TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They were positioned at key points around the perimeter of the Alabama football practice field.
Their function was as symbolic as functional.
The five Tuscaloosa police cars were all keeping a watchful eye on the goings on outside the covered fences where game planning and scheming took play.
Oh yes, this is definitely Iron Bowl week.
Nobody is getting a peek inside the secretive walls in the days before second-ranked Auburn comes to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the 2:30 p.m. Friday showdown. The patrol cars and the two uniformed officers who stood at the gate to the fields aren’t typically manning those posts for any other game.
But inside the walls, the message is different: Treat this one no differently than the others.
“It’s not about what happened last year,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “None of that really matters. It’s about this week, this time, this game, and our focus is going to be on the preparation for our team to play the best football and give our guys the best opportunity to be successful against a very good team.”
The stakes, though, are undeniable.
Auburn (11-0, 7-0 SEC) has a shot to keep its national championship dreams alive since a loss will undoubtedly wound that possibility a week before playing South Carolina in the SEC championship game.
No. 9 Alabama (8-2, 5-2 SEC) has that opportunity to spoil the surprisingly rapid ascent of the Auburn program while keeping an outside hope of earning an at-large bid to BCS bowl also needing LSU to lose to Arkansas.
LSU could also be blamed for spoiling what could have been the Iron Bowl to end them all. Had the Bengal Tigers lost to Alabama on Nov.6, Friday’s game would have been a winner-take-all showdown for the SEC West Division title. But LSU and its gambling coach found enough magic to upset the Tide 24-21 and take some of the luster off the rivalry game that still has plenty remaining.
Regardless of the slightly diminished rewards, this is still the premier intrastate meeting in the country. And nobody in Tuscaloosa is thinking about who is playing in Atlanta on Dec. 4 and who’ll be watching on television.
“We’re not really worried about them,” Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said.
Unlike McElroy, who grew up in California and Texas, Tide receiver Julio Jones is a Foley, Ala., native. He grew up around the rivalry -- well sorta.
“I heard about it, but I really didn’t watch college football until about 10th grade in high school,” Jones said. “I really didn’t care much about it. It’s a big rivalry. Home state. It’s like a rivalry between football teams in a city.”
So how is it possible to avoid getting caught up in the yearly coming of Armageddon every November?
“I was just always outside,” Jones said. “I didn’t stay inside. I’m an outdoors person.”
Outside is where he’ll be Friday afternoon in a frenzied Bryant-Denny Stadium.
It’s also where unwelcomed visitors to Alabama football practice remained Sunday evening.
It is, after all Iron Bowl week. No precaution is unnecessary with this much on the line.