Alabama proves its No. 1 status in Iron Bowl romp — even without Nick Saban

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No. 1 Alabama won in dominant fashion Saturday, a fairly common occurrence for this 2020 season. The Tide beat Gus Malzahn and No. 22 Auburn — another, albeit less common occurrence — avenging their close loss from 2019.

What wasn’t common was the fact Alabama did it without the most impactful person in college football. Nick Saban was forced to watch from home, in isolation with a COVID-19 diagnosis, as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian led the team in his stead.

And still Alabama won 42-13.

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“I think the coaching staff did a marvelous job today,” Saban told reporters from his home after the game. “They played the situation, we had a good plan. They stayed with the plan, they executed the plan. Sark did a nice job of managing things.

“I sat here and felt a little helpless, but I could see things and yell at things, listen to Mrs. Terry cheer downstairs, it is a little different. It still feels good to win.”

If Saban’s absence was the story of the Iron Bowl before Saturday, then quarterback Mac Jones was the story during — and after. It was his fifth game with at least four touchdown passes this year, which he began with a first-quarter 66-yard scoring pass to receiver DeVonta Smith. He made two Auburn defenders bite on a pump fake before connecting with Smith for the opening touchdown.

Jones proved he could manage the game as well as any quarterback in the game by completing 18 of 26 passes for 302 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. He threw those scoring passes to three different receivers. Jones is just the second quarterback, following Tua Tagovailoa, to throw for five touchdowns in an Iron Bowl.

Not bad for someone who threw two pick-sixes in this game last year.

Meanwhile, Smith continued his run of dominance without Jaylen Waddle in the receiving corps, nabbing seven receptions for 171 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t the only receiver with a big game: John Metchie III (six receptions, 55 yards, two touchdowns) and tight end Jahleel Billingsley (two receptions, 33 yards, one score) also made their mark.

Najee Harris was impressive as well, rushing 11 times for 96 yards — an absurd 8.7 yard-per-carry average — for another score. He added two receptions for 34 yards to total 130 yards from scrimmage. That was possible, of course, thanks to one of the best offensive lines in the country.

But perhaps that’s to be expected, especially with Sarkisian taking full control of the offensive play-calling on Saturday.

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What was less of a certainty was how well Alabama’s defense could play. Pete Golding’s unit provided an emphatic answer, playing with an urgency not often seen this year. Auburn’s six possessions in the first half resulted in four punts, an interception and a field goal. The play wasn’t perfect — Seth Williams dropped a sure touchdown pass late in the second quarter — but it was more than enough for the win.

The defense harried Auburn quarterback Bo Nix all night, sacking him three times and intercepting him twice. The sophomore completed 23 of 38 passes for 227 yards, adding a garbage-time touchdown late in the fourth quarter to end the Tide’s streak of no touchdowns allowed at 13 quarters.

In all, Alabama allowed just 347 yards and 9 of 19 third-down conversions. Tide fans should be the most excited about that as the season enters the home stretch.

The front seven is deep and talented. Players such as Phidarian Mathis, Tim Williams, Chris Allen, Will Anderson and more flew to the ball and gashed the Auburn offensive line througout the night. The secondary has steadily improved as well, starting with freshmen Malachi Moore and Brian Branch, who both nabbed a pick Saturday. Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe remain stalwarts.

To put it more succinctly: This isn’t the same unit that gave up 48 against Ole Miss earlier this year.

“I think that our entire defense has kind of improved and jelled together as a unit,” Saban told reporters after the game. “All 11 guys are playing better. I think we play a little better in the back end. I think we got a little better pass rush. I think we are using more players now, which I think enhances everybody’s opportunities to have a role and be able to go out there and contribute.”

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So where does that leave Alabama (8-0, 8-0 SEC) after a cathartic Iron Bowl victory? As the clear No. 1 team in the nation. But that does raise another question: Who can challenge the Tide, who seem to be improving every week? The offense continues to hum along at lethal efficiency; the defense has improved vastly over the course of the season; the planning and coaching proved impeccable even without Saban prowling the sideline.

In short, there are no glaring deficiencies on this team, which aims to win its first title since 2017.

LSU, Arkansas and Florida presumably are next in line to take on the Tide. Neither LSU nor Arkansas looks like it can truly contend with them; Florida has the offense to get into a shootout but hasn’t been quite as dominant as Alabama in its last two outings (a 38-17 win over Vanderbilt and a 34-10 win over Kentucky, respectively).

Perhaps that challenge comes in the Playoff, where Alabama looks to end the season after missing out in 2019 for the first time since its 2014 inception. Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State appear to be the top candidates to challenge the Tide there.

Until then, Alabama is the clear top team in the country.

That much was obvious on Saturday, with or without Saban.