TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s Deionte Thompson vividly remembers the feeling of walking off the field following an Iron Bowl loss while Auburn fans swarmed onto it.
The Crimson Tide headed to the locker room fearing their national championship dreams had just been crushed after last year’s game.
“It wasn’t a good feeling,” said Thompson, a Crimson Tide safety. “Yeah, it wasn’t a good one.”
The Crimson Tide (11-0, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) lost a shot at the league title with that defeat but did wind up making the playoffs and ultimately winning its fifth national title under coach Nick Saban.
Top-ranked Alabama enters Saturday’s rematch with the Tigers (7-4, 3-4) having already secured an SEC championship game berth against No. 5 Georgia. But Tide players don’t want to leave their home field with that same disappointment and uncertainty.
Of course, Auburn was ranked No. 6 in that game and also playing for an SEC title shot . Now, the Tigers are banking on this one to help redeem a disappointing season.
The 24-1/2-point underdogs are trying to do what no other SEC team has managed: Give the Tide a four-quarter game. Alabama has beaten every league opponent by at least 22 points.
“Anything can happen in a game like this,” Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham said. “We know how we can play. You know, it’s not even a year ago that we were on the same field and beat them.”
Much has changed in those 12 months, though. Now, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is a Heisman Trophy contender leading a potent Tide offense. Auburn’s normally strong running game hasn’t produced consistently and the offensive line has struggled to protect Stidham.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is still paying respect to the ground game, though Auburn doesn’t have a star tailback like Kerryon Johnson.
“They’ve always been able to run the ball,” Saban said. “We’ve always struggled to stop them running the ball.”
The stakes are much different for the two teams. Auburn’s gunning primarily for the cherished statewide braggin’ rights. The Tide doesn’t want to leave its fate once again in the hands of the playoff selection committee.
Beat Auburn and Georgia, and there’s no doubt ‘Bama is in the four-team field like every other season since the College Football Playoffs began.
“We want to finish this season on a high note, and losing late is always not the best look,” Tide center Ross Pierschbacher said. “People say you can lose early and kind of build on that and later on have a better chance.
“But if you lose late, it makes it really tough. I think we noticed that last year, losing late, how hard it was to get into the playoff and what it took. We don’t want to leave that up to them.”
Here are some other things to know about Saturday’s Auburn-Alabama game:
Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle is the SEC’s top freshman playmaker, but Auburn’s offense has been relying even more on youngsters. That group includes Tuscaloosa product Seth Williams and fellow receiver Anthony Schwartz, who also gets some carries. They’re among the Tigers’ top four receivers, while three of the top four runners are freshmen, including redshirt JaTarvious Whitlow.
Waddle has 34 catches for 617 yards and five touchdowns and returns punts.
Saban says Alabama’s difficulty in making even extra points is “not really acceptable to me.” The Tide has missed eight of those attempts this season, including five by current starter Joseph Bulovas .
Auburn freshman Anders Carlson hasn’t had that issue. He has made 15 of 25 field goals but seven of those misses have come in nine attempts from 50-plus yards.
Alabama and Auburn are 1-2 in the SEC in sacks, but the former is much better at preventing them. The Tigers are also getting their top pass rusher, Nick Coe, back from a wrist injury that sidelined him against Liberty. However, Isaiah Buggs , Christian Miller and the Tide’s other quarterback chasers face an offensive line that has struggled.
Alabama’s Damien Harris has been cleared after going through the concussion protocol following an injury against The Citadel. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Whitlow, who has battled injuries, is also now healthy.
Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy is undoubtedly the headliner but the game does feature other prolific and dangerous pass catchers. Auburn’s Ryan Davis is the program’s all-time leader with 169 career catches. He also had perhaps his best Auburn game with 11 catches for 139 yards in last year’s Iron Bowl. Jeudy has 51 catches for 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns.
By contrast, Auburn’s Stidham only has 12 TD passes this season.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25