Alabama-Auburn Rivalry Gets Set For One Of Its Biggest

The eyes of the state of Alabama are always on the Iron Bowl this time of year, as the Alabama-Auburn rivalry makes its annual renewal. This year the eyes of the nation are on the Tide-Tigers battle, as Alabama comes in ranked #1 and looking for an unprecedented third straight national title. Auburn is playing at minimum for a shot at the SEC crown and to keep their national hopes alive–hopes some of us believe should be in the Tigers’ own hands.

It’s the biggest game in this rivalry since 1971, when both teams were undefeated, but there have been some big ones in the period of 1976 to the present, the timeframe TheSportsNotebook specializes in. Here are a few…

*In 1981, Bear Bryant became college football’s all-time winningest coach with Alabama’s 28-17 win. Bryant has since been passed by Florida State legend Bobby Bowden (and by Joe Paterno as well, even if the NCAA witch-hunt has Paterno temporarily barred from the record book. But the Bear, with his five national titles and dominance of the SEC remains a part of any credible discussion of the best college football coach ever.

*Alabama had national title hopes in 1989 when they came to Auburn, while the Tigers could still play their way into an SEC crown (sound familiar). Auburn won 30-20 and dominated the game in a way the final score doesn’t reflect.

*Both teams were undefeated in 1994 and if not for Auburn being on probation, this game might trump 1971. Alabama won a 21-14 thriller before losing the SEC Championship Game.

*Of more recent vintage were the consecutive comebacks of 2009 and 2010, each with a national championship on the line. Alabama was down 21-20 when Greg McElroy led the Tide on a late drive that preserved their chance to play Texas for all the marbles. Auburn’s comeback a year later was even more dazzling–in a 24-0 hole, Cam Newton cemented the Heisman with a rally to win 28-24 and set up a championship date with Oregon. In both cases of course, the SEC team won it all.

The oddsmakers are not optimistic about similar thrills being ahead for this one. Auburn is a great story, as Gus Malzahn has returned them to national relevance with surprising speed. But Alabama just keeps efficiently churning out wins, and the Tide come into this game a 10-point road favorite.

Both teams have potent running attacks, with Tre Mason leading the way for Auburn and T.J. Yeldon for Alabama. The latter has had a bad ankle, but is expected to play. Even if he doesn’t, I’m sure ‘Bama has a backup who can get the job done.

The quarterbacks are a study in contrasts. Auburn’s Nick Marshall is a runner, second to Mason in rush yardage with 823 on the season. McCarron is the prototype dropback passer whose been extremely efficient all year.

McCarron is really a microcosm of his team, which is appropriate for the quarterback. You don’t look at him and see greatness, but he simply doesn’t make mistakes and because of that, becomes almost impossible to beat.

Alabama is not a dominant #1 team. The program’s body of work going back to 2009 is dominant, with the three national crowns already in the books, but that’s a mark of supreme consistency, not unbeatability. The Tide gave up 42 points to Texas A&M and their 38-17 home win over LSU was close longer than the score indicates.

No one, not even Auburn themselves, thinks of the Tigers as a great team. What they are is a team on a magic ride, with their close win over A&M being one piece of evidence and their stunning win over Georgia being the most obvious manifestation.

I’ve gotten burned too many times going against Alabama in recent years to go down that path again. I think the Tide will win. Given the size of the line, I wouldn’t actually wager the game in either case. But if you make me pick, then sure…I’ll take a flyer on the home underdog getting ten.