- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If you're a fan of rivalry games, this year's edition of the Iron Bowl doesn't get any bigger as Alabama and Auburn, both in the top five of the BCS standings, will fight it out over the SEC West crown and a shot at making it to the conference championship game in Atlanta.
Both sides are playing down the hype, as you'd expect. Players have said all the right things and so have the coaches. Auburn's Gus Malzahn is doing nothing to fan the flames, and neither is Alabama's Nick Saban.
"Focus on the next play. Focus on what you've got to do the next play to try to give your guys the best chance to be successful and make corrections, coach them on the mistakes that they made," Saban said of his outlook at the start of rivalry week on Monday. "This is an ongoing process for the whole week plus the whole 60 minutes of the game right down to the last play of the game. And then when the game's over, it is what it is."
But for whatever is said, there's no playing down the enormity of Saturday's game in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Rivalry games don't get any bigger than this. Just ask Alabama center Ryan Kelly, who grew up in Ohio watching what some contend to be the best rivalry in college football: Ohio State-Michigan.
"The roots run a little deeper around here," Kelly said. "It's always a big game, especially this year. We're two top-10 teams, and on the road at Auburn, it's going to be a big game."
Auburn players to watch
QB Nick Marshall: If he gets comfortable throwing the football, watch out. Marshall's ability to run the ball is well documented. He can use his speed to get outside the tackles and has the shiftiness to make people miss. But unlike opponents in the past, Alabama will force him to stay in the pocket and beat the defense through the air.
RB Tre Mason: He has had arguably the best two seasons of any running back in the SEC, trailing only Todd Gurley for tops in the league with 2,155 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns in that time, yet he doesn't get the attention he deserves. Marshall gets the hype as a quarterback and runner, but Mason really makes the offense go. He'll keep Alabama honest with his ability to run the ball between the tackles.
DE Dee Ford: Auburn's defense is still a major question mark, especially on the back end. But up front, Auburn has some tools to work with, starting with Ford, who has eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. But he's not alone. Defensive tackle Montravious Adams is a load and defensive end Carl Lawson (three sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss) is one of the top freshmen in the SEC.
Alabama players to watch
RB T.J. Yeldon: Establishing the running game early and controlling the clock will be big against Auburn. For that reason, it's important that Yeldon has a big game. He was once committed to Auburn, so expect him to have some added motivation at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but he'll need to keep that in check. He and fellow running back Kenyan Drake need to take care of the football, something they haven't done particularly well this season.
LB Adrian Hubbard: Alabama fans have to feel good about what they've seen from Hubbard lately. After starting out the season slowly, he has picked up sacks in each of the last two games. And he'll have to continue that hot streak against Auburn. While he might not get the sacks fans so covet, what Hubbard does sealing the edge and keeping containment on Marshall will be vital to Alabama's success on defense.
S Landon Collins: Expect Collins to play near the line of scrimmage a lot on Saturday. Because of Auburn's lack of a passing game, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will be able to move around Collins, blitzing him and using him as a spare linebacker. He and speedy middle linebacker C.J. Mosley will play a big part in stopping Auburn's multi-faceted running game, which utilizes more than just Marshall and Mason.
1994: Alabama and Auburn have never met in an Iron Bowl in which the winner would clinch the SEC West and the division's bid to the SEC championship game. It would have happened in 1994, but Auburn was on probation at the time and wasn't eligible to compete for in the league title game.
5: It's no secret the key to the game will be Auburn's running game versus Alabama's run defense. And poring over those stats show that both teams are ranked in the top five nationally for rushing yards per game, yards per rush, runs of 10-plus yards and expected points added via rushes. Alabama, for its part, has allowed only five rushing touchdowns in its last nine game, while Auburn has scored at least five touchdowns in each of its last six games.
77: The Iron Bowl has been very one-sided the last two years in favor of Alabama. In fact, the Crimson Tide has outscored the Tigers 91-14 in the last two meetings.
ESPN Stats and Information was used as a resource for this article.
7dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough