AUBURN, Ala. — It didn’t take long after offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn took the job at Auburn that he received his first bit of unsolicited advice regarding the Iron Bowl.
“The first week I was here,” he recalled with a chuckle. “From that you can kind of tell how important it is to our people and our kids. It’s a big one.”
That’s especially the case this year, when more than just bragging rights will be on the line this afternoon at Jordan-Hare Stadium for No. 2 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC).
The Crimson Tide has already punched its ticket to the SEC championship game against Florida in Atlanta next week but must first get past arch-rival Auburn (7-4, 3-4 SEC) if it has hopes of playing for its first national championship since 1992.
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Although Auburn ruled the series with six straight victories from 2002-07, Alabama ended the streak in dominating fashion with a 36-0 rout last year in Tuscaloosa, not that Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban believes that will have an impact today.
“There is nothing outside of this game that really matters this week,” Saban said. “You can throw out the records, rankings, awards, nothing else really matters. This is kind of a state championship game, so to speak. I think it’s always a great football game.”
The Tigers are playing to make a better bowl, stuck in a glut of indistinguishable SEC teams hovering not too far above .500. A win could elevate Auburn as high as the Cotton Bowl. A loss, if things play out correctly, could still land it in Birmingham for the PapaJohns.com Bowl, the last pick of the SEC’s nine bowl tie-ins.
Today’s game will mark the 20th anniversary of the first time Alabama ever made a trip to Auburn for the Iron Bowl. The Tigers prevailed 30-20 against an Alabama team ranked No. 2 in the country that day.
But Auburn has had middling success against extremely strong Crimson Tide teams since. Alabama has entered the Iron Bowl with a top-10 ranking seven times in the last 20 years. It has won five of those games, including last year’s blowout when the Tide was ranked No. 1 in the country.
“I think it brings out the best,” Auburn wide receiver Darvin Adams said. “The higher the other team’s talent, it kind of brings out your talent. It’s like if you’re running a 40 and somebody’s racing you, you probably run a 40 faster if somebody’s racing you. So I think that will bring the best out of us, a big rivalry game. I think we’ll be ready for it.”
If history is an indicator, the team with the better ground game will prevail. The Iron Bowl winner has out-rushed its opponent in each of the last 10 seasons.
Alabama, led by Heisman Trophy hopeful Mark Ingram and dynamic freshman Trent Richardson, is 10th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 225.6 yards per game.
Auburn, which leans on senior Ben Tate, is 11th at 219.5.
While that difference is negligible, that’s not the case at stopping the run. Auburn, lacking depth across its defense, is 88th nationally against the run, giving up 169.7 yards a game.
Alabama, which ranks No. 1 in overall defense, trails only Texas nationally in rushing defense, allowing a mere 70.5 yards per contest.
Auburn has no intention of backing down, however.
“We’re not ever going to talk about anybody intimidating us,” Tigers offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said. “I think just because of the physical nature of their front that happens at times. I think the teams that will step out and take the opposite approach will have a better chance.
“Obviously nobody’s beaten them and nobody’s put a lot of yards on them so they’re pretty good at what they do, so I’m giving them a ton of credit. But we’re not going to be intimidated by anybody.”