all of Alabama’s previous road opponents, and if the Tide fumble away scoring opportunities this week, they may not be able to overcome the errors.

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4. Avoid Special Teams Breakdowns

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been said about Alabama’s return specialist Christion Jones, but Auburn has some legitimate threats as well. Tre Mason and Quan Bray both rank among the top seven in the SEC in kickoff return average, and Mason already has a 100-yard return for a TD. Corey Grant, who transferred to Auburn from Alabama, has also scored on a kickoff return this year. The Crimson Tide, on the other hand, is not among the league’s best in kickoff coverage. The Tigers are equally as dangerous on punt returns, with senior Chris Davis leading the SEC with a 22.5 yard average, including an 85-yard TD against Tennessee. But he’s not the only threat, as Bray has the sixth-best return yard average in the SEC. As the favorite to win, the last thing Alabama wants to do is give up cheap points on a coverage breakdown. The Tide need to force Auburn to score on its stout defense.

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3. Create Doubt, Inspire Fear

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

We are all creatures of habit. Sometimes, our memory serves us a little too well, especially when the most recent ones are 49-0 and 42-14. If Alabama can jump on Auburn early, the Tigers might not be able to recover. Blazing out to a quick two-score lead could silence the crowd and send everyone wearing orange and blue into a panicked state with 'here we go again' syndrome. The Tide has crushed Auburn’s spirits early in each of the last two seasons, so why not a third straight? Alabama hasn’t been in many close games, but Auburn has endured plenty. The Tigers are darn good at winning those games, so it would behoove the Crimson Tide to create a cushion on the scoreboard early.

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2. Attack the Middle

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest takeaway from the Auburn-Georgia game, at least as far as Alabama is concerned, is that the Tigers are weak at linebacker. Of Auburn’s top seven tacklers, only one is a true linebacker. Excluding the Tigers’ hybrid safety, Robinson Therezie, the other three Auburn linebackers have only combined for 68 stops this season. In comparison, Alabama’s C.J. Mosley has 88 by himself. Auburn’s LBs have had trouble against straightforward, power running games that feature big backs like T.J. Yeldon. LSU’s Jeremy Hill and Tennessee’s Rajion Neal both had huge games against the Tigers. Georgia also exposed a huge middle gap in Auburn’s pass coverage in the fourth quarter two weeks ago. The Crimson Tide would be wise to line up and go straight at this Tigers’ defense on Saturday.

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1. Corral Nick Marshall

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Athletic QBs have posed problems for Alabama’s defense in recent years. Though Marshall is no Johnny Football, he is quick, elusive and underrated as a passer. The Tigers’ dynamic QB is also a huge part of the SEC’s top rushing attack, so limiting his effectiveness should be one of the Crimson Tide’s top priorities. Marshall ranks eighth in the league in total offense with 2,353 total yards and 18 total TDs. If he has a big day, Alabama will likely walk away a loser on Saturday.

Related: Auburn Tigers’ 5 Keys to Victory