This weekend, folks, is why college football rivalry games are so great.
The good rivalries – the ones that stand the test of time – manage to transcend a mere game and go beyond bragging rights and conference achievements. The Iron Bowl is a classic rivalry game because it surpasses the usual traits of a great rivalry to become a regional social movement and a nationally vital football game.
And rarely has a season culminated in a more meaningful Iron Bowl.
But, this 2010 version of the Iron Bowl is all the more intriguing because the first game played between the two – in February of 1893 – launched a more than 100 year battle between the schools on and off the field. When the first pairing of these teams concluded, Alabama recorded the loss as the final game of the 1892 season. In true, then burgeoning rivalry form, Auburn recorded the win as the first win of the 1893 season.
And the rivalry was born.
Of course college football has changed a lot in the past 100-plus years. For starters, Alabama has spent time this Century on probation for a smattering of violations that set the program back for years. Auburn now stands on the investigative precipice, where a similar decision may be handed down about its program if allegations about quarterback Cam Newton are backed up with facts. While it has seemed that neither school can avoid controversy in recent seasons, the game on the field is still very compelling.
While Cam Newton is certainly a controversial player right now – at least with a guilty verdict handed down from the court of public opinion – he is also extremely talented. If Tim Tebow and Cam Newton can be compared on ANYTHING, it is that both were large quarterbacks with a physical running style that has proven successful in the SEC. Newton is a beast of a football player, but he not impossible to bottle up. Clemson nearly beat Auburn early in the season by containing Newton with strong play from the defensive ends and forcing him to the middle of the field. Clemson lost that game in overtime largely because of offensive incompetence… a trait that is not shared by Auburn’s opponent this weekend.
Another interesting factor in this game is that this season is really a do or die season for Auburn. After battling for years to achieve great recognition on a national stage, the program is teetering on an inflection point that may fizzle if Newton is found guilty and the rumors of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s departure come to fruition this off-season. Without Newton’s power and Malzahn’s ingenuity Auburn will not be the same next season. If Auburn is ever going to achieve the recognition fans believe they have deserved for decades, then winning is the only option this season, making this game against Alabama that much more important.
Of course there is also that burdensome and inescapable slight from the BCS in 2004, when it appeared as though Auburn deserved a shot at the national title as much as Oklahoma and Southern Cal, but the school was shut out of the BCS title game. Keep in mind, even 2004 was long before the national media began to lavish praise on the SEC as THE college football conference. Still burning from what fans believed was an obvious slight, the program desperately needs a win against Alabama to build the momentum required to defeat South Carolina in the conference title game and punch a ticket for the title.
But, just before you think that every storyline in this game will revolve in some way around Auburn, consider that Alabama has only won three times this Century. That’s right, Auburn has been victorious in this game in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. In many ways, Alabama is still seeking to jettison years of bragging rights from the Tiger faithful.
Here underdog Alabama sits, a lowly 9-2 in a season of massive expectations with a returning Heisman Trophy winner and tremendous offensive skill players. Revenge is just as much in the air for Alabama as for Auburn, even if the flavor is more subtle.
In a game never wont for hype, these two teams are poised to play the most physical football game of this season, and perhaps even of their careers. If you watch no other football games this weekend, watch Auburn-Alabama at 2:30p on Friday. Let the wife head to the mall and brave the crowds while you pretend to have a turkey hangover in your favorite easy chair. Once her car is clear of the driveway, kick back and enjoy the best football game of the weekend.