I have missed just one Iron Bowl since I went to my first one in 1958. There was a time when I looked forward to that game so much I couldn't sleep the night before. Those days are gone, and it's not just because a little boy has become an aging man. Somewhere along the way, this rivalry got very sick. It's not sick on the field, where the players usually treat each other and game itself with respect and dignity. It's sick in the stands. When it's over, while the players hug each other, it'll be fans who are fighting, cursing and taunting one another.
Fans, many of whom never darkened the door of a classroom at either school, have their own sense of self-worth tied up in whether the football team they support wins or loses. What was once a relatively friendly rivalry has become very, very nasty. There are those who believe it would truly be better if the two schools did not play. I'm not ready to count myself among them, but I'm getting closer. Somewhere along the way, "bragging rights" became taunting rights. Somewhere along the way, the importance of a football game got all out of kilter.
I have no idea what will happen in the game Saturday. Can Auburn stop the "smoke draw?" Can Alabama do what no other team has done and shut down Auburn's running game? Is Tre Smith up to the task if called upon? I have none of those answers. But there are some things I do know.
*I know that no matter how much crimson and white or orange and blue you wear, you will not be a better person if your team wins or a worse person if your team loses.
*I know that the losing coach will be torn to shreds on Internet message boards by people who have never coached a day in their lives yet know everything that should have been called, why every bad play didn't work and who should have played that didn't.
*I know there will not be a fight between players on the field, because in this rivalry, there never is.
*I know there will be a fight between fans in or near the stands, because in this rivalry, there always is.
*I know neither Shug Jordan nor Paul Bryant would ever have been so silly and childish as to refuse to call the other school by name, thus adding to the bad feelings between fans of the two schools. For that matter, neither would Doug Barfield, Bill Curry, Ray Perkins, Pat Dye or Gene Stallings have engaged in such silliness.
*I know neither Buddy Rutledge nor John Forney, great play-by-play announcers, would ever have gone on a radio station in the city of the opposing school and mocked the head coach with an imitation of his voice.
*I know that in the great scheme of things it really doesn't matter who wins this or any other football game. People going hungry, people killing each other, people lost in the wilderness of drug and alcohol addiction, children being abused and neglected, those are the things that matter in the world.
*I know that the players at Auburn and Alabama have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same aspirations. They come from similar backgrounds. They all deserve respect for paying the price to be on that field Saturday.
*I know that the word "class" is misused so often in connection with college football that it has become a meaningless cliche.
*I know players on both teams will play with heart, determination and dedication, which is what makes the game so much fun to watch.
*I know that should be enough to satisfy fans of either school.
*I know it won't be enough.
Unfortunately, I started a precedent here by picking the scores of games each week. I'm not going to stop now. That means I'll have to pick an Iron Bowl winner. I'll admit to being a bit mystified by those who are predicting an Alabama blowout. Three of Auburn's four losses have come to teams ranked in the Top 13. Auburn could have won all three. Few would argue that Auburn should have beaten Georgia and Florida.
Alabama has an outstanding team. It has proved that over the course of the season. As I said in this space earlier, it will be very difficult for Auburn to go to Tuscaloosa and win. Could it happen? Sure it could. Will it happen? Probably not. Alabama 21, Auburn 17
In other games:
LSU 28, Ole Miss 24.