Ten Things, Iron Bowl Preview
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#2 Auburn at #11 Alabama - 2:30 EST - CBS - Throw out the records and tear up the stat sheets, my friends. We have a barn burner in Tuscaloosa as the 11th ranked Tide play host to undefeated and #2 Auburn Tigers. You better believe it doesn't take any extra hype to convey the importance of this game. Auburn looks to finish it's second undefeated season of the decade and this time parlay that into their first trip to the BCS National Championship. The Tide, coming off their first BCS Championship, looked to repeat, but have now been relegated to the spoiler role. No matter, though. It was in the same position a year ago headed to Atlanta against favorite Florida and walked away to a 32-13 beat down of the Gators. Surely this game won't be that wide open in either direction, but it certainly has the makings of one of the all-time greats. It was 1994 when these teams last met with such high expectations, when both teams were undefeated and played to a 21-14 Alabama win in Birmingham. Get your game faces on; it's gonna be war.
1. The History
The first ever Iron Bowl was played in 1892, in Birmingham's Lakeview Park - just down the road from my house. The series continued each year until 1907, where the teams played to a 6-6 tie - the only one ever in the series. Beginning 1908 the teams ceased their annual rivalry in all sports due primarily to issues over per diem for the players and officiating selections. In 1947, the schools' respective presidents agreed to bury the hatchet, literally. They held a "Bury the Hatchet" ceremony in Birmingham's Woodrow Wilson Park, signifying the end of hard feelings between the schools. The rivalry has continued from that point uninterrupted each year, played most of the time in Birmingham, AL at Legion Field. In 1989, Auburn wanted to hold their home games, well, at home. The inaugural Iron Bowl at Auburn's Jordan-Hare (pronounced Jerden) saw an underdog Tiger team down the undefeated and #2 ranked Tide. As conditions deteriorated in Legion FIeld, and Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium expanded, the last Birmingham Iron Bowl was played in 1998, where Alabama won 31-17. The largest winning streak is held by Alabama, winning nine straight from 1973-1981. Auburn's longest winning streak is six games, from 2002-2007. Currently, Alabama has won the last two, and looks to make it three in a row for the first time since 1992.
2. Iron Bowls I Remember
I usually try to be objective, but there's no way to truly separate emotion from this type of game. Here are some of the bigest games from my memory:
1998 - The aforementioned last Iron Bowl in Birmingham happened to be the first one I saw in person. Auburn jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, silencing the mostly crimson-clad crowd. The Tide never waivered, though, rolling off 31 unanswered points in the victory. It was definitely a great way to close the chapter in such a historic setting.
2001 - Auburn came in with a 7-3 record, the home field advantage and needed just a win over the Tide to secure a spot in the SEC Championship game. I watched that game at a friend's house; there were maybe seven people there and I was the only Alabama fan. Amidst all the trash-talking by my, um..."friends" there, they seemed to forget that rivalry games do not take record into account. The Tide blasted the Tigers 31-7 for their most dominating win in more than 30 years, and just their second win in Jordan-Hare ever.
2006 - My wife's frst Iron Bowl in person. This time it was my wife who was the fan out of place, as she was an Auburn fan and we were sitting in a particularly partisan section of Bryant-Denny. The Tigers, 10-2 were the visiting, yet favored, team. In a game that Alabama won statistically, it was two crucial sack-fumbles early - both led to touchdowns - and an interception late that sealed the game, 22-15. This was the fifth straight win for Auburn. "One for the Thumb". And another Iron Bowl loss for then-coach Mike Shula. Needless to say, our seat neighbors were not pleased with my wife's jubilation.
3. The Season
This year, the these two teams find themselves in opposite positions as the year before. Last year, it was Alabama who was undefeated headed towards their 13th national championship. Auburn was 7-4 in a season that was good on its own merits, but not what the team was looking for after a 5-0 start. It's this year's Auburn team that is undefeated on a collision course, presumably with Oregon. Alabama has fought its way to a respectable 9-2, but for the defending national champs and preseason #1, it's hard not to look at this year as a little disappointing. Regardless of the outcome, the Tide will be home next week watching Auburn play in Atlanta for the SEC crown. As usual, though, records and rankings mean nothing. While the Tigers remain unbeaten, they have had close call after close call, and their biggest games were at home. This is a great time for this team to get it's biggest test in what could be the school's biggest season in history.
4. The Coaches
Nick Saban came to Tuscalosa four years ago to cheers and praise. Gene Chizik arrived in Auburn to a lunatic with a bad attitude and a camera. Saban amassed a reputation as a phenomenal college coach, with a national title and the chance at another. Chizik was 5-19 and his career highlight was being the DC on an undefeated Auburn team who already had a defensive-minded head coach. It took Saban three years to get Alabama undefeated and a national title. Though Chizik has lost the only head-to-head matchup, he has his team in prime position to not ony even that record, but bring the Tigers to the national peak a year faster than even Saban. Could this be a turning point in the rivalry? Could this coaching rivalry replace what we thought the Saban-Meyer battles would be? The fact is, both of these coaches will be graded, not by championships, but by in-state records.
5. Position Battle: Quarterback
The quarterbacks are often viewed as the most important player on the field. The two that take the field (assuming Cam plays) couldn't be more night and day. Greg McElroy is a field general, matriculating the ball with efficiency, leading his team and executing in the clutch. Cam Newton is electrifying, and quite possibly the most dynamic player in this great rivalry since Bo Jackson, and maybe ever. I have not seen a more improved passer in the country this year than Newton, who has moved away from his one trick pony ways early this season to become a well-rounded weapon. The defense that Newton will play against will be better than what McElroy sees, so expect the Tide QB to have more yards through the air. Both QB's will have to make plays to win the game, and whichever one performs the best will be the difference maker in the game. It's hard to go against a quarterback with a national title, but I give the edge to Newton simply because he has so many ways he can beat you.
6. Most Important: Defense
There is no question which defense will be the better unit on the field. Alabama ranks 7th nationally in total defense and 3rd in scoring defense. Auburn is 50th and 59th, respectively. Auburn, though, is the better rated run defense, ranking 11th in the country. For a team that usually prides itself on the run, watch Auburn stack the box and make the quarterback beat them. He can, by the way, since Auburn is 100th, yes 100th, in pass defense. That's lower than everyone on the Tigers's schedule except South Carolina. Don't forget, though, that even with Auburn's defense as porous as they have been, it's been that same unit that stands firm in the fourth quarter to seal victories, most notably South Carolina and LSU. I think that, while Auburn will certainly get their yards and points, the Alabama D will hold them to season lows in most categories. That is, if they can contain Cam Newton.
7. Wild Card: Special Teams
While everyone will be watching the quarterbacks play the respective defenses, the ace in the hole is going to be special teams. It was Alabama who came into the season with all three first-year kickers. So far they have played well, but they have had their growing pains. Punter Cody Mandell will have to be able to get good distance to make Auburn drive more field for points, like LSU did. As for Auburn, three games have been decided by a field goal. Wes Byrum is a respectable 15 of 19, he's only missed one on the road. Advantage, Auburn.
8. Keys to Victory - Auburn
Auburn's job is simple. Exploit the young Alabama defense and keep scoring. They have enough weapons on offense to keep up with anyone, and they have a defense that can allow most anyone to keep up with them. Cam has to have balance in his game to help keep the Tide guessing, and the running backs need to find the open spaces. They shouldn't need the trickery that helped them grab and hold the lead in last year's game. A simple rushing attack with some big plays from their big quarterback should be sufficient. On defense, stop the run. Ingram and Richardson have had low production this year, but have shown explosiveness. The Tigers need to keep them contained and make tackles by the front seven/eight. The secondary just needs to limit the big plays. They will give up lots of yards, they just need that bend but don't break philosophy.
9. Keys to Victory - Alabama
The idea for Alabama is simple in theory, yet seems imposible to perform. Stop Cam Newton. At least slow him down. The young Alabama defense has the ability and the coaching staff to do it, but that intangible quality of Superman part 2 seems to elude even the most athletic defensive player (see: Patrick Petersen). On offense, same story, different name. Stop Nick Fairley. The man is an absolute beast who can absorb and outmaneuver double teams with the ease of that boy named Suh. The offensive line should be able to scheme him away for a good portion of the gameplan, but must execute. When Fairley gets in the backfield, bad things happen to anyone in his way. As stated before, the special teams need to step up as well. Mandell has to flip field position consistently and kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster must have accuracy - every point matters in this game.
This is the toughest game to call. Any rivalry is. Records, rankings, stat sheets - throw 'em all away. This one comes down to who wants it the most when it matters most. Who sets the tone on the opening drive. This has upset written all over it, but the trouble is Alabama is the favorite. Bama has gone three straight years winning at home, while allowing just one, count 'em one, rushing touchdown (tevan Ridley LSU this year) and has only allowed one 100-yard rusher (Tauren Poole, Tennessee this year). Auburn obviously looks to double one of those stats if not both. I expect Alabama to take out all the stops, much like Auburn did last year when they jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Bama takes the lead early and gets it back late. Call me a homer, an optimist, or a sheep who follows everyone else who think the Tide will win, but they will roll, 30-24.
Roll Tide, and I hope everyone has a happy and safe Thanksgiving weekend.
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