November 21, 2007

Alabama-Auburn: 5 on the spot

The Alabama football team travels to face archrival Auburn Saturday with a bowl bid possibly at stake. examines a few players whose performances could have a major impact on the Iron Bowl's 2007 outcome.

1.] Antoine Caldwell

Although right tackle Chris Capps worked with the first unit in practice Monday and Tuesday, it's hard to imagine the newly reinstated All-SEC pick won't find his way into the lineup. Caldwell opened the season at center and eventually moved to guard, but worked at right tackle in practice while awaiting word on his eligibility. He'll face standout AU pass rusher Quentin Groves, who enjoyed a field day against the Crimson Tide in 2006. In fact, it won't be Caldwell's first rodeo with Groves, because he was switched to right tackle in midst of last year's Iron Bowl after Groves got penetration too easily. Having watched his teammates go 1-3 and fall out of the SEC race without him, you can bet Caldwell will be motivated to make sure Groves has a quiet day. If he shows signs of rust, Groves will take advantage.

2.] John Parker Wilson

The Alabama quarterback hasn't been on top of his game since a 41-17 home win over Tennessee. If his struggles continue against Auburn, Jordan-Hare Stadium will split eardrums Saturday night. Some weather forecasts have called for rain on the Plains, which likely would favor the home Tigers. Auburn's offense can adapt to poor throwing conditions because its running game can survive without much help from quarterback Brandon Cox, while Alabama's running game has only succeeded without a good game from Wilson once all season (Vanderbilt). Of utmost importance will be the turnover factor. If Alabama only gets a 15-of-30 type game from Wilson, it can still win if the junior from Hoover protects the ball well. For each turnover, Alabama's chances of escaping Auburn with a five-game losing streak snapped will diminish greatly.

3.] Right guard

No name here because for the moment, it's hard to even speculate who will handle this spot for the Crimson Tide on Saturday. The options are three: Mike Johnson, Marlon Davis or B.J. Stabler. Johnson has started there for two consecutive weeks after spending most of the season at right tackle. The newly reinstated Davis started the season there before joining Caldwell on the suspended list, but like Caldwell, he remained with the second-team on Monday and Tuesday. Then there is Stabler. Chronic knee pain has limited the junior of late, but he has looked more mobile in practice this week. And when Alabama posted its best offensive performance during the suspension period - a 510-yard steamroll of Tennessee - it was a healthy Stabler at right guard.

4.] Lionel Mitchell

With Javier Arenas on the shelf with a high ankle sprain, Mitchell found himself back on the field in nickel situations during last week's loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Assuming the former starter is called on again for cornerback duty in the nickel look, his role will be an important one. He'll be on the field - and possibly tested by design - when Auburn throws the ball on third and long. Cornerbacks by nature are confident players with short memories. But with his only interception in the rear-view mirror by two months, and his playing time shrinking for most of the year, how Mitchell responds if he gives up a big play early will be worth watching.

5.] Wallace Gilberry

The senior defensive end has recorded at least one sack five of his last six games, and he leads the Southeastern Conference in tackles for loss with 22. AU's Cox does not respond well to pressure and isn't especially mobile, so Gilberry's continued hot hand in the pass rush department is a must for the Crimson Tide. Auburn's pass protection has allowed 22 sacks this season, an average of two per game. The lackluster effort the team put into last week's upset loss to ULM won't plague Gilberry - his motor will run on Saturday in his final Iron Bowl appearance. But being motivated alone isn't enough. He'll have to get to Cox a few times - at least for knockdowns and pressures if not sacks - for Alabama's defense to get off the field on third down.

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