Alabama-Auburn Preview

BY foxsports • November 26, 2015

(AP) - Linebacker Reggie Ragland says this Alabama team is different.

The second-ranked Crimson Tide are in a similar position now as the last two seasons, which ended short of the national title after rare defensive lapses. Alabama once again enters Saturday's game against rival Auburn able to secure a spot in the SEC championship game with a victory.

The past two years, the team and the defense have stumbled at the ending. This time the Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1) ride an eight-game winning streak into the Iron Bowl and at No. 2 in this week's playoff rankings.

''It's one of the best feelings I've had in a long time about a team, since my freshman year,'' said Ragland, a Butkus Award finalist. ''These guys, everybody's just communicating. Every time you walk into the locker room, you just feel at home and at peace. (There's) no animosity, anything like that. I just feel great about this team, man.

''If everybody keeps doing their job, we'll be where we want to be at the end of the year.''

Two years ago, the Tide finished with losses to Auburn and to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl while giving up a combined 79 points. Last season Alabama allowed 44 points and 630 yards in a win over Auburn and fell 42-35 to eventual national champion Ohio State in the semifinals with a win over Missouri for the SEC title in between.

Alabama has been rolling since a loss to then-No. 15 Mississippi, getting challenged only once against Tennessee.

The Tide are hoping to more closely resemble the 2012 finish in Ragland's freshman season. That group won the program's second national title in a row and third in four years.

''This team is way more focused than we were in 2013 when we were heading down there (to Auburn), and even last year at this point,'' cornerback Cyrus Jones said. ''I think it's a much more tight-knit locker room. Everybody has the same goals. No big egos on the team. Everybody is just focused on trying to complete our mission which is to be in the national championship and win it at the end of the year.

''I think we're doing a good job so far, but obviously the job is not done yet.''

The Tide have cleaned up their act, too. Alabama has lost four turnovers in the past five games after coughing it up five times against the Rebels. The Tide have also committed just six penalties over the past two games after drawing nine flags against LSU.

''We were on the wrong track for a while,'' center Ryan Kelly said. ''We were kind of increasing penalties week in, week out. Coach (Nick) Saban came into the offensive room one day and was like 'This is a big problem.' He kept adding up all the yards that we keep losing just based on shooting ourselves in the foot, penalties like offsides, wrong formations and it's stuff we do in practice.''

Saban said backup tailback Kenyan Drake is returning to practice for individual drills after missing last Saturday's 56-6 win over Charleston Southern with a broken arm.

Auburn (6-5, 2-5) beat Idaho 56-34 last week to become bowl eligible. The Tigers were outgained 479-460 and are two-touchdown underdogs against the Tide.

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.

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,'' offensive tackle Avery Young said. ''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.''

Malzahn said he hasn't decided whether to start 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 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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