AUBURN, Ala. — The Iron Bowl typically features one of the nation’s best defenses. Either Alabama or Auburn usually showcases a group that’s stingy against the run and mostly denies big passing plays.
This year, both have defenses matching that description.
No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Auburn have been among the Southeastern Conference’s stingiest teams going into Saturday’s showdown. And both will have their work cut out for them against two of the league’s most potent offenses, especially with some injury issues.
Led by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick , the Crimson Tide (11-0, 7-0 SEC, No. 1 CFP) is formidable as always, leading the nation in total and scoring defense. The Tigers (9-2, 6-1, No. 6 CFP)) aren’t too far behind with the help of a dominant pass rusher in Jeff Holland.
Both defenses will be tasked with containing playmaking quarterbacks with at least one go-to receiver and talented tailbacks. Fitzpatrick said Alabama expects a few deep balls with a steady diet of runs by Kerryon Johnson & Co.
“They love to run the ball, run the ball, run the ball and then throw shots over the top,” the Alabama DB said. “The last couple of years we did a good job of stopping that. I think we’ll be able to keep doing that.”
Alabama is allowing just 244 total yards and 10.2 points per game, along with 87 yards on the ground (second-best nationally).
The Tide doesn’t have dominant pass rushers like Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen last season, but Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defense is, if anything, more aggressive than in the past.
“It looks to me like they pressure a little bit more than they have in the past,” Malzahn said. “And I think their defensive coordinator is kind of putting his stamp on the defense a little bit more than he has in the past. They’re very aggressive.”
Alabama has remained dominant despite losing seven defensive players to the NFL draft. Auburn is a top 10 defense even after standout linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams left for the NFL.
The emergence of Holland and defensive tackle Derrick Brown has been a big reason for that. Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is a former Saban assistant at Alabama. The Tigers held Georgia to 46 yards rushing two weeks ago.
“They have a very good front,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “They’re very aggressive up front, they have some good pass rushers. Their inside people are very physical and dominant. Have really good, physical linebackers. They play well in the secondary. They don’t make a lot of errors on defense. They play well together. This has been pretty consistent throughout the year.”
Both defenses have overcome injuries.
Fitzpatrick said he’s 100 percent recovered from a hamstring injury after sitting out the Mercer game, though Saban described him as “day to day.” Alabama is hoping for one or more of several injured linebackers can play.
Auburn defensive back Jeremiah Dinson is trying to come back from a concussion suffered against ULM and Tre Williams (shoulder) is also a question mark.
Both defenses have one particularly big playmaker:
—Auburn has Holland, who is tied for the SEC lead with nine sacks and is second with 12 tackles for loss, more than filling in for Lawson.
“I think the guy is very instinctive as a football player,” Saban said. “He’s got some real quickness off the edge but he’s also a physical guy and can turn speed into power, and is very effective in what he does, run and pass. The guy is a really, really good football player.”
— Fitzpatrick, a finalist for defensive player of the year honors, plays up to six different positions on Alabama’s defense.
“I think he’s one of the best or the more talented players in all of football,” Malzahn said. “He’s got an ability to do just about everything you could want. He’s got experience. He’s very savvy. He can rush the passer, he comes off the edge, he plays the run, he dissects route combinations. He’s a dominant player and he’s well-earned that right to be talked about in the best players in the country.”