Phillip Marshall: Auburn's Biggest Iron Bowl Ever?

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes an in-depth look at the Auburn-Alabama rivalry and the historical significance of Saturday's game.

It's Iron Bowl Eve, a day before the biggest sporting event of any year in our state. Before I follow tradition and give my view of what is likely to happen Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, I'll answer some questions that have been posed in recent weeks.

Q: Is this the biggest game Auburn has ever played?
A: It could be, but you can't say that now. A 40-0 victory over an outmanned team in 1957 clinched the national championship. A 22-14 victory in 1993 clinched a perfect season. You'd have to say those were as big. The thing about this game is that, if the Tigers win, it makes the next one even bigger.

Q: Is this an opportunity for Auburn to establish dominance over Alabama?
A: Not likely. Nobody has dominated this series for a long period of time except Bear Bryant, and nobody is likely to. Whatever happens Saturday will have little if any impact on next season.

Q: How costly would it be for Auburn to lose this game?
A: It would obviously be very costly. It would cost the Tigers a chance at a national championship and slow their momentum going into the SEC Championship Game. A 10-1 season and a trip to Atlanta would still be a great accomplishment, but a loss to the Tide would spoil it for a lot of Auburn people. What a loss would not mean would be that suddenly Alabama would in a dominant position. A lot of people thought that when the Tide won 31-7 in 2001, and it hasn't won since. Every year is different.

Q: Should Auburn worry about the officials because of the blown call in the Alabama-LSU game?
A: Auburn should worry about the officials only because too many of them are incompetent.

Q: How does this game affect recruiting?
A: Coaches on both sides say not much. Most players, particularly in the state, already have a good idea where they are going to go.

And now on to the game...

Surely, you have read and heard over the past week about how "you can throw the record book out the window" in this one. Well, as my friend Clyde Bolton once wrote, if you do that, you'll only lose your record book.

In the 56 times the teams have played since 1948, only four games have been what would be termed major upsets – Auburn's 14-13 win in 1949, Auburn's 17-16 win in 1972, Alabama's 17-15 win in 1984 and Alabama's 31-7 win in 2001. There have been other games when the underdog has won, but none of them were major surprises. The fact is that, of all the nation's big rivalries, the Iron Bowl probably has had the fewest real surprises.

And an Alabama win in this game would be a huge surprise.

If you break it down position by position, Alabama might be as good, maybe even a little more talented, at linebacker. That's it. Auburn has the edge in talent, accomplishment and depth at every other position.

Could the Tigers lose? Of course they could lose. Alabama will, no doubt, play with great heart and determination. They have a very good defense and still have a playmaker or two on offense.

But for all the talk about Alabama being No. 2 in the nation in total defense, there hasn't been much talk about Auburn being No. 1 in scoring defense. And that, really, is the statistic that matters.

To lose, the Tigers would have to be hit with a rash of turnovers or other mistakes. They have shown no sign of falling victim to those things in going 10-0 and winning seven straight games by 18 points or more.

Alabama's defense might make it harder on Al Borges and the Auburn offense than most have. Alabama will surely try to pull some kind of surprise to steal a cheap touchdown.

I don't see how Alabama can move the ball consistently on Auburn's defense. I don't believe they can stop Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams without devoting so much to the run that Jason Campbell has a big day throwing the ball.

Like most Iron Bowls before it, this one will come down to which team is better. And there is no question which one that is.

Auburn 28, Alabama 9.

Last week's record was a not-so-impressive 2-2. For the season, the record is 51-18. I almost nailed the Alabama-LSU game, picking the Bayou Bengals 24-10, but I made two really dumb picks – South Carolina over Florida and Vanderbilt over Kentucky. Someday I'll learn a good rule of thumb is never, ever, ever pick Vanderbilt, not even against a pitiful team like Kentucky.

On to this week...

Tennessee at Vanderbilt: There's a big stink in Nashville because Vanderbilt is charging $55 per ticket. Not to worry. Tennessee fans will pay it and take over Vanderbilt Stadium. Even with their third-string quarterback, the Vols will clinch their spot in the SEC Championship Game. Tennessee 27, Vanderbilt 10.

South Carolina at Clemson: This is a nasty rivalry, but everybody in Gamecock country is too busy celebrating the apparent landing of Steve Spurrier to worry about it too much. After losing to Duke, which is as bad or worse than losing to Vanderbilt, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden could be playing for his job. Clemson 31, South Carolina 28.

Arkansas at Mississippi State: Arkansas is playing to get a step closer to earning a bowl bid. Mississippi State, in Sylvester Croom's first season, has improved dramatically from the start of the season. Do they have an answer for Matt Jones? Probably not. Arkansas 24, Mississippi State 17.

Florida at Florida State: It'll be the last hurrah for Ron Zook as Florida's coach. Wouldn't it be neat if Zook, a truly nice guy, could go out with a win in Tallahassee? Wishful thinking, probably. The Seminoles have struggled, but they are still 8-2 and in line to get at least a share of the ACC championship. Florida State 35, Florida 20.

Ole Miss at LSU: All summer, people close to and within the Ole Miss program insisted that the Rebels, even without Eli Manning, would be as good or better than last season's 10-game winners. They were wrong. Not only is Ole Miss not a good team, sitting at 3-6, players are starting to criticize each other and their coaches. You have to wonder how long David Cutcliffe will be able to hold out. The Bayou Bengals have sputtered and spewed, but only a 10-9 loss at Auburn keeps them from leading the West. LSU 42, Ole Miss 14.

Until next time...

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