Mac Jones

Alabama quarterback Mac Jones passes against Western Carolina at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa last Saturday.

TUSCALOOSA — As is the case with most of college football’s best rivalry games, emotions will be high in Saturday’s Iron Bowl with a lot on the line for both programs.

Especially for No. 5 Alabama.

“Most definitely there is more aggression,” Alabama junior receiver DeVonta Smith said, “(it’s) more physical, knowing it’s a rivalry, one of the biggest rivalries.”

Even without the Western Division title on the line, there’s still plenty at stake as the Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1 SEC) heads into hostile Jordan Hare Stadium against a battle-tested No. 15 Auburn (8-3, 4-3 SEC).

Despite a 46-41 loss to then-No. 1 LSU four weeks ago, there’s still an outside shot for Alabama to make its sixth straight appearance in the College Football Playoff, with a win and potentially a little help from within the Big 12 and Pac-12.

“You just have to control what you can control,” Smith said. “We have no control over it. The only thing we have control over is going out and just winning and trying to make a statement.”

There’s also the matter of where the Tide goes bowling this season should it miss the Playoff for the first time ever, with a potential Sugar Bowl appearance still very possible.

But that all necessitates Alabama entering a Top-15 showdown with Auburn and coming out victorious, something it hasn’t often done when both were ranked at the time of their meeting.

Since 1983, the Tide and Tigers have entered the Iron Bowl ranked in the Top-20 a total of 13 times, with Auburn holding a 10-3 advantage in those games, including a 5-0 mark when played in Auburn.

That sort of history doesn’t bode well for Alabama, which means doing the little things right and avoiding costly penalties — especially when emotions are involved — is even more important Saturday, especially when things don’t necessarily go according to plan.

“You have to control your emotions, knowing people are going to try to get under your skin and being ready for it,” Smith said.

Penalties have been an issue for the Crimson Tide this season, ranking tied for 12th in the SEC with 77 on the year. Only rival Auburn has more with 80.

Which is why the team that can maintain its composure and not allow mistakes or penalties to prove costly and turn into points will likely be of the one that comes out ahead in this year’s Iron Bowl.

“Really, like (Alabama coach Nick) Saban says, ‘Play with emotion, don’t be emotional,’” Tide junior center Landon Dickerson said. “That’s something I’ve been a liability with a couple of times this year, but it’s one of those things that, you know, you just have to handle it personally.”

After taking over as Alabama’s starting quarterback a week ago for an injured Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones will make his first career road start Saturday in Auburn’s Jordan Hare Stadium.

It’s a difficult scenario for anyone to come into, let alone a quarterback already dealing with a hefty load of expectations with taking over one of the nation’s most explosive offenses and a potential Playoff spot still on the line.

Because of all that pressure already on Jones, Alabama would be wise to make things as easy and simple on him as possible, including keeping him clean against Auburn’s dynamic defensive end duo of Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.

The pass-rushing pair have already made it clear they plan to make Jones’ day difficult, and that doesn’t sound like much fun for the redshirt sophomore.

Along with solid pass protection from an improving offensive line, the Crimson Tide coaches should do their best to get Jones comfortable in the pocket. They can accomplish that two ways, including by establishing a steady running attack behind junior tailbacks Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr.

Short and quick passes to its playmaking receivers is also another way to get Jones into a rhythm early, be it with some RPO slant passes, bubble screens or even the potent pop-pass runs its had success with already this season.

All should work to keep Auburn’s defensive front from pinning its ears back and coming after Jones with abandon, and let the first-time starter get a feel for the game in his first road test.

Alabama leads the SEC with a 54.3-percent conversion rate on third down as well as 70 total third-down conversions this season.

That needs to continue Saturday in Jordan Hare Stadium against an Auburn defense that allows the lowest third-down conversion rate in the conference. The Tigers have been especially stingy on third downs, limiting opponents to a 28.9-percent rate and allowing just 48 total third-down conversions.

With Jones at quarterback, the Crimson Tide is actually converting at a better-than-60 percent clip (13-of-21 or 62-percent), including 5-of-8 last week against Western Carolina.

And while Auburn in unquestionably a much tougher defense than the FCS-product it faced a week ago, Alabama’s ability to continually keep the chains moving even on third down situations will be key. And that will require the entire offense to be clicking early and often Saturday.

The Tide has had at least five third-down conversions every game this season — in fact, it’s 5-for-8 on third down last week was its fewest of the year — while the Tigers’ defense has only allowed five third-down conversions in a game three times, including a season-high nine against both Kent State and LSU.

If Alabama can keep its trend of moving the sticks with regularity Saturday, it could mean big things.

While the Crimson Tide offense has been among the country’s most explosive, ranking tied for third nationally with 81 plays of 20-or-more yards this season, it’s also been able to keep opponents from having the same success, ranking first nationally allowing just two plays of 40-or-more yards all season.

Continuing both trends will be vital to having success Saturday in hostile territory. There’s nothing that quiets a home crowd more than the opposition breaking off a couple of big 40-yard plays, or keeps a raucous home crowd from becoming a factor like limiting the exciting plays by its own offense.

Alabama’s offense has produced 19 plays of 40-or-more yards and leads the SEC with six 70-or-more yard plays this season. Auburn has just two plays of 70-or-more yards this season by comparison.

By the same token, the Tigers have allowed just 12 total plays of 30-or-more yards, two fewer than the Tide has, but nine of those have gone for more than 40 yards compared to just two by Alabama’s defense.

Much like avoiding penalties, the team that makes the most big plays while also avoiding big plays defensively will more than likely stand the best chance at winning Saturday.

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