The stakes at risk in Saturday’s edition of the Iron Bowl may be unprecedented, but don’t you dare tell fans on either side that beating their rival means more than ever before.
The Auburn-Alabama game has established itself as the premier rivalry in college football, and Saturday’s game has the makings of a classic. The two teams are ranked in the top six in the country and meet with a division title, an appearance in the SEC Championship Game and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff on the line.
But this isn’t the first time a chance at a championship was up for grabs, and even if the game lacked national relevance, it wouldn’t matter. Because the allure of the Iron Bowl is the passion, and the passion stems directly from the people who flock to it.
Al Abbott, a 1984 graduate of Alabama and a former president of the Chattahoochee Valley Bama Club, recalled a situation his father George faced when Abbott was a child.
George and his family had moved to Alabama from North Carolina, and his new boss quickly demanded some pertinent information from him.
“Who do you pull for?” The boss asked his brand-new employee.
George explained he was an N.C. State fan since it was his alma mater, but that answer was unsatisfactory.
“George, you have two choices: Alabama or Auburn,” the boss responded. “You come back next week and tell me.”
After having some time to mull it over, Abbott said his father reached a decision.
“He came back the next week and said, ‘I choose Alabama,’” Abbott said. “His boss said, ‘Right choice.’”
A Tigers’ tale
For Columbus’ Ben Bone, Auburn football is practically all he’s ever known.
Growing up, Bone was a frequent visitor in the Tigers locker room thanks to cousin Jimmy Bone, who played linebacker. Out-of-state tuition led Bone to stay in Georgia for college, but it didn’t stop him from heading to Tigers games on Saturdays.
When it comes to the Iron Bowl, Bone said he’s missed a few here and there over the years. But he’s had his share of great experiences, like in 2003 when he and his friends filed into the stadium just in time to watch Cadillac Williams take the opening play 80 yards for an Auburn touchdown. Or two years later, when the Tigers’ defense sacked Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle 11 times and inspired bumper stickers that read, “Honk if you sacked Brodie.”
And who could forget about the Kick Six in 2013, when the Tigers pulled off the most improbable victory en route to a national championship game appearance?
Bone has been there for his side’s breathtaking wins and their miserable losses. And by 6 a.m. Saturday, he’ll pack up his truck and trailer with the grill and goodies and head west once again.
Bone and his party will set up their usual tailgating spot near the stadium and welcome back the friends they haven’t seen since the last Iron Bowl. Bone explained the tailgate festivities are much tamer now that children are in the picture, adding that taking the kids to the Auburn bookstore and out to see the Tiger Walk are two primary traditions.
The rivalry will reach its fever pitch at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, but Bone intimated it’s a slow burn throughout the season. Bone works in medical sales, and the Iron Bowl allegiances are present there, too.
“This (game) is talked about year round,” Bone said. “(Friday) at the hospital, people were wearing Auburn scrubs or the other team’s scrubs. It’s a big deal.”
See it to believe it
Fans on either side of the rivalry share one common belief — there are simply no words to describe the Iron Bowl experience.
For Abbott, his best comparison is the animosity surrounding the Duke-North Carolina basketball series. In both instances, it’s a case of two in-state schools that are relatively close, have fairly consistent national standing and just plain don’t like each other.
Even with that disdain, many just want to see a competitive showdown between the two teams. Blair Brown, who is the current president of the Chattahoochee Valley Bama Club, recalled leaving the Iron Bowl at halftime in 2012, a game Alabama won 49-0.
Brown isn’t in it for the blowouts, and he certainly isn’t in it for the hatred that became famous when Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke poisoned the trees at Toomer’s Corner.
“My best friend is an Auburn fan, and we talk about it all week,” Brown said. “It’s one of those things where you want to come away as friends afterward. A few years back with the whole Updyke situation, that really put a bad mark on the rivalry. What I like to see is a good game and a good rivalry.”
Brown, Bone and Abbott understand the magnitude of the 82nd meeting between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers.
An Alabama win clinches another undefeated season and takes the team a step closer to its third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance. An Auburn win marks the second time this season the Tigers have beaten the No. 1 team and sets up a rematch with a Georgia squad it walloped 40-17 two weeks ago.
Whether it’s a game for the ages or not, the fans in crimson and the ones in blue and orange will keep the stadium rocking for at least 60 minutes of play.
Abbott, his father, his brother David and his son Tucker will be among those roaring for Alabama. It’s an annual tradition for the four, one that bookends a stretch of days when family from Florida and South Carolina settle in at Abbott’s for Thanksgiving. Abbott said his father reserves trips to see the Crimson Tide for only “the big games,” and the Iron Bowl always applies.
Thursday with the Abbotts was spent relishing another chance for loved ones to spend quality time together. But like anything else surrounding the Iron Bowl, the rivalry naturally seeped into the conversation.
“Every year we come together for Thanksgiving and say all the things we’re thankful for,” Abbott said. “I looked at him and said, ‘Dad, I’m thankful you picked Alabama.’”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports