AUBURN, Ala. — Bragging rights are taking a backseat for a change in this Iron Bowl.
It’s No. 1 Alabama versus No. 4 Auburn Saturday in a rivalry game that has reached epic proportions in the state beyond even the usual craving for 364 days of rubbing it in.
The winner of only the second Top-5 matchup in the Iron Bowl’s 78-year history will play for the Southeastern Conference championship, and live on in the national title derby.
“Oh man, it’s going to be a battle,” Crimson Tide receiver Kevin Norwood said.
If the SEC title game has been a national semifinal game during the league’s seven-year run of BCS champs, welcome to what could amount to the quarterfinals. Iron Bowl style.
The Tide (11-0, 7-0 SEC) remains the national front-runner and is a 10.5-point favorite for this one. The Tigers (10-1, 6-1) have arguably been the season’s biggest surprise, though unlike Alabama they’d likely still need either No. 2 Florida State or No. 3 Ohio State to lose.
Auburn has lost the past two Iron Bowls by a combined 91-14 and failed to produce an offensive touchdown in either game. Much has changed since coach Gus Malzahn’s arrival.
“We’ve been fueled by doubt all season,” Auburn tailback Tre Mason said. “A lot of guys are fired up and we like being the underdog.”
It hasn’t been an ideal position in this game historically. The highest ranked team has gone 42-10 in the Iron Bowl since 1955, but there have been precious few like this one.
The 1971 game pitted No. 3 Alabama versus No. 5 Auburn. The 1989 game was huge for Auburn fans as the first one played at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Perhaps this one will end up topping them all. The Tigers haven’t been under this kind of spotlight since the 2010 national championship season that helped give the state a string of four straight.
The teams are jockeying to preserve their hopes of making it five.
“We’re going to try not to have that outside pressure feed in and all the media and hype that the outside people are going to bring in affect us but at the same time, we’re going to bring that intensity ourselves,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah said.
No top-ranked Alabama team has faced an opponent ranked this high during the regular season.
Plus, it’s Alabama-Auburn, a statewide obsession even in lean years. Tide coach Nick Saban says games like this boil down to execution.
“It really doesn’t matter what anybody says, what anybody thinks, who’s favored,” Saban said. “It really doesn’t matter.”