The stakes of the Iron Bowl haven't been quite this high in sometime.
On Saturday afternoon, Alabama and Auburn will play at Jordan-Hare Stadium with a spot in the Southeastern Conference Championship on the line. Both teams are ranked in the top four, with Alabama laying claim to the No. 1 in the BCS, just as it has all season long.
Forget about the rivalry, the stakes and the hype for a second. Think about the NFL talent these two schools have produced over the years. A total of 55 active NFL players played college football at either Auburn or Alabama. In the 2013 NFL Draft, three Alabama players were selected in the first round, back-to-back-to-back. Just two years earlier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Cam Newton, came from Auburn.
More NFL talent is on the way, and when these two teams take the field on Saturday, those talented players will be on display for the entire college football world to see.
When Alabama has the football
Alabama's offense is reliant on the running game. While more than half of Alabama's starting offensive line moved on to the NFL last season, the Crimson Tide was able to replace those bodies somewhat easily. Cyrus Kouandjio is one of the top draft-eligible offensive tackles in the country. He has the ideal frame and moves well for his size. He's continued to improve at keeping defenders out of his chest and controlling them more with his strength. Anthony Steen is Alabama's top interior offensive lineman, and he looks like a potential day two pick at this point.
Everyone wants to talk about A.J. McCarron as the face of this Alabama team. While he's put together a prolific career in terms of wins, his NFL potential doesn't match up. He has just average velocity on most of his throws and is limited as an athlete. The talent around him tends to make him look better than he is.
The best talent around McCarron isn't draft-eligible yet. Running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper are both true sophomores, but both are impact players for Alabama's offense. Look for both to get high preseason grades for the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Crimson Tide offense should have one of its toughest challenges of the season on Saturday. Auburn ranks fourth in the SEC in sacks with 24 and has a few NFL-caliber players on the edge. Dee Ford is the most notable talent on the Tigers' defense. He's quick off the edge, even if he is a bit undersized. He should be a handful for Kouandjio. Opposite Ford, Nosa Eguae should be able to hold his own at the point of attack. In the secondary, Chris Davis and Ryan White should be able to limit big plays from Alabama's passing attack.
When Auburn has the football
Auburn deploys a three-man rotation at running back that would make any defensive coach cringe. Junior Tre Mason leads the way. He's already rushed for over 1,000 yards on the season and has 17 rushing touchdowns. He's a laterally explosive running back who has been a bit of a workhorse, carrying the ball 208 times this season. Junior quarterback Nick Marshall makes the rushing attack even more dangerous with his ability to keep the defense honest with both his arms and his legs. Juniors Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne round out the Tigers' rushing attack. Meanwhile, junior wide receiver Sammy Coates will be the guy to key on in Auburn's passing attack.
The Crimson Tide defense won't be easy to move the ball on, though. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is one of the top prospects in the country. Mosley is the type of linebacker who is as comfortable attacking a blocker as he is covering a pass-catcher in space. The rest of the front-seven is talented, but not on the same level as Mosley. Outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard hasn't lived up to his combination of length and speed just yet. Defensive end Ed Stinson has been a bit under the radar this season, but he's quietly developed into a potential day two pick.
The other star of Alabama's defense is safety Ha'sean Clinton-Dix. He's improved his angles and discipline in coverage this season and hits as hard as ever. He has the quick-twitch speed and reaction ability to cover a lot of ground in the secondary, and Nick Saban gives him plenty of responsibility.
Key question: Will Alabama be able to keep Auburn's running game in check?
If Auburn is able to move the football on the ground, it has a chance to control the game against Alabama. It's how Auburn has been winning for much of the season. Marshall will also have to rise to the challenge, because running doesn't come easy against Alabama. The junior quarterback has made strides for Auburn this season, but this will be his biggest test of the season.