Auburn football can add luster to season against Alabama

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AUBURN, ALA. — Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says Alabama's likely the most talented team in the country, has the nation's best defensive front seven and one of the top running backs.

Without question, all that adds up to an enormous challenge for the Tigers going into Saturday's Iron Bowl against the second-ranked Crimson Tide. The upside? A chance to ease a bitterly disappointing season with a big upset against Auburn's chief rival and improve middling bowl prospects.

"It's football and you're not going to win them all," Tigers offensive tackle Avery Young said Tuesday. "It's just understanding that anything can happen in any game. We understand how the season went and how certain games went. We play our hardest and do what we've got to do and it will play itself out."

The Tigers (6-5, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) became bowl eligible with a 56-34 win over Idaho, a game in which they were outgained 479-460 in total yards. They're two-touchdown underdogs against the Tide (10-1, 6-1), which can claim the SEC West title outright with a win.

Malzahn said he hasn't decided whether to start at quarterback Jeremy Johnson or Sean White, who's been nursing a left knee injury in recent weeks. That's far from the only challenge confronting Auburn.

Running backs Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson face the nation's No. 2 run defense. The passing game hasn't shown signs of being explosive enough to take the pressure off the ground game, with a receiving group that Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones dismissed as "nothing special."

They'll face a deep front group where Malzahn doesn't think there's a huge drop off from starters to backups.

"They put their 2s in and they're like most people's 1s, or maybe even better," he said.

It doesn't help that left tackle Shon Coleman and center Austin Golson sat out the Idaho game with injuries. Malzahn didn't rule out either of them playing.

On the other side, an Auburn defense that ranks 11th in the league against the run faces Derrick Henry, a Heisman Trophy candidate who has rushed for 21 touchdowns. Only Arkansas has given up more than the 23 rushing TDs Auburn has allowed.

Auburn's defensive low point came against another big, physical Heisman hopeful. The Tigers were gashed for 228 yards and three touchdowns by LSU star Leonard Fournette with infamous images of defenders shying from or bouncing off him making the rounds of social media.

"He gets to the second level and he's a finisher," Malzahn said of Henry. "He's not going down real easy when he gets to the second level. He's one of the best in the country, there's no doubt."

Linebacker Kris Frost thinks the defense is better now than it was when the Tigers played LSU. He doesn't think Auburn's underdog status or the high-stakes pressure on Alabama will matter much once the game starts.

"When you're between those white lines, that's what's real," Frost said. "That's all I really think about when I think about this game. I just think about two teams going up against each other, and they're a great team and we're going to have to play a really good game to beat them."


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