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“I’m on fire.”
Those were the words of interim Auburn head coach Carnell "Cadillac" Williams when a reporter asked him about the upcoming Iron Bowl matchup following Auburn’s senior day win over Western Kentucky. Williams understands the significance of this matchup, of what this rivalry means to not just the players but fans across the state. His most iconic moment as an Auburn Tiger came in the pivotal 2003 Iron Bowl, where Williams went crazy for a game-opening 80-yard touchdown.
Now, as the first African-American head coach in the storied history of the Iron Bowl, Williams is preparing Auburn’s experienced senior class to put on the orange-and-blue one last time.
“It’s the Iron Bowl. If they can’t get up for this game this week, for these seniors their last game, then something is wrong,” said Williams.
Williams has been an integral part of Auburn’s late-season turnaround, ending the five-game losing streak and injecting the program with an energy that had been sorely missed during the early part of the season.
That energy is present despite the odds that this team faces.
“If we win, we get a bowl game. If we lose, we fought for Auburn,” said senior captain Derick Hall. “House money.”
While this Iron Bowl might not be as important as years prior, with no SEC Championship or College Football Playoff (CFP) berth on the line, a bowl game berth for the Tigers and the chance to end the five-game losing streak at Bryant-Denny Stadium hangs in the balance.
“It would just show that anything's possible. Looking at where we were in the middle of the season,” said junior defensive lineman Colby Wooden on the chance to make a bowl game. “I mean, some people in our own locker room were doubting us.”
The energy is there, but now Auburn will have to face an Alabama team that, despite criticisms and two tough losses, is still one of the top teams in the nation with 2021 Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young under center.
Auburn’s defense struggled earlier in the season, giving up 533 yards per game in the final three matchups of the Bryan Harsin era, but since Williams took over, the defense has stepped up to the challenge and is playing its best ball of the season.
The unit, under defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding, is giving up just 323 yards per game in the last three weeks. Auburn’s defense runs through the pressure generated from the defensive line, and the unit has suffered injuries along the front in the last two weeks. Jeffrey M’Ba went down against Texas A&M, and the Western Kentucky game saw Marcus Harris and Marquis Burks both leave the field with injuries.
“All three of those guys are day-to-day right now. I know M'ba, we thought he had a shot last week so again he's day-to-day. Hopefully we can get him back,” Williams said. “He's going to be a good player for us. We need all of the bullets in the gun. We need everybody on deck here.”
On the offensive end, Auburn has returned to the ground-and-pound style of Auburn teams in the past, and it starts with the offensive line.
On its third center and with a revolving door at the guard positions, the offensive line has been moving the pile over the last three weeks and creating running lanes for Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter.
“For us to win Saturday, it's going be in the trenches,” Williams said. “If we play together and we fight and we’re all on the same page. If we get Tank, Jarquez and those guys looks and those guys get to break tackles and they run clean, press the line of scrimmage. Anything can happen.”
The offensive line will have its hands full with Will Anderson leading a dangerous Alabama defensive line. Anderson has not been as dominant as he was a year ago, but he still has 14 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 11 games this season.
With Auburn’s reliance on the running game, the legs of quarterback Robby Ashford could be the difference, and the freshman quarterback is willing to do anything for a win.
“We're running the ball a lot better. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A lot of people would ask how a QB would handle that with your stats not being as good,” said Ashford. “I don't care about stats, so long as it's a W in the win column.”
The 87th Iron Bowl will kick off at Bryant-Denny stadium this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CST.
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