SEC Football Q&A: How Much of a Challenge Will Auburn Be for Alabama?

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterOctober 31, 2013

Auburn RB Tre Mason
Auburn RB Tre MasonThomas B. Shea/Getty Images

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@BarrettSallee How much of a challenge is Auburn on the road to Bama? Is it "get by LSU" and Bama cruises to 12-0?

— The Drunken Irishman (@BDohertyCFB) October 31, 2013

It'll be a challenge, for sure. That is, of course, assuming Auburn doesn't get bitten by the injury bug like so many other SEC teams have so far this season.

Auburn RB Cameron Artis-Payne
Auburn RB Cameron Artis-PayneJohn Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The thing with Auburn is that it's so good on the ground, that it really hasn't had to develop much of a downfield passing attack. Head coach Gus Malzahn is able to get so much out of Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Nick Marshall because all four of those guys excel in different areas, and Malzahn's offense allows for three to be on the field at the same time.

Malzahn's offense isn't terribly difficult to figure out, but it's incredibly difficult to slow down—especially when he gets the tempo going and forces the issue.

Alabama has a tune-up with Chattanooga prior to the Iron Bowl—which will be played in Auburn. Having a tune-up prior to the game will certainly help Saban prepare for the Tigers, but while Alabama has been strong against the run this season (101.88 YPG), Auburn is executing on a completely different level on the ground.

The Crimson Tide will probably be 12-0 heading to the SEC Championship Game, but it won't "cruise." The battle with LSU in Tuscaloosa will be tough, as will the intra-state rivalry game with Auburn at the end of the season.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Alabama head coach Nick SabanKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

@BarrettSallee hey next time you needs questions for Q and A mine is who is first SEC coach clipped?

— John Starnes (@AUgrad00) October 31, 2013

Before the season, I'd have said it would have been Missouri's Gary Pinkel. But after the Tigers jumped out to a 7-1 start, that isn't happening. 

That leaves Mississippi State's Dan Mullen and Florida's Will Muschamp as the two most likely candidates. Of those two, I'd say it'll be Muschamp, although it should be Mullen.

Florida head coach Will Muschamp
Florida head coach Will MuschampSam Greenwood/Getty Images

Florida shouldn't be this inept offensively. Ever. 

Muschamp is 13-8 in SEC play, which is one game worse than former Florida head coach Ron Zook was when his termination was announced midway through the 2004 season. The Gators are 4-3 right now, and very easily could be 6-6 or (gulp) worse, with Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida State left on the schedule.

If that happens, especially if one of those losses to Georgia—which would make Muschamp 0-3 versus the Bulldogs—there's going to be a very vocal group of Gators calling for Muschamp's head this offseason. He won't be fired, but he'll be coaching for his job early next season, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Florida cut Muschamp loose if his team sputters out of the gate again.

Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen
Mississippi State head coach Dan MullenKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Mullen won't be fired this season—although four and a half years at a job without a signature win is a problem—even at Mississippi State. He's 5-21 against FBS teams that finish the season with eight or more wins, and that number in the loss column is sure to increase after this season. He's raised the floor of the program but has done nothing to impact the ceiling.

Had the Bulldogs fallen to Kentucky last week—and thanks to Kendrick Market's game-saving tackle, they didn't—maybe Mullen's job would have come into question. But if he goes winless down the stretch and finishes 4-8, he'll be coaching for his job next season. 

Florida would be more likely to make a move in the middle of next season, just because it'd want to get a jump on some big-name prospects in case some other high-profile jobs come open.

@BarrettSallee UT has a solid class for next year, likely top 5, will this influx of talent and Jones' ability lead to UT's return soon?

— Zackary Richards (@ZackRichards13) October 31, 2013

Return to competing for SEC East titles, sure.

We'll see what quarterback Joshua Dobbs has for the Missouri Tigers this weekend. But even if he struggles, he's absolutely the quarterback of the future on Rocky Top. If he struggles, and that pass-rush makes his head spin, that's not something that should get Vols fans down.

Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
Tennessee QB Joshua DobbsJohn David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Let him get acquainted with fellow freshman Marquez North and some of those other young receivers, and he should be able to hit the ground running next season.

Toss in a recruiting class that's currently ranked second in the 247Sports.com composite index and features five-star running back Jalen Hurd and a whopping 10 defensive players with four stars, according to the composite index, and the future looks incredibly bright for Butch Jones' program.

When will the Vols compete for the East title?

It wouldn't surprise me if it happened as soon as next season, but surely by 2015. There's too much talent headed that way for the Vols to stay in SEC anonymity.

 

Do you have a question for next week's Q&A? Send it to SEC lead writer Barrett Sallee via the B/R inbox, on Twitter @BarrettSallee or at bsallee@bleacherreport.com.