**Note: This was a print-only story**
The Crimson White spoke to Auburn Plainsman sports editor Will Gaines in Auburn, Ala., to get his take on the reason behind Auburn’s revival this season, the Tigers’ passing game and who will come out victorious in the 78th Iron Bowl.
Crimson White: This game is already being hailed as an Iron Bowl for the ages. What’s the excitement like in Auburn with so much on the line for both teams?
Will Gaines: The excitement level is sky high. I talked with former head coach Pat Dye last week, and he told me he does not think he has seen this much excitement since the 1989 game when Alabama travelled to Auburn for the first time. Honestly though, most fans are just excited they have a chance to compete with Alabama. The past two seasons have been rough for Auburn fans.
CW: The Tigers are having a year that very few expected coming into the season. In your opinion, what has been the biggest reason for Auburn’s turnaround this season?
WG: I have been asked that question several times this year, and the first few times I answered it, I said it was the team’s ability to keep fighting when they faced adversity. I still think that is true, but now that the season is winding down I believe the biggest difference is this team is a year older and back in the system they were recruited to play in. Auburn lost so many players off the 2010 national championship team, and this caused them to be extremely young in 2011-12. This year they are much more mature and it’s showing on the field.
However, Gus Malzahn is the X-factor in my opinion. His system fits these players, and his game plans always give Auburn a chance.
CW: Because the Auburn rushing attack has been so effective, Nick Marshall hasn’t been asked to throw the ball a whole lot this season. Can he be relied upon to throw the ball effectively when he’s needed to against Alabama’s defense?
WG: Nick Marshall is a good passer, but his accuracy is probably his downfall. Against Georgia he missed several throws, ever so slightly, that could have been big plays for the offense.
Honestly, I don’t think Malzahn is going to venture far away from what got Auburn to this point in the season. He’s going to use Marshall, Tre Mason and Corey Grant in a variety of different ways in the run game, and then try to hit some big play-action passes to Sammie Coates. If Marshall throws the ball more than 20 times in this game I will be surprised.
CW: In big games like this, the mantra is usually that players need to step up. Who’s currently an unsung player for the Tigers that could potentially play a vital role in this game?
WG: There’s actually quite a few that could step up and make a name for themselves in this game, simply because most don’t know the type of playmakers Auburn has on this team.
Marshall I think could potentially have a big game if he and Coates can get on the same page. They have been connecting on a lot of deep passes this season, but they have also missed on a lot. I think Alabama is going to sell out to stop the run, and if that is the case then Marshall could have a big day hitting the deep ball to Coates.
Robenson Therezie has been playing lights out all season. He currently has four interceptions, which is more than the whole team had in 2012. He has been one of the brighter spots on this defense all season, and this game could be a chance for him to make a big splash. My choice will actually be a group and not a single player. This offensive line is one of the best in the country, and I think they are going to show it when they play Alabama.
CW: Despite having a much improved team this year, Auburn is still a pretty big underdog against Alabama. What are some things the Tigers must do to pull off the colossal upset?
WG: It’s simple, actually. Run the ball, don’t turn the ball over, put pressure on AJ McCarron and force some turnovers.
That’s been the formula for Auburn’s success all season, and up to this point it has worked. Auburn is not going to completely shut down Alabama’s offense, but they do have some good young pass rushers on the defensive line. If they can disrupt McCarron then I think they can force him to turn the ball over.
Whether Auburn can run the ball or not will be the biggest question of the game. I’m not saying I don’t think Marshall can get the job done, but I think when the run game is moving the ball it opens up so much more for Malzahn to do with this offense.
Prediction: This is a hard prediction to make. Honestly, I think Alabama is the better team, top to bottom, but there is not as big of a talent gap as there has been the past few years, including 2010. I also think Auburn will be a little hungrier for a win than Alabama just because they have nothing to lose in this game. Malzahn has already exceeded everyone’s expectations for this season.
Home field advantage and the bye week are going to give Auburn an edge in this game, and I think Auburn pulls off some fourth quarter magic again to pull off the 28-24 upset.