TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — It’s no surprise that Alabama brings a formidable, aggressive defense that ranks among the nation’s best into the Iron Bowl.
The twist: Now, Auburn can make the same claim.
The 16th-ranked Tigers have the program’s best defense in years coming into Saturday’s showdown with the top-ranked Crimson Tide, which still probably sets the standard among college defenses.
”It’s the best defense in college football,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. ”I think that’s pretty obvious.”
Auburn’s is pretty good, too. Both have defensive fronts that can punish runners and quarterbacks alike, with playmakers in the secondary and linebackers who can cover some ground.
The Tide ranks second nationally in scoring defense, giving up 11.4 points per game. Auburn’s allowing 14.3 points on average, seventh-best nationally.
The Tigers haven’t ranked better than 48th in that category in the past seven seasons.
”They’ve improved greatly since last season,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Auburn’s defense. ”When we went into this season, we felt like this had a chance to be one of our better defenses, at least since I’ve been here. Each week it seems like they’ve gotten better.
”They’re stopping the run very well. We’re not giving up a lot of explosive plays in the pass or run game and our red zone defense has been excellent.”
The game features two defenses that excel at stopping the run but also some of the Southeastern Conference’s best pass rushers.
Alabama has Jonathan Allen (seven sacks), Tim Williams (8.0) and Ryan Anderson (6.5). Auburn’s Carl Lawson actually clocks in as the Iron Bowl leader with nine sacks, pairing with tackle Montravius Adams to lead a defensive front that is talented and fairly deep.
”They’re very physical and aggressive,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. ”They’ve got several very good pass rushers. A combination of all those things has made them probably the most effective front we’ve played against all year.”
The same undoubtedly goes for Auburn’s offense. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, but face the nation’s best defense when it comes to stopping the run. Alabama opponents are averaging just 68.9 yards on the ground with only three rushing touchdowns.
The fact that the Tide is also second nationally in sacks per game bolsters those numbers, too. Auburn, meanwhile, hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown in the past eight games.
Alabama remains loaded with defensive stars. Allen is a finalist for the Bednarik Award given to the nation’s top defensive player. Leading tackler Reuben Foster is a Butkus Award finalist as the nation’s top linebacker.
The Tide hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the last nine-plus quarters despite having lost safety Eddie Jackson to a broken leg and having to shift cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick over. The defense has even scored nine TDs.
Auburn’s defense has excelled in different ways. The Tigers trail only Florida nationally in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score just 67 percent of the time after penetrating the Tigers’ 20-yard line. They’re also tops with 65 passes broken up.
The game gives former colleagues a chance to match wits. First-year Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele worked on Alabama’s staff two years ago in Lane Kiffin’s first season running the Tide offense.
Kiffin has led a transformation of ‘Bama’s offensive style that now features the running abilities of freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.
”I personally think he’s got a creative offensive mind,” Steele said. ”He’s very quick and creative. He calls the game with no fear and his players do things he puts it in their hands to execute. He does a great job of that.”