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What’s at stake in Saturday’s Iron Bowl depends on which team you’re pulling for.
For No. 5 Alabama (10-1), a 3 1/2-point favorite over No. 15 Auburn (8-3), it’s about staying alive in the College Football Playoff.
A win over its biggest rival doesn’t guarantee the Crimson Tide is going to make the four-team playoff, which will be announced Sunday week. A loss, that’s a killer.
A loss and for the first time since the format began in 2014, Alabama will not be part of the field. Its run of five playoff trips ends and, for many who opine about this sort of stuff, talk about it on radio and television, you get the feeling it’s good riddance. That it’s time for someone else, anyone other than Alabama, to get invited to the party.
Beating Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Alabama is 0-6 in ranked matchups since the series moved there in 1989, would have been almost a gimme if Tua Tagovailoa was running the offense with all the elite weapons around him.
No matter how dominating the Tigers’ defense is with Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.
With Tagovailoa out for the season and backup Mac Jones across the line from Brown and Davidson and that front seven, there is a good chance Gus Malzahn sees his Tigers finish 9-3 and that doesn’t happen often.
This is what Auburn has to play for on Senior Day, a chance to win nine games in the regular season for the third time in the seven years Malzahn has been head coach.
When you think of it that way, it doesn’t sound like Auburn is getting its $49 million worth.
There is that other thing, too, knocking Alabama out of the playoff conversation.
Beating Nick Saban and playing for a 10-win season in a bowl game would be one of the few times Malzahn spends the holidays without those hot seat whispers.
This week’s picks:
Alabama vs. Auburn
We know the matchup everyone is going to watch: Jones vs. Kevin Steele’s defense, which has not allowed an opponent to score more than 24 points this year.
Unless offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has concocted a game plan for Jones to get rid of the ball quickly, quicker than he did against Western Carolina, with accuracy a bonus, Davidson and Brown will overpower their blockers and force Jones into an embarrassing day.
Jones holds the key to turning loose his group of playmakers that can outmaneuver just about anyone on any defense. If they can get the ball in their hands.
Jones has not faced anything like this in first start on the road against a smothering defense like Auburn’s. Whether you agree or disagree, Auburn may not have a single player on offense that could start for Alabama unless it’s Jones’ counterpart, Bo Nix.
On the other side, Auburn has a huge edge. Alabama’s defense, which will be as healthy as it has been in weeks, must contend with Nix, who is a bigger threat with his legs than his arm. His passing completion percentage against ranked defenses has been awful. But he’s going to have to put the ball in the air if the running game struggles. Against Georgia, that wasn’t a bad idea. He hit 30 of 50 passes for 245 yards.
If Jones can’t find a comfort zone, the Tide is going to lose. If Nix can’t amp up his passing, the Tigers lose.
Alabama 27, Auburn 17
UAB vs. North Texas
Led by dynamic quarterback Mason Fine, North Texas (4-7) entered the season with Conference USA West title hopes. The Mean Green had won nine games in each of its previous two seasons. A loss to Rice last week took care of another bowl season and only a win over three-point favored UAB (8-3) can even begin to salvage the year.
The Blazers, picked to finish fourth in the West after winning the league title last season, have gotten enough division chaos to be in the running for another conference championship. They still need a win at North Texas and they need Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic Owls to defeat Southern Miss. UAB, Louisiana Tech and USM are tied at the top of the division, each with 5-2 records. The Blazers beat La. Tech last week and lost Nov. 9 at USM. FAU is favored by 8 1/2 points to beat USM.
If FAU wins and UAB and La. Tech tie, the tie-breaker isn’t as simple as head-to-head. Something called “highest average computer ranking” then kicks in, and La. Tech and USM each have higher computer ratings than UAB.
UAB leans on a methodical attack that doesn’t score many points but its defense is as good as there is in the league. Even though quarterback Tyler Johnston could be back this week, freshman Dylan Hopkins is a rising star whose dual-threat skill set will be needed.
UAB 23, North Texas 17
Arkansas State vs. South Alabama
Friday’s 4 p.m. game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium is going to end up much like South’s other games. As an 11-point favorite and winners of four straight, Arkansas State (7-4) has too much firepower for the 1-10 Jaguars.
The ASU offense is the problem for South. Quarterback Layne Hatcher has passed for 2,200 yards and 21 touchdowns. Wideout Omar Bayless is explosive with 1,375 yards receiving and 15 TDs.
The Red Wolves‘ defense that allows 35 points a game at least gives the Jags’ improving offense a chance to win a shootout and end the year with their first win over a FBS foe.
Arkansas State 35, South Alabama 31
Missouri 38, Arkansas 23 (Friday)
Clemson 45, South Carolina 20
Georgia 28, Georgia Tech 14
Tennessee 30, Vanderbilt 17
LSU 45, Texas A&M 24
Florida 38, Florida State 17
8-point underdog No, 13 Michigan 31, No. 1 Ohio State 24
5-point underdog Kansas State 28, No, 22 Iowa State 27
3-point underdog Louisville 27, Kentucky 21
Memphis 37, Cincinnati 31 (Friday)
Texas 37, Texas Tech 30 (Friday)
Virginia Tech 30, Virginia 27 (Friday)
Appalachian State 38, Troy 28 (Friday)
Minnesota 27, Wisconsin 24
Utah 30, Colorado 20
Oklahoma 40, Oklahoma State 35
Florida Atlantic 33, Southern Miss 28
Last week: 18-2 Season: 193-67
Charles Hollis has covered college football since 1983. He can be reached at [email protected]