By Saturday, when Auburn and Alabama meet at Jordan-Hare Stadium, fans on both sides will have convinced themselves that the game is of such great importance that life as they know it will be changed forever if they lose. One of unfortunate truths about this rivalry is that the fear of losing often outweighs the anticipation of winning.
Such thinking creates numerous myths. Before we get into my guess at who will win, let's look at some of those myths:
Myth: The winner gains a significant recruiting advantage.
Reality: Alabama last beat Auburn in 2001, 31-7 on a day considered one of the darkest in recent Tiger football history. Two months later, Brandon Cox, Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu, Tommy Jackson, Courtney Taylor, Ben Grubbs, Tim Duckworth, Marcus McNeill, Troy Reddick, Kevin Sears, Karibi Dede, Jonathan Palmer, Will Herring, Tre Smith, Montae Pitts and Lee Guess all signed with Auburn. All those players contributed to last season's 13-0 run and even more to this season.
Myth: If Alabama wins, it will prove it is back and is once again the dominant power in the state.
Reality: If Alabama wins, it will prove it had a better season in 2005. Nothing more. What happens Saturday will have nothing to do with anything that happens next season and will do nothing to taint the program Tommy Tuberville has built at Auburn or to diminish the Tide's accomplishments this season.
Myth: You can throw the record book out in this one.
Reality: As former sports columnist Clyde Bolton once wrote, the only thing that will happen if you do that is that you will lose your record book. The last 50 years have produced just four upsets of any significance--Auburn's 17-16 win in 1972, Alabama's 17-15 win in 1984, Alabama's win in 2001 and Auburn's 17-7 win in 2002. There have been other minor upsets, but usually, those were a matter of the best team winning.
Myth: The home team has a significant advantage.
Reality: Auburn is 3-0 in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has won two of the last three in Auburn. The visiting team has won five of the past six seasons. The truth is that where the game is played doesn't seem to have a lot to do with the outcome.
Ah, the outcome. I'd like to escape without having to make a prediction here, but that would be gutless. So here we go.
Auburn has the best offense in the SEC by a considerable margin. Alabama has the best defense in the SEC by a considerable margin. Something has to give.
Auburn has scored fewer than 27 points in just one SEC game, has broken 30 four times and 40 twice. Alabama has not given up more than 16 points in an SEC game, and that was in overtime against LSU.
Auburn's defense was stout through eight games but sprung some leaks the past two games. Alabama's offense has seemingly not recovered from the loss of wide receiver Tyrone Prothro. Things got worse when center J.B. Closner was also lost. The Tide has scored just two offensive touchdowns in its last four SEC games.
The question is obvious. Can Alabama shut down the league's best offense like it has others? Can Auburn's defense keep Alabama's offense sputtering?
I don't believe Alabama can shut Auburn down as it has others. The Tide has not faced a team with weapons like Auburn has. I do believe Alabama will find some life on offense against Auburn's defense.
Nothing will come easy in this game. The two teams don't have combined records of 17-3 for no reason. It has the potential to be a classic. The outcome could be decided by who makes the most mistakes.
Auburn 23, Alabama 16.
Elsewhere in the SEC…
LSU (8-1 and 5-1) at Ole Miss (3-6 and 1-5): Ole Miss can certainly play defense well enough to make it hard on LSU's offense. But there is no reason to believe the Rebels can score enough to win. LSU 20, Ole Miss 7.
Vanderbilt (4-6 and 2-5) at Tennessee (4-5 and 2-4): Vanderbilt has totaled 85 points in the past two games and lost them both. Even Tennessee's sputtering offense might be able to score lots of points on the Commodores. On the other hand, Tennessee almost lost to a Memphis team down to its fourth-team quarterback and without its star runner. I'm going to give Vanderbilt, which has lost 22 straight to Tennessee, one more chance to make me look good. Vanderbilt 28, Tennessee 27.
Mississippi State (2-7 and 0-6) vs. Arkansas (3-6 and 1-5) in Little Rock: The Razorbacks, despite their record, have improved over the course of the season. Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom says his team has improved, too, but it hasn't shown on the field. Arkansas 24, Mississippi State 10.
Kentucky (3-6 and 2-4) at Georgia (7-2 and 5-2): South Carolina holds out hope that the Wildcats could pull an upset. Should Georgia win, the Gamecocks would go to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. It's a pipe dream. The Wildcats have given up 92 points in their last two games. Georgia punches its ticket to Atlanta. Georgia 42, Kentucky 21.
Coach Tommy Bowden
Clemson (5-5) at South Carolina (7-3 and 5-3): Steve Spurrier has done a remarkable job in leading the talent-challenged Gamecocks to five straight wins. Clemson has been wildly inconsistent, but it was impressive in routing Florida State 35-14 last Saturday. Clemson's Tommy Bowden will get his first shot at Spurrier as a head coach. He won't like the outcome. South Carolina 27, Clemson 20.
Until next time...