Every Iron Bowl is different, and only a certain number of storylines can make the annual journey from Auburn to Tuscaloosa and back again.
Steve Sarkisian on the Alabama sidelines while Nick Saban watches at home? John Metchie’s game-winning catch in four overtime? The Crimson Crane celebration? All of this belongs in the history books.
But some of what happened at Jordan-Hare Stadium last November will be relevant when the teams meet again at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday. That begins with the battle in the trenches, where Alabama’s mostly intact offensive line from last fall meets an Auburn defensive line that also brings back three starters from a year ago.
The first 58+ minutes of last season’s Iron Bowl featured play from both defenses, but given the expectations for heavily favored Alabama and their afternoon offense, what was most surprising was the Tide’s offensive line performance. Alabama gained just 68 total yards in the first half while conceding five sacks in the first two quarters.
“Well, we obviously can’t block them in advance,” Saban told CBS during his halftime interview.
Alabama replaced two starters along the line in the second half and gave up two more sacks, though the tide broke in the final minute of regulation with a game-defining drive that set the stage for a dramatic finish in four overtime.
Alabama’s seven sacks allowed was the highest in any game since a loss to South Carolina in 2010. The only game in the Saban era in which the program allowed more sacks was a postseason bowl loss to Utah 2008
The area where the offensive line needs to improve from the 2021 Iron Bowl to the 2022 version is obvious.
“Definitely protect Bryce,” security guard Javion Cohen said Tuesday.
The interior of Alabama’s offensive line remains generally unchanged from the second half of last season’s game, when Cohen and Emil Ekiyor flanked center Seth McLaughlin after Darrian Dalcourt played the first half. This season, freshman Tyler Booker has rotated with Cohen and Ekiyor.
But Alabama will have two new offensive tackles from last year’s Iron Bowl when Evan Neal was left tackle and Damieon George started right tackle before being replaced by Chris Owens. Sophomore JC Latham was the starter of the tide in the right tackle and Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen started in the left tackle before injuring Austin Peay on Saturday. He was replaced by fourth-year junior Amari Kight, who would presumably start the Iron Bowl if Steen couldn’t play.
Auburn is returning three of its defensive line starters in Derick Hall, Colby Wooden and Marcus Harris, with edge rusher TD Moultry departing for the NFL last offseason. Hall, Wooden and Harris combined for five sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss at last year’s Iron Bowl.
“Two great players, great pass rushers,” Cohen said Tuesday when asked specifically about Hall and Wooden. “Definitely a leader in defence. You know the scheme they have there. We know them, they know us. It will be a great competition.”
On the coaching side, Alabama still has offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, but there are new coaches on both sides in Tide offensive line coach Eric Wolford, Auburn defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding, and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh.
Alabama will also have the advantage of playing in front of a home crowd this Saturday rather than having to deal with the noise of the crowd. Last season at Jordan-Hare, Alabama, was called twice for game delays and also had an illegal formation penalty.
Adding to the offensive line’s problems protecting Young last season, Alabama running back Brian Robinson had just 19 yards on eight carries in the first half. The Tide wants that to be different, too, whether Jahmyr Gibbs (ankle) is ready to play or Alabama continues to lean on Jase McClellan.
“Being able to plan the right game plan and open lanes on the fly to give us a balanced offensive attack [is important]’ Cohen added.
During the offseason, there was optimism from Alabama that Wolford would help change the mentality of a line that was struggling in its lonely season under coach Doug Marrone. But an uneven start to Alabama’s running game this season had led Saban in mid-September to challenge the offensive line to play more physically, which she’s done in a few games since — but most notably in the last game and a half against Ole Miss and then Austin Peay.
“I thought that last week was one of the better games we played up front,” said Saban on Monday. “We kind of dominated the line of scrimmage, you know, pretty well, finished a lot of blocks. I think we blocked better at the perimeter than we have all year. I’m talking about the recipients and so on.
“So I saw a step in the right direction and I saw it in the Ole Miss game too, especially in the second half. We’ve started to dominate the line of scrimmage a bit, which I think is a really important thing and will be a big challenge for us this week.”
McClellan, a junior, has rushed for 240 yards since Gibbs was disabled by an ankle injury in the first half of the Nov. 12 Ole Miss game. McClellan had 329 yards in his first nine games this season.
But Alabama still struggled at times with pass protection against FCS opponent Austin Peay, who sacked Young three times — including the game when Steen was injured late in the first half and a free rusher crushed Young from his blind side.
“I think we’ve definitely grown a lot as a unit, as a group,” Young said Monday. “It’s always going to be tough in the Iron Bowl. We have a lot of respect for them as a program and we know it will take everything.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @micerodak.