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Giving Away Money: 2023 Iron Bowl Pick Against the Spread

‘Bama has seen its share of dreams dashed on the Plains; will 2023 the break the curse of Jordan Hare?

Chattanooga v Alabama Photo by Brandon Sumrall/Getty Images

2023 Special Edition Record: 3-1-1 (damn you, Texas).

It’s here, folks. That game that diehards live for 365 days of the year and that non-Alabamian Gumps just kind of dread. The Iron Bowl.

You know where I stand on this: I’m not a native ‘Bammer, though I did grow up in North Alabama (my life is one of the more depressing Jason Isbell songs), and Tuscaloosa is the closest thing I have to a hometown. Like Bear Bryant, Tennessee occupies the far more hated place in my heart. LSU shall forever be a more meaningful rivalry, one that hits hardest, and that is usually played for higher stakes. But the Iron Bowl? Pffff. That is just the Lee County Vet School sponging off the Flagship’s reputational success to sell season tickets every other year.

They’re not even beneath contempt; they’re beneath notice. My alma mater has more important things to play for.

Sadly, Auburn doesn’t cooperate as often as I’d like, with the Tigers springing their fair share of upsets (2002), closely contested games that have no business being competitive (2021), evenly matched slugfests (1994 comes to mind), and even outright whoopings by the ‘Barn (2001). And it’s had its share of weird games and thrilling conclusions — but I would suggest it is these anomalies that stick out the most in people’s minds, and particularly bettors.

Ignore Kick Six or Bo over the Top or Punt, Bama, Punt. The better team — that is, the one that’s highest ranked or favored by Vegas, overwhelmingly wins the Iron Bowl: About 78% of the time, in fact.

The Iron Bowl is one of the most lopsided rivalries in college football, and is a classic example of the representativeness heuristic: we recall the memorable moments or the well-publicized ones (usually negative) and vastly overestimate how often it actually happens. Without making this political joust, a classic recent example of this involves police shootings. One would suspect that people are dying by the thousands; indeed, in 2019, 33% of the US population thought that over 1000 black men alone had been shot by cops. The actual number of all police-involved shootings — all races, both sexes — that year was 999.

Again, this is not a political statement — it is a mathematical one about how we make statistical judgments. I don’t care about your politics, frankly. It’s as tedious to me as your skin color, where you put your fun bits, your favorite ice cream, or your feelings on the Oxford comma.

“It bleeds, it leads works” applies to sports too. And ESPN is gonna’ Kick Six us into the grave on this, the 10th anniversary. So, because of the rare carnival endings, we vastly overestimate how competitive these games have historically been. But, really, think back to the other nine games since Kick Six. The team that played better just flat-out won, usually, right? And when Alabama was really better, they blew the doors off the ‘Barn.

So, I submit, dear reader, you can — and ought to — tune out the noise. Math DGAF about perceptions, just the outcome.

Alabama is the superior team here. And, yes, even by -11.5 points. Here’s why.

Auburn’s Strengths

The Barn is not a bad team, per se — though it has bad units. It’s a team that is playing about where they should, and given its weaknesses, is even playing about 4 points per game better than they should (on average). They’re losing ones they ought to (UGA, Ole Miss, A&M etc.), mostly winning the ones they should (Mississippi State, Arkansas etc.) But our perception of how bad they are is colored here by two events. The first is the absolute destruction last week at the hands of the New Mexico State Aggies (a game, BTW, I told AGAM subscribers that would be tough for Auburn. The Ags are quite good). The second, is just how anemic the offense is. And, there’s no doubt that Auburn has problems scoring.

But, like last year, the Tigers have a competent offensive line that can rise to the occasion. Intermittently. Against the ranked teams its faced, Auburn has only surrendered 8 sacks. Freeze and Co. do a good job getting ball out of Thorne’s hands quickly. The OL surrenders a lot of TFL in nonstandard downs, but that really is pick your poison: let people tee off on Thorne, or lose a yard on third and long.

That has allowed AU rip off some of the conference’s better chunk plays on the ground. Like ‘Bama, it is hit or miss running game, and T-3rd in the conference with that O-line is a testament to a good scheme and talent.

The Tigers also are among the best in the conference at ball security. They’ve lost just 4 fumbles all season — and only one at home. They have thrown just 4 INTs against the ranked teams they faced. So, while the defense doesn’t force many, the offense at least isn’t giving it away.

Auburn also doesn’t get beat through the air very often; the Tigers are up there with UGA and Alabama and A&M in preventing deep shots against them. That should not be a surprise. Anyone that recalls ‘Bama’s games vs. Hugh Freeze knows they play a base nickel with one intermediate robber and one deep (often two). You have to drive the field against them.

So, the Tigers have strengths, or areas where they’re not as bad as you think.

But this is where the good news ends for API.

For a third year, we extend our thanks to DraftKings for sponsoring Roll ‘Bama Roll in this space. For more degenerate gambling, fantasy, and sportsbook posts, you can check all of those out at the SBNation DraftKings Supergroup hub.

For current odds, check those out here.

‘Bama’s Strengths

How to say this without piling on?

Okay, pile on.

Alabama is better than this Auburn team in almost every way imaginable, and very often it’s a lot better.

  • Auburn gives a ton of TFL. It can be a decent OL at times, but whereas Alabama has improved over the last three months, AU has stagnated — even regressed. And the better the competition, the poorer they’ve looked.
  • It is perhaps the worst passing team you’ve seen in the SEC since Sylvester Croom. Thorne is abominable back there, and Robbie Ashford may add some scoot, but he’s just as bad. The AU passing game was already facing an uphill climb against the UA secondary, but this is a mismatch that can really only be negated by use of the tight end — the problem here is that Auburn just lost their game-breaker at the position last week. If Alabama can scheme the middle effectively, this is a laughable mismatch.
  • Alabama’s hit or miss running game is among the most explosive in the SEC. In fact, it is tied with Georgia for greatest number of chunk plays. That’s a problem too, because while AU doesn’t give up as many deep throws as you’d suspect, they allow a ton of 10-20 yard runs and throws. They’ve especially been eaten alive by option keepers and beating guys to the outside in 12-15 yard throws. You can drive the field on this squad. The new-look ‘Bama running game, combined with Milroe’s legs and growing comfort as a passer, weigh heavily in favor of the Tide.
  • ‘Bama is a far superior third down team, converting 50% vs 35%. And those numbers are worse than they look: Only Vandy has been worse against winning teams; the Barn is a miserable 23% on third down vs. competent squads.
  • Defensively, AU has been a very good team overall in SEC games vs. 3rd down — among the best, actually, at 30%. But that’s illusory, they’ve racked up numbers against scrubs. Against teams with winning records, AU is surrendering 48% of 3DA. Alabama? 2nd best in the SEC behind UGA, at just 37%.
  • This team will give up opportunities for returns; they are second-worst in the SEC in opponent starting field position, behind only Vandy, and third-worst in forcing TBs on kicks.
  • Alabama is just remarkably more efficient with their scoring. The Tide notch 2.65 points per possession; Auburn a miserable 1.48. And Alabama’s output may have dropped off a bit (just 6.48 yards per play), but that’s a full yard and a half better than the slop AU rolls out. And in the RZ it’s no contest. Alabama gets points 96% of the time. Auburn? 81%.
  • Alabama has the best punting in the conference, netting 47.38 YPP. Auburn isn’t shabby, but those extra 3-4 yards per kick add up. And kicking? Well, Alabama has Will Reichard. Auburn may technically lead the SEC at 100%, but they’ve made just 12 attempts. And, yes, Alex McPherson is a good kicker. But he’s only attempted four longer kicks (40+). If one wants to be generous, you could call this mostly a draw, but I’ll take the Lou Groza Award finalist, who’s also been very accurate on KOs, thank you very much.
  • Even against the spread, ‘Bama is better. It is one of the best in the country at 8-3. On the road, it has covered 75% of the time. Auburn, for all of the Jordan Hare mystique and the close ones against Ole Miss and UGA, is still a very average team here too. Just .500 ATS at home.

Bottom Line

And so on down the line, you shall find mismatches a’plenty here. Some aren’t that vast (special teams, for instance), others are a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon (offensive efficiency, for instance; third down defense, etc.). The biggest boost to Auburn here is probably that home field. Alabama has traditionally played poorly — even stupidly — in Lee County. But, this is a team on a mission the last month.

Auburn can’t beat Alabama, only Alabama can beat Alabama.

For that matter, given the data points here, it’s highly doubtful that Auburn can even cover the spread. Tune out the noise: who’s the better team?

That team is the Crimson Tide
Alabama -14.7616


Who ya’ got?

This poll is closed

  • 22%
    Business-like ‘Bama (a score or two)
    (120 votes)
  • 70%
    Blowout ‘Bama (14 points or more)
    (371 votes)
  • 4%
    Uncertain game that is nip and tuck throughout.
    (24 votes)
  • 0%
    ‘Barn in a squeaker
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    THIS is why they hired Hugh Freeze — Auburn in a blowout
    (4 votes)
523 votes total Vote Now

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