Behind Enemy Lines: The Plainsman's Will Sahlie talks high-stakes Iron Bowl

Behind Enemy Lines: The Plainsman's Will Sahlie talks high-stakes Iron Bowl

Photo by Jonathan M. Norris.

This biggest rivalry in college football will have a huge impact on the landscape of college football. No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Auburn will battle for the SEC west title, and a chance to go to Atlanta to face Georgia. This is the biggest game for both teams this season. To get more insight on the Tigers, we talked to Will Sahlie, the sports editor of Auburn's student newspaper, The Plainsman. Here is what he had to say.

Q: What do you think has been the key for Auburn since losing to LSU?

A: As tough as the LSU loss was for Auburn, the Tigers have been a different team since the loss. Auburn jumped out to a 20-0 lead in Death Valley, and it appeared Auburn was going to cruise to an easy win. But for a reason we may never know, Gus Malzahn and Co. took their foot off the gas, and allowed LSU to slowly creep back into the game and eventually win the game late.

Auburn learned from its mistake, and has consistently stayed aggressive the second half of the season whenever they grab a lead. After getting a 9-7 lead vs. Georgia, Auburn ran the Bulldogs out of the stadium with aggressive play-calling and excellent playmaking.

Q: How big has Kerryon Johnson been, and do you think he deserves Heisman talk?

A: Johnson has been everything Auburn could have imagined this season with the health of Kamryn Pettway constantly being a factor all season long. He has been excellent all season long, even after missing Auburn’s games vs. Clemson and Mercer. He has carried Auburn, and it is easy to say that Auburn would not be in the position they are without him.

His stats compare very favorably to some of the top tailbacks in the country, which makes the Heisman talk deserving. He has 1,172 yards on 220 carries, good for 130.2 yards per game, which is over 30 yards more per game than Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. He also has 18 total touchdowns, which trails Barkley by one, but leads Stanford’s Bryce Love by two.

Q: Do you think Auburn has one of the best defensive lines in the country? How big of a playmaker is Jeff Holland?

A: Up front, Auburn is absolutely one of the most talented in the country. Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, Dontavius Russell and Jeff Holland form one of the most feared defensive fronts in the nation. Holland’s season has been well-documented, but his coming-out season has been nothing short of a blessing for the Tigers. Auburn came into the season having to replace Carl Lawson, and Holland has been excellent in that role.

Q: How have you seen Jarrett Stidham grow as the season has progressed?

A: Early in the season, Stidham was a bit jumpy in the pocket, and was reluctant to trust his arm and make throws. As the season has progressed, Stidham has trusted his offensive line more and has consistently made plays deep down the field. He is tremendously talented, and has gotten better and better with each game.

Q: How talented is Auburn's receiving corps?

A: Like Stidham, Auburn’s receivers have gotten better as the season has moved along. Darius Slayton has become the go-to guy for Stidham. He has made some big catches at big times, especially his touchdown grab vs. Georgia that really changed the momentum of that game. Ryan Davis has also been a consistent threat for the Tigers with his ability to create plays after catching the ball.

Q: If Auburn wins out, do you consider them a lock for the playoff?

A: I would not consider Auburn a lock by any means. As we saw in 2004, Auburn has been the team that has gotten left out before. Auburn would have as good of a résumé as anyone, especially down the stretch. Auburn would have beaten the No. 1 team two out of three weeks, and would be the undisputed SEC champion. However, if Wisconsin is to win the Big Ten and finish undefeated, it would be hard to leave them out. There are a lot of different scenarios that will play itself out in the last two weeks of the regular season.

Q: How big is it for Auburn to have this game at home?

A: It is huge for Auburn. Jordan-Hare Stadium was as loud as I have ever heard it in Auburn’s win over Georgia (outside of the ‘Kick Six’), and it will, once again, be rocking on Saturday. Although Jordan-Hare is not as large as Bryant-Denny Stadium, it can be as loud and intimidating when Auburn is playing well. If the Tigers can get some momentum early Saturday, expect Jordan-Hare Stadium to turn up the volume.

Q: What are the main things Auburn has to do to win this game?

A: Auburn has to stay the course for four quarters. Even if Alabama grabs an early lead, the Tigers have to stick to their gameplan and not stray away from it. Auburn has to protect the ball, as it is unlikely Alabama will turn the ball over very often. Auburn must also play to its home crowd, and keep the stadium energized for four quarters. Of course, that is easy to do if you are playing with the lead.

Q: Finally, give us your score prediction and why.

A: This is a tough one. I have gone back and forth on this one for the last two weeks, but in the end, I am going with the home crowd. Jordan-Hare Stadium can be a huge advantage for Auburn, and I fully expect that to be the case Saturday. It has been well-documented, but I believe it is worth noting that Nick Saban has never beat an Auburn team that has nine wins. I expect a knockdown, drag out, four-quarter battle that will come down to the final few minutes. It should be an Iron Bowl for the ages, and I believe Auburn will survive late. Auburn 27, Alabama 23.

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