Barest Chance For Tide

So here we are, two days away from another three hour block of good old-fashioned hate known as the Iron Bowl, and no one is giving Alabama much of a chance. Which sounds about right. Auburn waltzes into Bryant-Denny Stadium 10-0, the number three team in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. The Tigers are probably the best team in the Southeastern Conference.

They might be the best team in America, and a victory could vault them ahead of Oklahoma into the number two BCS slot–earning them a date with Southern Cal in January 4's Orange Bowl.

Auburn opened the week as an 8.5-point favorite, and it was no surprise that the line rose into double digits.

It would be one of the biggest upsets of the season–and in Iron Bowl history–if Alabama emerged with the larger number next to its name when the clock hits triple-zero late Saturday afternoon.

So should they cancel the game? Award the Tigers a 3-0 forfeit and run three hours of "Juiceman" infomercials on CBS national television in its place?

Of course not.

Part of the Iron Bowl's beauty is the unpredictable.

Take 1985, when Van Tiffin's famous 52-yard field goal capped a frantic fourth quarter and lifted unranked Alabama past number 7 Auburn.

Or 1989, when Auburn ended Alabama's dreams of a national title with a 30-20 victory in the first Iron Bowl on the Plains.

Or even 2001.

Three years ago, a 4-5 Crimson Tide team limped to the Plains with an uncertain quarterback situation and a new coach–Dennis Franchione–experiencing his first Iron Bowl.

Auburn was playing for an SEC West title and a trip to Atlanta.

But Franchione somehow manipulated his quarterback troubles and poor coaching by Auburn's Tommy Tuberville into a shocking 31-7 Crimson Tide victory.

It was completely inexplicable–kind of like the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

One of the freshest wounds in the series came two years ago, when an unranked Auburn team shocked number nine Alabama 17-7 in Tuscaloosa.

It turned out to be Franchione's last game in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

He bolted to Texas A&M two weeks later, leaving behind a program which is only now gaining stability from coaching changes and NCAA probation.

Now, under second-year coach Mike Shula, the Tide appears on its way back towards respectability, if not national prominence.

It has already locked up the program's first bowl bid in three seasons–likely in the Independence, Music City or Peach Bowls–and has improved its record at least two victories from last season's 4-9 debacle.

And Alabama has done so while losing its entire starting backfield to season-ending right knee injuries and wading through a number of assorted major and minor injuries elsewhere on the roster.

The program still has its problems–depth remains thin from a probation that has stripped 21 scholarships from the roster, and Shula's biggest victory in almost two seasons as Tide coach is a 27-3 blowout of number 24 Southern Miss a month ago.

He's had a series of almost-but-not-quite losses to Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and even Auburn a year ago, but hasn't gotten the "signature victory" that some fans crave and others deride as a media-driven cliché.

Of course, all that can change Saturday if the Tide can somehow cobble together an upset of Auburn with a solid running game and great defense–the two things that have willed this team to six victories this season despite the utter lack of a passing threat.

An Iron Bowl victory can cure plenty of what ails. Just ask Tuberville, who might have saved his job a year ago by beating the Tide.

Had Alabama whipped the Tigers for a third consecutive time on the Plains, support might have been significantly weaker when Auburn officials' palace coup was uncovered a week later.

Instead, Auburn fans spoke and Tuberville saved his job. Good decision, considering the Tigers can smell an SEC title and a shot at the national crown.

Two years earlier, Franchione's only victory over Auburn gave him a wave of goodwill that he rode right until the moment he climbed aboard the A&M jet at the Tuscaloosa airport.

Upsetting Auburn Saturday can do the same for Shula and the Tide.

It's improbable. Impossible, if you're one of those people who believes in logic, statistics, and the computers that fuel the BCS standings.

Those things never seem to matter much in Iron Bowls, however.

Our state's biggest game is fueled on heart, emotion, and the bizarre.

That gives Alabama a chance Saturday.

Not much of a chance, mind you, but a chance is all the Crimson Tide really can hope for.

Greg Wallace covers Alabama athletics on a daily basis for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column for BamaMag.com


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