It’s been really getting under my skin this season, the way people are down on the strength of the SEC. Folks all over the media and across the country are pointing to the fact that Florida, Tennessee and Georgia are all struggling this year as evidence of the SEC’s waning dominance. Yet here we are, and two SEC teams are in contention for the national championship game. Second-ranked Auburn is sitting in the driver’s seat, controlling its own destiny, while fifth-ranked LSU is lurking right behind as the top-ranked one-loss team. With TCU scraping by San Diego State and Utah receiving a first-class butt-whooping from a mediocre (at best) Notre Dame team, the Horned Frogs don’t sit so comfortably in their number three spot any longer. Boise State’s marquee win at Virginia Tech was devalued due to Tech’s loss to James Madison the next week. LSU is probably in a position to move up in the human polls if either Auburn or Oregon stumble, and that makes up two-thirds of the BCS equation.
While teams like Florida, Tennessee and Georgia from the SEC, plus most of the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences, are struggling this season, the SEC West is standing strong with six teams in the Top 25 of the BCS, including four teams in the top 12. The state of Alabama is the heart of that strength. The Tide and Tigers are both ranked in the top 11 and have BCS aspirations. Alabama has had a couple of stumbles this year, both on the road and both to top 18 teams who had a bye the previous week (LSU and South Carolina). Auburn has had many close calls, but rallied in the fourth quarter to steal some dramatic victories. While not quite living up to my preseason “play-in game” prediction, this is an Iron Bowl that has serious implication. Auburn has SEC and national title hopes plus a desire to end recent Alabama dominance in the series. Alabama wants state bragging rights and has BCS bowl birth aspirations.
Vulcan’s Favorite Game
Auburn and Alabama played their first game on February 22, 1893, in Lakeview Park—an historical marker on University/Clairmont signals the site of the old football field—which the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (Auburn) won 32-22. Just to start the rivalry off on the right foot, there was a disagreement between the two schools (surprise!) in which Alabama marked the game as it’s final of the 1892 season while Auburn counted it as their first game of 1893. The tension finally came to a head in 1907 when the series was suspended due to disagreements about compensation of players (interesting…) and where the officials would come from.
Like most everything in Alabama, the state government had to step in, and in 1947 the House passed a “resolution” which urged the schools to resume the annual game. In 1948 Ralph B. Draughton, president of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (the next installment of Auburn’s identity), and John Gallalee, president of Alabama, agreed to do just that. They decided that the games would be played at the largest stadium in the state, Legion Field in Birmingham. Alabama took the first game of the renewed rivalry 55-0, which still stands as the largest victory in the series.
In 1989, the first game was played at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which had finally surpassed Legion Field in size, giving Auburn its first “true” home game of the series.
Auburn won 30-20 over the number two ranked and undefeated Tide (this is all sounding familiar). Alabama continued to hold its “home” round of the series at Legion Field until 2000, even after the expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium in 1998. Auburn won every game in Tuscaloosa until 2008 season when the Nick Saban led Tide put a stop to the Tigers’ six-year dominance in the series, winning 36-0.
The most recent installment of the Iron Bowl saw the game return to the Friday after Thanksgiving—the first time in 21 years. The Tigers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead on the number-two ranked and undefeated Tide, exciting the home crowd with a reverse and an onside kick. The Tide battled back to tie the game 14-14 at halftime. The Tigers regained the lead in the third quarter making it 21-14, until Alabama scored 12 unanswered points to secure the 26-21 victory.
Black Friday turns Crimson and Blue
This year, the Iron Bowl will once again be held on the Friday following Thanksgiving, affectionately known as “Black Friday.” This is a day full of madness, mayhem and crazed shoppers eyeing insane deals. Fresh off a day of relaxation and over-indulgence, buyers are ready to burn off those calories finding bargains and value-buys. It’s all about getting your money’s worth.
Well, look no further than the 2010 Iron Bowl if you want bang for your buck. With each team ranked in the top 11 of the BCS, there is plenty to play for. Alabama still has hope that they can beat the Tigers and claim an at-large BCS birth, which would be their third BCS game in as many years. The Tigers are aiming a little bit higher. Sitting at the number two stop in the BCS standings, Auburn is hoping to make it all the way to Glendale for the BCS title game. The Tigers are looking to follow in the steps of last year’s Tide, who grabbed the national title and an undefeated season, as well as a Heisman winner. Auburn has positioned themselves for a chance to do exactly that, but make no mistake, neither team needs much motivation for this one.
With the Iron Bowl, the stakes are always high. Recruiting, bragging rights, school pride, even some good old-fashioned dislike, plus just a touch of fan pressure (just a touch) make the Iron Bowl one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. The players know how big a game this is. Even if the game existed in a bubble that did not reach past the state of Alabama, this would be a game of monumental importance. A price can never be put on pride.
But the game is not played in a bubble. This game almost always seems to be of regional and national importance as well. Either Auburn or Alabama has represented the SEC West in the SEC championship 11 of the 19 years since its inception in 1992 (seven for Alabama, four for Auburn). The winner of the SEC championship is guaranteed a BCS birth. Plus, the SEC championship has never been played with either team being unranked, usually with at least one team in the top five.
Alabama came into the season as the preseason number one team and favorite to repeat as national champs. Auburn was ranked number 23 in the preseason by USA Today and looked doomed to play little brother to the Tide yet again.
It looks like Alabama has fallen prey to the curse of number one. For the last three seasons, an SEC team was the preseason number one team and failed to win it all. The Tide returned most of an offense that led them to a national championship, but they lost a lot of key players on a defense that was the real reason for their success last season. By a “lot” I mean 9 of 11 starters. I don’t care who you are, that is incredibly difficult to overcome. The defense has looked great at times, but it has also looked shaky. Both South Carolina and LSU were able to capitalize on the weakness of the defense— the secondary—and pull out victories against the defending champs.
Auburn had a lot of potential coming into the season. But they also had a lot of question marks. Blinn Junior College transfer QB Cameron Newton was at the center of both. There was a feeling that if Cam could handle the pressure of the SEC, then the Tigers would have a chance at a special season; but that was a big “if.” Well, now it’s a big “yes.” Newton has exceeded all but the wildest, craziest expectations. He is poised to become the first junior college transfer to win the Heisman and lead Auburn to the Promised Land. He has been dazzling on the field. But all might not be well on the Plains. There has been some issue with Newton’s recruitment and eligibility. That will be a question hanging over the Tigers until it is resolved, but it seems that Newton will play in the Iron Bowl. Unless there is some new information brought to light (which seems to happen every 36 hours or so).
Exciting New 2010 Models!
Both teams have been showing off the most explosive offensives that either team has boasted—well, pretty much ever. Add to that two defenses with some weaknesses(though Auburn’s appear a teensy bit bigger), and the 2010 installment of the Iron Bowl is shaping up to be one of the more offensive and electrifying games in a series that is perennially dominated by defenses.
Alabama has scored 60-plus points twice this season, and 23-plus in every single game. widereceiver Julio Jones has stepped up on the big stage to fulfill his potential as a go-to, game changing receiver. Jones is 115 yards short of being Alabama’s first 1,000 yard receiver since DJ Hall in 2007 (1,005 yards). Hall set the single-season record in 2006 with 1,056 yards. David Palmer is the only other Tide receiver with 1,000 yards, with exactly that in 1993. Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson have combined for 1414 yards rushing and 15 TDs on the ground, plus 406 yards and five TDs receiving. Quarterback Greg McElroy continues to manage the offense, though he has looked shaky a few times this season, most notable in the loss to South Carolina; however, McElroy has still put up very solid numbers, completing 182 of his 259 passes for 2390 yards with 17 TDs and only five interceptions.
Auburn has been explosive on offensive this season, to say the least. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and quarterback Cameron Newton have got the Tigers rolling at a recordsetting pace. Newton has been dynamic this season, completing 68 percent of his passes for 2,038 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. Newton is just as deadly with his legs, rushing for 1,297 yards and another 17 TDs on the ground (leading the SEC in both). Malzahn’s offensive might be a wide-open spread attack, but it is basically a fancy variation of the wishbone or wing-T. Four Tigers have carried the ball over 55 times, each with at least four rushing TDs (Newton, Michael Dyer, Onterio McCaleb band Mario Fannin). The Tigers have 3,387 yards rushing with 37 TDs this season. But there is plenty to go around. The Tigers also have five different receivers with double-digit receptions, collectively amassing 2,170 yards and 22 TDs.
Iron Clad Prediction
So who’s going to win this year? Auburn’s offense has looked unstoppable for most of the season, but their defense has been lucky to stop almost anyone. Auburn has only held three teams to less than 20 points this season.
Alabama’s offense has been rolling, putting up a steady stream of points. Maybe not quite as “explosive” as Auburn’s, but no less intimidating. The defense has played some superb games, but has been exploited in their two losses.
Well, this one is going to break the mold.
Normally the team with the better defense would have the best chance of winning this game. Historically, the Iron Bowl is a low scoring, physical clash of SEC titans (titans might be a stretch, but you get the idea), but this year both teams will likely score over 20 points, maybe even over 30.
If that does indeed happen, I think the match up favors Auburn. But Alabama can wear down that Auburn defense with Ingram and Richardson and then exploit the weak secondary with Jones, Maze, and Hanks.
So here we go: 42-31 with a team from the State of Alabama winning.
One thing I can say with clarity: The state of football in the state of Alabama is strong.
War Tide and Roll Eagle.
John Easterling writes the X’s & O’s blog for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to email@example.com.