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Coming into Iron Bowl, Alabama's 'D' rolling, while Auburn's .... not so much

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Toss a dart at any position on No. 2 Alabama's defense, and chances are you'll hit a candidate for a national or Southeastern Conference honor.

Best not to throw anything at Auburn, because the Tigers can't risk any more injuries.

Auburn is as thin as the Crimson Tide is deep, which could mean trouble going against Mark Ingram and a punishing Alabama offense Friday in the Iron Bowl.

Alabama (11-0, 7-0) brings in a defense that leads the nation in total and pass efficiency defense, ranks second in scoring defense and has playmaking stars spread from front to back. The Tide has allowed only six touchdowns in seven SEC games, holding five of those teams to single digits in points.

"They're very talented. That's where you have to start in this league for anybody that's good at what they do," said Auburn coach Gene Chizik, a former defensive coordinator for the Tigers and Texas.

Auburn (7-4, 3-4), meanwhile, is enduring growing pains in Year 1 under defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who has limited depth and experience to work with. He has freshman Darren Bates, junior college transfer Demond Washington (playing out of position at safety) and sophomore Neiko Thorpe starting in the secondary.

Linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens play virtually every snap.

The Tigers are ranked better than 78th in only one of the major defensive categories, standing 24th against the pass.

Auburn has allowed 62 points over the last two games, Alabama has given up just 71 in its last nine.

On one side, Alabama has linebacker Rolando McClain and nose guard Terrence Cody, both finalists for national defensive player of the year awards and still in the mix as the top player at their respective positions. Then there's cornerback Javier Arenas, considered one of the nation's top defensive backs.

Plus, end Marcell Dareus is fourth in the SEC in sacks, and safety Mark Barron is tops in interceptions.

"A lot of teams we've played this year we've been able to pick out one spot, 'Their D-line is the strength of the defense. Or their strength is their linebackers," right tackle Andrew McCain said. "Alabama is one of those teams that they're solid all the way around. When you look at that defense, you have to understand that you can't pick them apart at their weakness because they really don't have any."

Alabama coach Nick Saban was complimentary of Auburn's style of defense and the secondary led by cornerback Walt McFadden.

"They play hard, they play with toughness," Saban said. "I think they've improved tremendously on defense especially in the back end and how they play. Their front seven is physical and playing very well."

The Tigers' lone defensive star is end Antonio Coleman, who leads the SEC with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. But quarterback Greg McElroy also singled out linebacker Josh Bynes and cornerback Walt McFadden.

Both defenses have been hit by injuries. Alabama lost inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower to a season-ending knee injury, while three Auburn safeties are out for the season.

Auburn middle linebacker Eltoro Freeman is nursing a right ankle injury, but Chizik said he made some progress during the open week.

Alabama's defense dominated last year's 36-0 win, holding Auburn to 178 total yards and eight first downs.

Auburn center Ryan Pugh said there's no comparison between the Tigers' offense this year and last year under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.

"Our offense definitely poses a different threat," Pugh said. "We were horrible on offense last year. This year is a different case. I think we're significantly better -- a hundred times better. It's things like that that gives you more confidence."

Auburn relies heavily on keeping defenses off-balance with a fast tempo and a dash of trickery. Arenas thinks the veteran Tide defense is hard to fool, though.

"I think we are, because of the amount of time we as players and coaches as well put into each and every thing that opponents do, so nothing will come as a surprise," he said.

Auburn's defenders have had to battle through depth issues that take a toll as the game progresses. Auburn has allowed 65 points in the first quarter, 67 in the second, 77 in the third and 88 in the fourth.

A 'Bama offense that pounds away with Ingram and Trent Richardson has outscored opponents 96-24 in the final quarter. Guard Mike Johnson said wearing Auburn down isn't part of the plan going into the game.

"That's not something we even think about until probably the fourth quarter gets here," Johnson said. "We're just going to worry about where we're lining up and who their players are and try to take advantage of the stuff that we do best. When the fourth quarter gets here, we'll keep running the same plays and see how they react."