The Iron Bowl is like no other rivalry in sports. From Bear Bryant to Bo Jackson to Harvey Updyke, there's simply nothing that compares to Alabama vs. Auburn. It has turned players such as Van Tiffin and Chris Davis into legends. It's where the term "house divided" originated. It's on the minds of the coaches, players and fans 365 days a year.
If you haven't been a part of it, it's hard to understand. But to help with that, here's a look at the Iron Bowl rivalry from those closest to it:
Jay Jacobs, athletics director, Auburn
On the significance of the Iron Bowl: "It's a rivalry that is different than anything else because we all live together. Some rivalries are divided by borders, but this one has no borders. You're living with each other year round after that game. When you win that game, you have a little bit more pride and when you lose it, the other team has a little bit more pride."
Shaun Alexander, former Alabama running back
As always there was a ton of recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference. There was a big commitment, there were key visits and new offers over the weekend. Here's a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.
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But while you could cast them as opposites and be done with it, that might not be telling the whole truth. Because they aren't as different as you might think. Whether it's an obsessive drive to win, or a fierce attention to detail, the two coaches share much in common.
One is a defensive mastermind, the other an offensive magician. Whether it's exotic blitzes or misleading pre-snap motions, both attack their respective sides of the ball from unique angles. They try to confuse you. They try to outthink you. And they're both among the best in the game at doing so.
From a certain perspective, you might say Malzahn and Saban are different sides of the same coin.
They share an ingrained work ethic, having grown up in small towns -- Saban in Fairmont, West Virginia, and Malzahn in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Though they're 14 years apart in age, their birthdays fall during the same week of October.
Saban was defensive coordinator at Michigan State, left, and then got his big break when he returned to become the Spartans' head coach.
Malzahn was offensive coordinator at Auburn, left, and then got his big break when he came back to take over as the Tigers' head coach.
Sensing a pattern?
Though Saban dwarfs Malzahn in total wins, their winning percentages aren't that far off, with Saban at 84 percent and Malzahn at 80.
Saban played defensive back in college. Malzahn played receiver. Even today their actions mirror one another, as Saban tries to slow down the tempo of the game while Malzahn does everything he can to pick up the pace.
Personality-wise, they present similar images to the media: guarded, singularly focused, sometimes combative. But behind the scenes, there's more to them. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we've seen both coaches dance, Saban doing his best "Electric Slide" and Malzahn strutting his stuff to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This."
Anything for recruiting, you might say.
Alabama presents itself as an NFL factory and Auburn as a place of family, but they both produce results. The Crimson Tide have finished No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings each of the past three years. Auburn, meanwhile, is currently ranked ninth and closed its most recent class at No. 8 overall.
But the biggest similarity between Saban and Malzahn is their attention to detail.
Alabama athletic director Bill Battle was amazed when he first caught a glimpse of the way Saban ran his program. Everything was so efficient, so focused on the task at hand. Watching practice from outside his office, Battle saw there wasn't a wasted moment.
Jay Jacobs, Auburn's AD, noticed the same thing about Malzahn.
"He's not thinking about other things," Jacobs said. "He's not self-serving at all. He's relentless in details, and he's absolutely great to work with because all he's thinking about is how to make Auburn football better."
Tying those two accounts together is Hoover (Ala.) High coach Josh Niblett, who has sent numerous players to both state schools. Whether it's on the recruiting trail or during coaching clinics, Niblett has had the chance to get to know both Saban and Malzahn well.
"They're both very professional," he said. "Both of them are competitors and both of them are driven, and then both of them have attention to detail. You don't have to be around them long to understand that attention to detail is one of the big factors for their success."
What's stood out to Niblett is their businesslike approach and their hands-on style of coaching.
"One of the neatest things about them is they're both good teachers," he said. "It's one of the best common values they have, they're very hands-on. You have a lot of coaches that are the CEO-type that are involved, but they're involved from the outside in. These two guys are involved from the inside out. It means so much to them that they put their stamp on it, that they want to make sure that they continue to do it."
On Saturday, we'll see their systems come to a head.
Auburn, well out of the playoff race with three losses, is out to spoil No. 1-ranked Alabama's season.
The way Malzahn's emphasis on speed matches up with Saban's emphasis on size is so perfectly incongruent. It's like looking in a mirror.
No, they're not exactly alike. But like the reflection in a mirror, everything is reversed. The receiver is the defensive back. Offense is defense.
They're different, but so much of them is the same. It's what makes it so fun to watch.
Either Alabama or Mississippi State will play for the SEC championship regardless of how this weekend’s games shake out, but if both teams are saddled with a two-loss record at the end of the year, the door will swing wide open for other playoff contenders. We forecasted the probability of this scenario back in early September, at the time predicting a 14 percent chance that no SEC team will finish the season with fewer than two losses. That number remains 14 percent heading into this weekend, the likelihood that both Alabama and Mississippi State will lose on Saturday, according to our latest FEI ratings projections. There is a 66 percent chance one of the two will lose.
If the schedules had worked out a bit differently, they might all have two losses already.
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Unless, that is, you’re into watching the single-game FBS rushing record fall for the second straight Saturday. (So who breaks it this week?) Yes, last week was dull, unless, of course, you’re into Florida State’s weekly high-wire act, re-awakenings at Arkansas and Minnesota or UCLA’s continued stranglehold on Los Angeles.
My point is, the latest set of games didn’t significantly impact the College Football Playoff picture -- at least in comparison to the past few weeks. Barring some craziness at the selection-committee table, the top four on Tuesday night is going to look no different than last week’s edition.
But Week 13 was simply the calm before the storm. Not so sure? Check out first nine paragraphs Gene Wojciechowski’s BMOC column. The rocky road to Dec. 9 is enough to make a fan of any playoff contender choke on his or her turkey dinner.
And it starts in two days.
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2. The Egg Bowl might not be the Iron Bowl, but there are more than just bragging rights on the line when Mississippi State and Ole Miss square off this Saturday. For the Bulldogs, it will have a direct effect on their playoff aspirations. They not only have to win but win big in order to impress the committee and try and hang on to a spot in the top four. Ole Miss did them no favors this past week with a 30-0 loss to Arkansas. It didn't help that quarterback Bo Wallace sprained his ankle in the first half and never looked like himself after that. But a sprained ankle won't keep Wallace away from Saturday's game, not in his final home game. He's going to give his best Dak Prescott impersonation and play even if he's not 100 percent. It worked out OK for Prescott in last year's Egg Bowl.
3. The season is nearing the end which means it's time to hand out awards and All-American honors. ESPN Insiders Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay got a jump start Monday, putting out their NFL prospect All-America team . Basically, it's a look at what the All-America team would like if voted on by NFL scouts. The team included 10 players from the SEC, more than any other conference. Obvious names like Amari Cooper and Shane Ray were on there, but so were names like Todd Gurley, despite his recent injury, and Alabama fullback Jalston Fowler even though he has just seven carries on the season. Prescott was not on there (because of some quarterback named Marcus Mariota), and both Kiper and McShay agreed on Twitter that it would benefit the Mississippi State quarterback to come back next year.
Around the SEC
- From leveled to paving the way: OL David Andrews is leaving his mark at Georgia.
- "The Catch" by Odell Beckham Jr. reverberated around the LSU campus Monday.
- South Carolina WR Shaq Roland was poised for a breakout season. What went wrong?
There's only one week left in the regular season before the conference championship games begin (everywhere but the Big 12, that is). That leaves two more auditions for teams to make their final impressions on the 12 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
A handful of teams can control their playoff hopes, but more often than not, the teams on the bubble could use a little help down the stretch. The good news? There's still time. Here's a playoff road map to help illustrate how the leading candidates can get there in the final two weeks:
• What the Tide controls: If Alabama beats Auburn in the Iron Bowl, it wins the SEC West and is one step closer to the playoff. Win the SEC and they're in.
• Where they need help: If Mississippi State loses to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, Alabama will clinch the division regardless of what happens in the Iron Bowl.
• What the Ducks control: They've already clinched the Pac-12 North Division, earning a spot in the conference title game. All Oregon has to do is avoid an upset in the regular-season finale against Oregon State -- a 5-6 team that somehow found a way to upset then-No. 6 Arizona State.
The regular season ends this week, and it’s poised to close with a flourish as both the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl have SEC and national implications.
Let’s take a quick look at some of this week’s top storylines in the SEC.
Game of the week: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Auburn
Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tigers threw in the towel against Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama has come on strong of late, winning close games against LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State. So the Iron Bowl should be a blowout, right? Maybe. Because when it comes to rivalry games, you can throw out the records. Alabama is playing for a spot in the SEC championship game while Auburn has nothing to lose. Sounds like a recipe for something strange to happen, right?
The last time we saw Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott on the national stage, it wasn’t pretty. He played arguably his worst game of the year against Alabama as his three interceptions led to the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season and a total knockout of his own Heisman Trophy hopes. In fact, eight of his 10 picks this season have come in his last six games. So it goes without saying that he needs to rebound. That started on Saturday against Vanderbilt, but the real test will come during the nationally televised Egg Bowl. If he plays well and helps beat Ole Miss, the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain alive.
This is it for Will Muschamp. His four tumultuous seasons at Florida will come to a close on Saturday. But what will be the final note of Muschamp’s tenure? Against No. 3 Florida State, it could be wild. It could be an upset. After all, it’s not like the Seminoles are dominant this year. As Louisville, Miami and Boston College have shown us, FSU is beatable. Now will Florida actually do it? Maybe not, but how crazy would that be if it happened in Muschamp’s final game?
Storyline to watch: Who will win the East?
There's nothing Georgia can do about it. If Missouri wins on Saturday, the Eastern Division title will go to the Tigers for a second consecutive season. But a win is far from guaranteed as Missouri must host the suddenly red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's squad has come on strong this season, knocking on the door against the likes of Georgia and Alabama before finally breaking it in the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss. So how will Shane Ray and the rest of the Missouri defense handle Alex Collins and the Arkansas running game? And how will Maty Mauk take care of the football against an Arkansas defense that forced Ole Miss into four turnovers this past weekend? A win for Missouri would win a trip to Atlanta. A loss would give Georgia the pleasure.
Intriguing matchup: Alabama front seven vs. Auburn zone-read
Alabama’s defense has been stout up the middle. Just ask Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, as the three power running teams had little success between the tackles against the Tide, averaging a combined 3.04 yards per carry. That’s due in no small part to Alabama’s size up front with big linemen like Brandon Ivory and physical inside linebackers like Trey DePriest. But Auburn’s zone-read attack is a different animal. While there’s power components to Gus Malzahn’s offense, it’s predicated on speed, too. Against the fleet-footed Nick Marshall and Corey Grant, Alabama’s front seven will have to pay close attention to the running lanes and not give Auburn room to run on the outside.
That’s what the coaches, players and fans alike had to be asking themselves when Alabama and Auburn both fell behind in the first half against a pair of FCS programs Saturday. No offense to Western Carolina and Samford, both of whom have winning records, but there’s no reason the two SEC powerhouses shouldn’t have been up at least three scores by the end of the first quarter.
Instead, the Catamounts took the opening kickoff, went 75 yards and scored first on the Crimson Tide in their place. They became the first team all season to score multiple offensive touchdowns in the first half against Alabama’s defense.
“We were as flat as a pancake when we went out there today, so I didn’t do a very good job,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game. “I really thought our guys practiced pretty well all week and didn’t look at this game as if ... they really tried to keep focus. They tried to keep the momentum of what we’ve been doing.
“But when we went out there for pregame warm-ups [Saturday], I was really surprised that we didn’t have a little more energy and a little more juice than we did. We had to play our way into it.”
It was worse at Auburn where the Tigers had just 23 yards of total offense in the first quarter. Quarterback Nick Marshall, a Heisman Trophy candidate at one time, was sacked twice and threw an interception in those first 15 minutes. The first score didn’t come until midway through the second quarter, and it was Samford who reached the end zone.
“We just weren’t really playing at the beginning of the game,” Marshall told reporters afterwards. “But as the game got going, we got to playing football. It was early; it was an emotional game for the seniors, but we found a way to overcome it.”
Both Alabama and Auburn found a way to overcome their sluggish starts as each won by at least three touchdowns. Now, the attention can finally turn to each other.
It’s officially Iron Bowl week, the week fans look forward to all season and the week that couldn’t come fast enough for Alabama players who were a part of last year’s game. How often do they think about the famous field goal return for a touchdown in the final second?
“Three hundred sixty-five,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “The whole year, ever since after that game, it’s been in the back of our minds. And we know we’ve got to come out and fight them. They’re a good ballclub, no doubt about it, so we have to come out and do the things that we’ve got to do to beat them.”
“We’re still reliving it,” added safety Landon Collins. “It shows up on the TV every now and again, and it just breaks our heart every time. That one second took our whole chance away of winning anything. It’s going to be in my head constantly throughout this week when we’re getting prepared to play them.”
The play is remembered in a positive light at Auburn. It made Chris Davis, who returned the missed field goal 109 yards, a legend on the Plains. It won an ESPY over the summer for “Best Play.” And now it’s shown before every home game to pump up the crowd.
But the Auburn coaches and players aren’t dwelling on what happened last year. They’re focused this year’s game.
“We're not going to bring it up or talk about it because it can't help us this year," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday night. "It’s one of those things you've got to deal with. Both sides have to deal with it because it's kind of what comes with the week, just normal distractions and things that are out there.
“I don't think it will bother our guys. That was last year. This year is completely different and we're going to have to play even better this year."
The rest of us should anticipate seeing the “kick-six” a time or two this week in preparation of Saturday’s game. That’s good news for Auburn fans, who will have no problem reliving the play. Alabama fans, meanwhile, might want to wait until Saturday to turn on their TVs.
But the Iron Bowl is finally here, and everybody can agree that that's a good thing.
Auburn At Alabama Preview
12:00 PM ET South Carolina 21 Clemson 12:00 PM ET 16 Georgia Tech 9 Georgia 12:00 PM ET Kentucky 22 Louisville 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Florida State 3:30 PM ET 4 Mississippi State 19 Ole Miss 4:00 PM ET Tennessee Vanderbilt 7:45 PM ET 15 Auburn 1 Alabama