Newton, Ingram among talented runners in Iron Bowl
Auburn's running game features a Heisman Trophy candidate, a player who broke Bo Jackson's freshman rushing record and another who leads the nation in yards per carry.
Alabama counters with a Heisman winner and a backup who might be just as dangerous when healthy.
Tigers quarterback Cam Newton and Crimson Tide tailback Mark Ingram are merely the headliners Friday in a showcase of two formidable, but altogether different, ground games.
Welcome to the ground game portion of the 2010 Iron Bowl.
''We've talked about Cam,'' Tide linebacker Dont'a Hightower said, ''but they have other guys.''
It all starts with the apparent Heisman front-runner Newton for second-ranked Auburn (11-0, 7-0 Southeastern Conference). The quarterback has run for a league-leading 1,297 yards and 17 touchdowns while ranking second nationally in pass efficiency.
Alongside him the backfield is Mike Dyer - a compact, powerful runner built like Ingram. Dyer's 859 yards is sixth-best nationally among freshman runners and tops the school freshman mark previously held by Jackson, the 1985 Heisman winner.
The Tigers also feature slender speedster Onterio McCalebb, who can race to the perimeter on a sweep. His 8.76-yard average per carry is first among the nation's top 100 rushers.
The trio has forged the nation's No. 3 rushing attack, and creates challenges for Alabama's defense.
''This takes a lot of discipline for everybody to do exactly what they're supposed to do and be where they're supposed to be, because they attack the perimeter just as effectively as they do the interior,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''On every play, you've got to be sound in every area.
''They've got other guys that complement each other as runners.''
To top it off, Auburn's diverse group of runners practice their craft behind an offensive line that has logged 153 career starts collectively.
Alabama's backfield doesn't have the same versatility, but it's potent nonetheless.
Especially if Richardson, as expected, is able to return after a knee injury has sidelined him the past two games. Ingram, last season's Heisman winner, missed the first two contests of the season following knee surgery.
Both have had solid, but unspectacular seasons. Nonetheless, they're the same backs who comprised the preseason first-team All-SEC backfield.
And they might have a grudge. Auburn held Ingram to 30 yards on 16 carries last season and Richardson wasn't much more successful.
''They shut down the running game completely,'' said Ingram, who salvaged his Heisman hopes with a big SEC championship game. ''The backs have a little chip on our shoulders, a little edge. It's nothing personal or it's nothing emotional.''
Ingram has rushed for 780 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He topped the 100-yard mark in each of his first two games this season, but hasn't cracked it since then.
He has been held to 60 or fewer yards four times. Richardson, who also returns kicks, is still second in the league in all-purpose yards while averaging 6.9 yards on 92 carries. They've been outgained by the less heralded Dyer and McCalebb (1,542-1,414).
Alabama hasn't been able to consistently wear out defenses between the tackles like the Tide did last season, often behind All-America left guard Mike Johnson. Plus, right guard Barrett Jones is questionable with an ankle injury that kept him out of the Georgia State game.
Quarterback Greg McElroy has directed the league's No. 3 passing game, one spot ahead of the Tide's rushing offense. Auburn coach Gene Chizik said that balance creates some dilemmas for defenses on whether to load the line of scrimmage
''Do you play them back there a little bit deeper and really protect the passing game first? If you do that, then your front seven has to hold up,'' Chizik said. ''There's really pressure everywhere when you have an offense that is very versatile with great players at different positions both on the perimeter and inside.''
The Tigers rank second in the league in run defense and 11th against the pass. Auburn defenders are still wary of the Tide's backs, though.
''You've got two tremendous backs like Ingram and Richardson, and we know they're going to come in and run the football,'' Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes said. ''We've been pretty good at stopping the run this year, but at the same time we know what Alabama's built off of. ... We know just like we had to play last year, we had to stop the run to at least keep the game in goods hands.
''I think if we do that we'll control the ballgame.''