Joe Medley Commentary: Nick Saban, Tide handle hype in way we've come to know

November 25, 2013 

So, this year's Iron Bowl will be the Iron Bowl to end all Iron Bowls?

Like, take 1989, add 2010 and multiply by 1971?

Biggest. Stakes. Ever?

Yeah, right. Not in Tuscaloosa, not with the lead voices of the Alabama program.

"Obviously the Iron Bowl is a great rivalry game, one that's recognized all over the country in college football," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

"If you're a competitor, it's a great opportunity to compete if you're playing in a game like this that means a lot to a lot of people on both sides.

"But our team has worked very hard to create an opportunity for themselves, and the focus needs to be on playing your best football."

In other words, as Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron puts it, it's just another game.

It would be hard to believe, if Saban and his players hadn't been so darned consistent about such things and won so many "Games of the Century" and on the way to three national titles in four years.

That seems to be the mood in Tuscaloosa, five days out from Saturday's showdown between top-ranked Alabama (11-0) and No. 4 Auburn (10-1) in Auburn.

In terms of stakes, this year's Iron Bowl will be the biggest. It's the first time since 1971 that both in-state rivals enter the game ranked in the top five.

The winner wins the SEC West division and goes to the SEC championship.

Because of how things have shaken out elsewhere, both teams come into this game with prospects of a national-title shot.

Alabama's prospects are better, but Auburn victories Saturday and in the SEC championship, coupled with a Big Ten championship loss for No. 3 Ohio State against No. 11 Michigan State, could put Auburn in Pasadena.

There's no backdrop tension, like the first Iron Bowl played on Auburn's campus (1989) or an NCAA probe of a controversial player (2010), but there's no deadpanning the football tension.

This Auburn team will be the highest-ranked team Alabama has ever played in the regular season as the nation's top-ranked team.

Still, the biggest difference between the two teams, besides talent that makes Alabama a 10.5- to 11-point favorite on the road, is their experience in moments like this.

Auburn's two-deep includes six players who were on the two-deep when Auburn beat Oregon to complete the Tigers' 2010 national title run -- defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Jake Holland, cornerback Chris Davis, kicker Cody Parkey, punter Steven Clark and deep snapper Jake Lembke. None were starters.

Auburn beat Texas A&M and Georgia this season, mounting the nation's biggest turnaround after going 3-9 a year ago, but most of Auburn's two-deep came into this season

having endured two years of blowout losses against marquee opponents.

Of the 72 players listed on Alabama's depth chart for Saturday's Iron Bowl, 14 are freshmen.

The rest have been on the active roster for at least one national title.

The Tide has lost big games, like the 2011 "Game of the Century" against LSU and the Texas A&M game in 2012.

Some Alabama players even remember 2010, when Alabama lost three games, including the Iron Bowl against Cam Newton-led Auburn.

But it's a team raised on big moments and raised in the Saban way of handling them, which is why they greet hype like a windshield greets a bug.

"We just try to emphasize with our players that you've got to focus on the right stuff so that you can go play your best football," Saban said.

"If there was a better way to do it, we would have already tried to do it because we've already had some other big games."

-- Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, On Twitter @jmedley_star.

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