Ranked number one in the country and coming off a 49-0 win over Chattanooga on Saturday, 11-0 Alabama enters the game right where many expected the Tide to be. That's not the case for Gus Malzahn and the Tigers.
Coming off a 3-9 season in 2012, Auburn stands at 10-1 overall and ranked fourth in the country heading into one of the biggest Iron Bowl games in the long history of the rivalry. For the first time ever both teams will be ranked in the top four in the country for the game. Directly determining the SEC West representative in Atlanta for the league championship game for the first time since the league expanded in 1992, a win will also keep one team in the running for a possible BCS Championship Game berth depending on how the rest of the season plays out.
A veteran of eight Iron Bowls while on the sidelines for Alabama, Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows the significance of the game and its importance in the state. Even if there was nothing at stake he says it would still be the biggest game of the season, but now it becomes even bigger if that's possible.
"It's just Auburn and Alabama," Johnson said. "It doesn't get much better. It's fun to be involved in the rivalry--it was then, it is now, and I'm real excited about it. And to have an opportunity like we've put ourselves in--to play against the No. 1 team in the nation and have some things riding on it? I don't think anybody could have dreamed our football team would have had this opportunity so we're very lucky and obviously very excited about it and going to have to really play well to have a chance to reap the benefits."
While Johnson is a veteran of the game, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will be a position coach in the rivalry for the first time. That doesn't mean the young coach has to learn about the matchup, however. A two-year graduate assistant in 2009 and 2010 for Malzahn and the Auburn offense, Lashlee got a taste of the Iron Bowl then. Following years at Samford and Arkansas State, the young star in the coaching world said this game and this week is what it's all about and what you work for in this business.
"There is nothing like it," Lashlee said. "It's electric. I got to see it in 2009 and 2010 and it's like an SEC or national championship game. You can't put it into words until you experience it. It doesn't matter which place you're playing at the atmosphere in pregame is electric. It's important for everybody. It's important to this state. It's important for both sides.
"Obviously, this year there is a little more on the line," Lashlee noted. "Both sides will be ready to play, you don't ever have to worry about that. We have to get our guys to the game and have them prepared. That's what I learned more than anything in 2009 and 2010, they are going to play their guts out. It's the best rivalry in college football hands down."
All season Malzahn and his players have remained focused on the immediate task at hand. With each victory this team has received a confidence boost setting the stage for the Tigers to earn a trip to the Georgia Dome for the league championship game with a win on Saturday.
With the final game of the regular season here Auburn can now concentrate on beating Alabama. While it's always a point of emphasis during the year whether it's workouts or just summer conditioning, Lashlee said now there is nothing left but to get it going.
"We can finally talk about it," Lashlee said. "We don't have to say, ‘oh we're worried about the next game.' We have been building week-to-week obviously for the next game. It has worked for our guys. They have done a great job of buying into that and focusing in. That's easier said than done, but we play Alabama and they play us at the end of the year for a reason.
"It all builds up to this every year," the coach added. "That was our goal at the beginning of the year, to get better each week so when this game came we would be ready to put the best we can out on the field. We're ready to do that now."