Stakes even higher than usual for 2017 Iron Bowl

Iron Bowl

It is officially Iron Bowl week. And so much more than bragging rights are on the line for this one.

For just the second time since the SEC split into divisions in 1992, the Iron Bowl is the de facto SEC West championship game, with Alabama (11-0 overall, 7-0 in the SEC) facing Auburn (9-2, 6-1) at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

The other winner-take-all game was in 2013 — the “Kick Six” game.

If the heated rivalry and what’s at stake is somehow not intriguing enough for you, perhaps the actual matchup will be.

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The game features an Alabama defense that remains one of the best in the country, but looks vulnerable after being plagued by injuries. The Tide has played most of the season without edge rushers Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow), who went down in its season-opener against Florida State. Linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton (knee) and Mack Wilson (foot) suffered season-ending injuries against LSU. And star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick has been limited with a hamstring injury since early in the LSU game.

Meanwhile, Auburn’s offense is peaking at the right time.

Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and quarterback Jarrett Stidham – both in their first season with the Tigers – seem to be in a good rhythm after some early-season struggles. Kerryon Johnson, who dealt with a hamstring injury early in the season, has developed into one of the most impressive running backs in the country.

The only SEC quarterback who has looked better than Stidham in recent weeks has been Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. Stidham has the better stat line – 181-of-267 (67.79 percent) for 2,445 yards for 16 touchdowns and four interceptions — but the Tide depends on Hurts more than the Tigers depend on Stidham to win games against quality opponents. And while Johnson may be the best tailback to take the field Saturday at Jordan–Hare Stadium, Alabama has better depth at the position with Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway nursing a shoulder injury that likely will keep him out of the game.

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The Tigers’ defensive front is one of the best in the country and the strongest part of their team.

Statistically speaking, Alabama has the edge overall. The Tide are scoring more points (41.4-37.6 ppg), holding opponents to fewer points (10.2-16.6 ppg), averaging more yards per game (479.2-475.9) and holding opponents to fewer yards per game (244.1-302.5).

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