Take Two: Tide or Tigers in better shape?

May, 7, 2014
May 7
9:00
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The Iron Bowl rivalry never ends. Just listen to "The Paul Finebaum Show." Alabama and Auburn are never not at each other’s throats. They’re never not being compared to each other.

Here at the SEC Blog, we embrace the debate. Alabama and Auburn are forever intertwined for good reason. Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn go head to head on and off the football field 365 days a year, whether it’s during the season or on the recruiting trail.

Along that same vein, it’s time for a Take Two: Iron Bowl Edition. With spring football well in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to see who enters the offseason in better shape, Alabama or Auburn?

Alex Scarborough: I won’t even make this about Alabama at first. We’ll get to that later. What I’d like to hit on is how little we actually know about Auburn. I’ll concede that Malzahn is a good coach and maybe the best offensive playcaller in the country. But the program, top to bottom, is a mystery to me. The last time Auburn went to the BCS, the following two seasons didn’t end so well. I’m not going to call last season a fluke, but good luck capturing lightning in a bottle twice.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn and Nick Marshall have a tough challenge ahead in 2014 -- and they can't sneak up on anybody this time around.
Nick Marshall is undoubtedly one of the premier playmakers in the SEC, but can he take the next step? He can make a man miss in the open field, but can he make all the reads from the pocket? Defenses will go all in to stop the run next season. He’ll be forced to look for his second, third and fourth options. Is he ready? And how will his protection hold up without Greg Robinson at left tackle and Tre Mason shouldering the load at tailback?

All that goes without mentioning the defense, which was downright mediocre for most of last season. The secondary was porous and the linebackers weren't athletic enough to run Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme (ninth in scoring, 13th against the pass in the SEC). Carl Lawson looks like a budding star, but can he make up for the loss of veterans like Dee Ford?

Auburn’s roster is in better shape than Alabama’s at first blush, but a closer examination shows cracks. Yes, Saban’s missing a starting quarterback, but Jacob Coker is on the way. And besides, since when has Saban needed a star QB to win? Alabama’s secondary has holes, but is it worse than Auburn’s? One five-star cornerback is already on campus and another is coming soon. Landon Collins might be the best DB at the Iron Bowl this year. Based on pure talent (three consecutive No. 1-ranked recruiting classes) and a history of sustained success (two losses was a bad season), I feel more confident about the Tide’s chances.

Greg Ostendorf: Do we really not know about this Auburn team? They came out of nowhere last season; I won’t argue that. But the Tigers won 12 games and came 13 seconds from a national championship. Eight starters are back from that offense, including four O-linemen and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. Remember how good Marshall was down the stretch? He was still learning the offense. This fall he’ll be more comfortable, and if he continues to improve as a passer, which SEC defense will stop him? An Alabama team that has shown time and time again that it has no answer for the spread?

I remember when Johnny Manziel shocked the Tide in 2012, and all offseason Saban & Co. were supposedly devising a game plan to stop him the following season. What happened in the rematch? Manziel threw for 464 yards, rushed for 98 and scored five touchdowns. Marshall is not Manziel, but I’m also not betting on Alabama to stop him.

The defense remains a question mark. I’ll give you that. And the injuries this spring did nothing to ease my concern. But Johnson has a proven track record, and despite losing key players such as Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae and Chris Davis, he’ll actually have a deeper, more talented group in Year 2. There might not be as many five-star recruits, but there’s still plenty of talent, with 10 former ESPN 300 prospects on the defense alone.

The Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year and Saban is one of the best at exacting revenge. But what happens if Coker isn’t the answer at quarterback? What if the true freshman expected to start at left tackle plays like a true freshman? What if Marshall develops as a passer and torches a lackluster Tide secondary? Too many questions, if you ask me.

Scarborough: I’m glad you brought up the Iron Bowl being in Tuscaloosa this year, because that leads me to an even bigger point than the talent and potential of both Alabama and Auburn. In the words of Steve Spurrier, “You are your schedule.” And have you looked at Auburn’s schedule? Auburn could be better than Alabama and still lose more games.

If going on the road to Kansas State was easy, everyone in the SEC would do it. Survive that and October sets up brutally with LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Ole Miss. Think last season’s “Prayer at Jordan Hare” and “Got a second?” finishes were a blast? Try recreating that with games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama in November.

Alabama’s schedule, on the other hand, isn’t murderer’s row. A so-so West Virginia team starts things off, followed by cupcakes Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. Auburn gets South Carolina and Georgia from the East, while Alabama lucks out with Florida and Tennessee. On top of that, Alabama's two most difficult games aside from the Iron Bowl are at home and set up nicely with Arkansas before Texas A&M and a bye before LSU.

Ostendorf: There’s a brutal four-game stretch for Auburn with South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia in consecutive weeks, but the first six games actually set up nicely for the Tigers. If they survive the trip to the Little Apple against Kansas State, there’s a strong possibility that they start the season 6-0, and we’ve seen how momentum can carry you through a season. This is also a veteran team with the confidence to win on the road.

Meanwhile, when you have a first-year starter at quarterback ... ahem, Alabama ... then every SEC road game becomes a potential pitfall. You might think the Tide lucked out with Tennessee, but don’t be surprised if a much-improved Vols team keeps it close at home. And I don’t care if LSU might be down this year. It’s never fun for a rookie signal caller to play in Death Valley.

Ultimately, it will once again come down to the Iron Bowl, and how can you bet against last year’s winner?

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter

Greg Ostendorf | email

Auburn/SEC reporter

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