AUBURN, Ala. — This will be built up as the Iron Bowl of all Iron Bowls, and maybe that's true. In a state where Auburn and Alabama fans live together uncomfortably, obsessing over each other for 365 days a year, it has been nearly four decades since they played a game with so much on the line for both sides.
After No. 7 Auburn's memorable 43-38 victory against Georgia on Saturday, the stakes are as clear-cut as they could be. On Nov. 30, the winner of the 78th Iron Bowl will earn a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game and stay in contention for the BCS title. The loser will basically be irrelevant the rest of the way.
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But in terms of the risk and pressure typically attached to such a major rivalry, the burden is not shared equally this time.
For Auburn, a team that has floated to 10-1 on the wings of momentum and belief, this is everything the Tigers could want. For No. 1 Alabama, calmly trying to win its third straight national title, this is everything the Tide should fear.
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Over the last few years, the brilliance of Nick Saban's program has been its predictability. Even the rhythms of an Alabama season — when they're going to be sharp and when they're going to struggle with an emotional letdown — can practically be mapped out before the first game.
In two weeks, though, Alabama is walking into Auburn's world and as Georgia, Texas A&M and everyone else can attest, that's a dangerous, volatile, unpredictable place to be.
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Alabama thrives on routine and certainty. And yet, what good does that do against a team with absolutely nothing to lose that not only believes in miracles, but seems to make them happen on a weekly basis?
"This is a special group," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday night after watching his team beat Georgia on a tipped 73-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis that quarterback Nick Marshall heaved down the field on fourth-and-18.
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Though it was the most dramatic and implausible finish of Auburn's season, should anyone really have been surprised?
The Tigers are on an epic, once-in-a-lifetime kind of roll where suddenly nothing seems too far-fetched, even beating the Crimson Tide.
A year ago, Auburn was 3-9 and wallowing in dysfunction under Gene Chizik. Turning that completely around under Malzahn has been far more difficult than winning one more 60-minute football game.
"It's special to me because when you go through something like what we went through last year and you see the benefits of pushing through a season like that, it's a special team," defensive end Dee Ford said. "These are the exact same guys. But I think we found out it's the same guys, but a different mentality."
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Nick Saban and Alabama face Auburn in two weeks in the Iron Bowl.(Photo: Spruce Derden , USA TODAY Sports)
Let's also remember something very important: This is not just smoke and mirrors. Auburn is talented, and just because nobody saw it coming doesn't mean their 10-1 is a fluke.
Though nobody would claim the Tigers are on Alabama's level as program, they do a lot of things very well. Auburn averages 320 rushing yards a game (ranked third in the Football Bowl Subdivision), doesn't take many sacks or negative yardage plays, plays very well on special teams and has some elite defensive linemen. Plus, Marshall — a junior college transfer who played defensive back at Georgia two years ago — has improved every week under Malzahn's tutelage and shown he's more than just a runner.
The question was whether it would be enough to get to 10-1 and set up the kind of wild, winner-take-all Iron Bowl we will see at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30.
"I never let my mind go there," Malzahn said. "We just have been trying to get better every game, and I felt like if we did that we'd have a chance to be a pretty good team and be able to compete by the end of the year."
Now that Auburn has gotten there, why not dream even bigger?
This is a free roll for the Tigers. They're not supposed to beat Alabama, and if they don't, it won't take an ounce of pride away from what they've accomplished this season.
But if they do? Oh my. If they do, not only would they ruin Alabama's three-peat and give quarterback A.J. McCarron a bitter send-off but they'd put themselves in position to really pull off the impossible. A 12-1 Auburn team with an SEC championship on its résumé might not be enough to surpass an undefeated Florida State, Baylor or Ohio State, but it would certainly be next in line to play for the whole thing.
Unlikely? Sure. But the way things have been rolling for Auburn, expect anything.
"We went through a lot last season and in the offseason we were out there working hard and we had a whole different mindset to pay back all the teams that beat us last year," Louis said. "That's what we're doing now and in a couple weeks we've got the Crimson Tide coming in here. We're going to be ready."