With a combined twenty-two games in the books over the 2007 season, we might as well do a little statistical evaluation of Auburn and Alabama before this Saturday's closer.
Turning to the SEC's official site, the first thing that jumps out at you is how little separation there is between the two teams in most categories. Given Auburn's much-noted offensive woes, you'd think the Tide would be way ahead in scoring offense, but no, UAT is number 7 in the SEC with a 28.4 average while AU is just over a field goal behind at number 9 and 25.0. Conversely, Auburn's reputation as run-first vs. Alabama's more-heralded passing game would make you think the Tigers are way ahead on the ground, but #8 AU actually trails #7 UAT by an average of a rushing yard per game.
This goes on and on. In 15 of the 29 significant categories tracked by the conference, Auburn and Alabama are either right next to each other in the team standings or separated by just one other team (I didn't count stuff like on-side kick recovery, since that's such a rare occurrence that the stats aren't meaningful). One of the more surprisingly-even stats to me was passing efficiency, where both teams are essentially tied near the bottom of the conference pack (AU is #7 at 117.4, UAT #8 at 115.7). Neither team is very good at either converting on third down or stopping opponents from doing the same.
So let's look at where we do see some separation between these teams. The first item that jumps out at you is scoring defense, where Auburn leads the conference allowing 17.3 points a game; Alabama's defense is a respectable #5 with 22.3 ppg, but still nearly a touchdown behind the Tigers. On the other hand, the Tide's large lead in passing offense (#5 at 231.8 vs. AU's #9 at 178.8) gives Alabama a corresponding lead in total offense, but as noted above, that advantage hasn't translated into a lot of additional points on the scoreboard.
The most eye-popping differentials on the page come in a couple of exceptionally important categories. Alabama has a huge advantage in first downs, second in the conference with an impressive 259 over eleven games; Auburn is nearly bringing up the rear at number 10 with fifty (fifty!) fewer first downs. Then again, that offensive production just hasn't been translated into points for the Tide, and surprisingly to me, it also hasn't translated into an advantage in time of possession, where #7 UAT trails #3 AU 29:36 to 31:27. Two minutes can be a very big deal in a game like this.
The second big difference illustrates Auburn's team strength this year, namely the defense. AU is second in the conference in Red Zone Defense, allowing opponents only 15 touchdowns and 10 field goals in 34 red zone situations. Alabama is dead last in this category, allowing points to opponents in scoring position over 90% of the time (30-33, 8 field goals and--ouch--22 touchdowns). That's pretty lousy, especially for a team coached by a "defensive genius." I'd call it a game-decider--but that would assume the Auburn offense can drive to the red zone enough times. I'm not ready to make that claim just yet.
It's worth noting that two categories with big discrepancies could be turned upside-down Saturday due to injuries. Alabama has a big lead in kick returns, but their star returner, Javier Arenas, has a bad ankle sprain and won't play. On the other side, Auburn is bringing up the SEC rear in kickoff returns this year, but the Tigers will welcome speedster Tristan Davis back this week in the lead return slot after a season-long injury spell. How those changes will play out this weekend, I can safely say nobody knows.