Alabama Crimson Tide: Dee Ford

SEC lunchtime links

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
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Forty-yard dash times and bench-press figures. Measuring height and weight down to the seventh of an inch. It's the annual meat-market bonanza known as the NFL combine and it came to you fast and furious throughout the weekend. When you're done scrolling through the day's SEC links, be sure to check out the rest of ESPN's NFL draft coverage at our combine headquarters.

SEC Senior Bowl recap

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
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Auburn defensive end Dee Ford made the biggest splash of the SEC players at the Reese's Senior Bowl. He was impressive all week during the practices and walked away from the game with MVP honors after recording a pair of sacks and several other hurries.

[+] EnlargeFord
AP Photo/Johnny VyAuburn's Dee Ford was named MVP of the Senior Bowl.
According to ESPN's Scouts Inc. folks, Ford was one of the top five performersInsider last week in Mobile and really shined as an edge pass-rusher. Ford's performance at the Senior Bowl shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who watched him this season in the SEC. He blossomed after struggling with injuries in October and was outstanding in the VIZIO BCS National Championship loss to Florida State. Right now, it sounds like Ford is a solid second-round pick who could potentially sneak into the first round. He doesn't have ideal size (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) to play defensive end in the NFL, but makes up for it with his quickness and burst off the ball. He could be an excellent fit for a 3-4 team as an outside linebacker.

Among the other SEC players who turned heads with their play last week and potentially helped their NFL stock, according to Scouts Inc., were Alabama outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard and Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins. LSU safety Craig Loston and Auburn cornerback Chris Davis also had interceptions in the game. Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood had a 24-yard touchdown catch.

Two SEC players who didn't necessarily help their stock last week, according to the Scouts Inc. staff, were Missouri defensive end Michael Sam and Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews. Sam had a sack in the game, but relied too much on his speed rush. There are also concerns as to whether or not he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Matthews had a nice 33-yard catch in the game, but the knock on him during the week was that he dropped too many passes and struggled to make contested catches.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
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Happy Monday to you all. Hope everyone had a great weekend. Let's take a look at some of the interesting stories from around the league in today's edition of the lunch links:

2013 SEC Super Seniors

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
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For the fifth consecutive season, we pay homage to the top seniors in the SEC.

We’ve selected the best 12 seniors in the league, period, and not one senior on each team. These guys all rose above and beyond in terms of on-the-field production, leadership and overall impact on their teams.

There were a lot of tough calls, and this senior class ranks up there with any we've seen in this league. What that means is that several deserving players were left off. We looked hard at how players fared against league competition, their consistency and whether or not they were able to make it through the whole season.

Here’s introducing our 2013 SEC Super Seniors. They’re listed in alphabetical order:

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis made one of the most memorable plays in college football history.
Chris Davis, CB/RS, Auburn: Davis' kick-six to beat Alabama was the play of the year in college football, maybe the play of the last quarter-century. But that's what he did -- make plays. Davis led the league in punt return average (18.7 yards), tied for the league lead in pass breakups (15) and was second on Auburn's team with 74 tackles. It goes without saying that he was one of the key figures in the Tigers' improbable run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship game.

Dee Ford, DE, Auburn: Much like Davis, Ford was one of the driving forces in the Tigers' rise from winless in the SEC in 2012 to playing for the national championship this season. Ford finished second in the league with 10.5 sacks, including two against Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship, and also tied for second in the league with 14.5 tackles for loss. He was the heartbeat of an Auburn defensive line that was clearly the strength of that defense.

E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri: Even though Gaines might have been overshadowed by some of the other marquee cornerbacks in the SEC to start the season, he demonstrated on the field that he didn't take a back seat to anybody. Gaines led SEC cornerbacks with 75 tackles and tied for second in the league with five interceptions. He was the essence of a shutdown cornerback, as evidenced by his work on Texas A&M star receiver Mike Evans, who had a season-low eight receiving yards, in the Tigers' 28-21 victory over the Aggies.

Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State: If you were to look up road-grader in the football dictionary, you'd almost certainly find a picture of the 6-4, 340-pound Jackson. One of the top interior offensive linemen in college football, Jackson was a rock in the middle of that Mississippi State offensive line. When the Bulldogs needed tough yards and/or key yards, they almost always ran behind big No. 61. Jackson started in all 52 games of his college career at left guard.

Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt: Go back over the last five or six years and count the quality defensive backs to come out of Vanderbilt's program. Ladler would be right up there near the top, and he saved the best for last with a tremendous senior season. He was the only player in the country (in the FBS ranks) with at least five interceptions and five forced fumbles and finished second among SEC defensive backs with 91 tackles.

Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: One of the best recruits the Aggies picked up last year was when Matthews decided to return for his senior season. He moved from right to left tackle and had an All-American senior season as Texas A&M led the SEC in scoring offense (44.2 points) and total offense (538.4 yards). Matthews excelled in pass protection, but was equally effective as a run-blocker.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiVanderbilt's Jordan Matthews made an SEC-record 112 receptions in the 2013 season.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt: Matthews leaves quite a legacy at Vanderbilt. Not only was he one of the centerpieces of a Vanderbilt team that won nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in history, but he set a slew of SEC records. His 112 catches this season were the most ever by an SEC player, and he's also the league's career leader in catches (262) and receiving yards (3,759).

AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron fell short this season of securing his third consecutive national championship ring as a starting QB, but he'll still go down as one of the winningest quarterbacks in SEC history. The 2013 Heisman Trophy runner-up, McCarron was Mr. Clutch for the Crimson Tide and did some of his best work on the biggest stages. He was second in the SEC this season with 28 touchdown passes and third in passing efficiency.

C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Mosley blossomed into the ultimate do-it-all linebacker for the Crimson Tide and became the first player under Nick Saban at Alabama to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. But as good a tackler as Mosley was, he was just as good in coverage, blitzing the quarterback and chasing sideline to sideline. And as the "quarterback" of that defense, he was the guy who made the checks, got everybody lined up and helped clean up mistakes.

Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: Sadly, Murray's senior season was cut short when he tore his ACL against Kentucky. He'd been a warrior all season for the Bulldogs despite losing just about all of the playmakers around him to injury. Murray was brilliant in some of Georgia's biggest games, including victories over LSU and South Carolina and even the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. He finished second in the SEC in total offense (296.5 yards per game) and leaves as the SEC's all-time leader in passing yards (13,155) and touchdown passes (121).

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: Always a solid contributor for the Tigers, Sam emerged as a senior as one of the top big-play defenders in the SEC. He earned first-team All-American honors and led the league in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). His late sack and forced fumble in the AT&T Cotton Bowl resulted in a touchdown and was the decisive blow in Missouri's 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State.

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Arguably the most underrated player in college football, Shaw engineered the third consecutive 11-win season for the Gamecocks and battled through an assortment of painful injuries to have his best season yet. He finished with 24 touchdown passes and only one interception and accounted for 31 total touchdowns. His gutsy performance off the bench in the comeback win over Missouri on the road was one of the performances of the year in the SEC.

SEC all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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Catch your breath yet?

What a bowl season, starting really with Texas A&M's heart-stopping comeback to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and carrying all the way through the VIZIO BCS National Championship with Florida State's last-minute drive to beat Auburn 34-31.

The SEC finished 7-3 in the postseason, and we're honoring some of the best individual performances with our all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel's final game at Texas A&M was a memorable one as he threw four TDs and rallied the Aggies from a 21-point deficit.
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: Yes, Connor Shaw was sensational, too, but Manziel brought the Aggies back from a 21-point halftime deficit. He threw four touchdown passes and ran for another in a memorable farewell for Johnny Football.

RB: Tre Mason, Auburn: Until Florida State's late touchdown drive, it looked as if Mason's 37-yard touchdown run would be what everyone was talking about from the BCS title game. He finished with 195 rushing yards against one of the top defenses in the country.

RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU: LSU fans got a nice surprise this week when reports surfaced that Hill planned to return for his junior season. A few days earlier, he gave them a memorable performance in the Outback Bowl with 216 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

WR: Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State: The Rice secondary had no answers for the speedy Lewis, who finished with nine catches for a school-record 220 yards. He had a 28-yard catch to set up the Bulldogs' first touchdown, a 35-yard catch to set up their second touchdown and a 65-yard catch to set up their fourth touchdown, all in first half.

WR: Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: Ellington is leaving early for the NFL and made some NFL-like catches in his farewell. His one-handed, bobbling catch on the fourth-and-7 play was huge. He finished with six catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns and also threw a touchdown pass.

TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia: Lynch would love to have that last pass back, but he still hauled in six catches for 69 yards, including receptions to help set up a couple of field goals.

All-purpose: Derrick Henry, Alabama: Get ready to see a lot of Henry next season for the Tide. The freshman running back rushed for 100 yards on eight carries, including a 43-yard touchdown run, and also had a 61-yard touchdown catch.

OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M: As left tackles go, Matthews set the standard this season. He was pretty close to flawless in the bowl game, as the Aggies rolled up 541 total yards in their stirring comeback against Duke.

OL: Greg Robinson, Auburn: The BCS title game turned out to be Robinson's final game for Auburn. The junior left tackle is turning pro and heads to the next level on the heels of the kind of performance that became the norm for him this season.

OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs racked up 533 yards of total offense in their 44-7 rout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and Jackson was his usual dominant self at left guard.

OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt: The veteran of that Vanderbilt offensive line asserted himself in the fourth quarter when Houston climbed back into it, and the Commodores made a living running behind him.

C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn: There aren't many centers in America better than Dismukes, and he can hold his head high over the way he played against a talented Florida State interior on defense.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAuburn's Dee Ford showed why he is one of the nation's best when he recorded two sacks against FSU in the national title game.
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn: Ford had already established himself as one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC this season and then went out and showed it on the biggest stage with two sacks in BCS title game.

DL: D.T. Shackelford, Ole Miss: The Rebels' resilient senior defensive end went out in style with seven total tackles, including a sack, and also had two quarterback hurries.

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri: Michael Sam received most of the publicity this season for the Tigers, but Ealy was equally productive. He closed out his career with two sacks in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, giving him 9.5 on the season.

DL: Preston Smith, Mississippi State: Smith spearheaded a suffocating defensive effort by the Bulldogs with six total tackles and a quarterback hurry. Rice, after scoring a touchdown on its second possession, was held to 66 total yards the rest of the way.

LB: Serderius Bryant, Ole Miss: Bryant tied for the team lead with eight tackles, including two for loss, and also forced a fumble that led to a safety. The Rebels limited Georgia Tech's option offense to 17 points and 151 rushing yards.

LB: Andrew Wilson, Missouri: The Tigers' senior middle linebacker was everywhere against the Cowboys with 15 total tackles to earn Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP honors.

LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina: Only a freshman, Moore had two interceptions in the Capital One Bowl, the last one coming in the end zone in the fourth quarter with Wisconsin driving.

CB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri: Gaines was one of the most complete cornerbacks in the SEC this season. He capped his career with seven tackles against the Cowboys and an interception at midfield that helped set up a touchdown.

CB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt: Despite playing with a brace on his elbow, Hal led Vanderbilt with nine total tackles, including an interception to seal the game, and also broke up three passes.

S: Craig Loston, LSU: Loston finished with six total tackles, including three for loss. He also had a key interception in the fourth quarter with Iowa threatening on fourth-and-1 at the LSU 16.

S: Toney Hurd, Jr., Texas A&M: Even though Texas A&M was torched on defense, Hurd's 55-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:33 to play was the decisive blow for the Aggies.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia: Morgan kept the Bulldogs in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl by making all four of his field-goal attempts.

P: Steven Clark, Auburn: Clark kept Florida State pinned deep most of the night with perfectly placed punts that looked like pitching wedges. He dropped five of his six punts inside the 20, including one at the 6, one at the 4 and one at the 2.

RS: Marcus Murphy, Missouri: One of the top return specialists in the conference, Murphy combined for 136 yards on kickoff and punt returns against Oklahoma State. He had a long of 38 yards on a first-quarter punt return.

Alabama leads coaches All-SEC team

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
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The SEC coaches have spoken, and Alabama has once again taken over their end-of-the-year All-SEC team.

The Crimson Tide led the rest of the league with nine representatives on the coaches' teams, including an SEC-leading five first-team selections. LSU followed with eight total representatives. Texas A&M had four first-team members, while Auburn and Georgia both had three each.

Twelve of the league's 14 teams had at least one player on the first team, while every team was represented on at least one team. Coaches weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

Here are the coaches' first- and second-team selections:

First team

OFFENSE
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

DEFENSE
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Christion Jones, Alabama *
RS: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU *

Second team

OFFENSE
QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
TE: Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: Anthony Steen, Alabama
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas
WR: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
AP: Marcus Murphy, Missouri

DEFENSE
DL: Anthony Johnson, LSU
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ed Stinson, Alabama
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
P: Cody Mandell, Alabama
RS: Solomon Patton, Florida

-- (*-ties)

Five things: Alabama-Auburn

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
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Here are five things to watch as No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 4 Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium for one of the South's biggest rivalries: The Iron Bowl.

Big-game jitters: Alabama has been through this drill before. Big games are nothing new to the veteran Crimson Tide. AJ McCarron doesn't buy into the hype and neither does C.J. Mosley. For them, it's just another game. But for Auburn, this isn't just another game. Gus Malzahn has said all the right things, but there's no denying that this is the biggest game of his tenure as the Tigers' head coach. It's a moment for Auburn to prove it's more than lucky. It's a chance to earn a reputation as a championship contender. And frankly, Auburn's players have never had to deal with that kind of pressure. How will they respond? When Nova flies around Jordan-Hare Stadium and the buzz reaches a fever pitch, will Auburn keep its emotions in check or allow them to run wild?

McCarron for Heisman: The momentum is gaining quickly. But is it too late for McCarron to become a serious contender to win the Heisman Trophy? Given Jameis Winston's off-the-field entanglements and Johnny Manziel's three losses this season, the chips are starting to fall McCarron's way. His numbers are impressive (2,399 yards, 23 touchdowns, five interceptions), but has he had the kind of "Heisman Moment" that can catapult him to victory? You could argue his performance against Texas A&M was up to that billing, but that was so long ago and his game against LSU didn't exactly intrigue would be voters. If McCarron is going to win the Heisman, he'll have to do it on Saturday afternoon against Auburn. A big game on the biggest stage might be the final push to send him into the forefront of the Heisman race.

Protecting the quarterback: As Auburn defensive end Dee Ford told reporters this week, "You change the game when you get to the quarterback." Make no mistake, the Tigers defense plans on pinning back their ears and getting after McCarron on Saturday. And with Ford, Nosa Eguae and Carl Lawson at defensive end, they have the tools to do it. Alabama has faced good defensive lines this season (Virginia Tech, LSU, etc.) but none had the type of edge rushers Auburn possesses. As Ford said, "[McCarron] hasn't been hit all year, so we want to see what he can do after being hit a few times."

Who starts at center?: A sprained knee has Alabama starting center Ryan Kelly as a game-time decision, according to coach Nick Saban. He hurt the knee early this week and was limited in practice since then. Saban stopped short of saying that backup Chad Lindsay would start, but you've got to believe the staff has confidence in him after already starting three games this season. “Chad Lindsay did great when he played and we did great on the offensive line,” Saban told reporters on Wednesday. “We have every confidence in him, we view him as a starter.”

Perimeter tackling: This isn't a game where the front seven will do all the work. Alabama's secondary will have to put a hat on a hat to be successful against Auburn's vaunted running game. Nick Marshall and Tre Mason aren't the only two guys that can hurt you. As one SEC head coach told me, the trouble with defending Auburn is that there are five or six guys who can run the ball from anywhere in the formation. Defending the end-arounds, fly-sweeps and other perimeter runs will be vital for Alabama. Because of that, look for safety Landon Collins to have a big day. He's one of the best on Alabama's defense in terms of reading the play and closing speed.

Planning for success: Alabama

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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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."

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesAuburn's Tre Mason is second only to Georgia's Todd Gurley in rushing yards over the past two seasons among SEC backs.
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.

Key stats

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.

Don't call Auburn lucky

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
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Don't call Auburn a lucky football team. The Tigers are 10-1 and fourth in the BCS standings thanks to a tipped Hail Mary touchdown pass against Georgia, but Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't about to say his SEC West rivals are anything other than good and deserving of their lofty ranking.

"I don't think they were lucky to win," Saban said of the Georgia game. "I'm not saying that at all.

"They really probably deserved to win the game, based on how they played in the game, and they got rewarded for it in the end by making a big play."

Call Auburn whatever you want. Call what's happening on The Plains a miracle season, if you must, and point to the last-second win over Georgia or the utter lack of passing game as serious flaws in Auburn's championship resume. But recognize that none of what you're saying takes anything away from what the Tigers have accomplished and what they're capable of accomplishing come Saturday afternoon when they take on the top-ranked Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The Iron Bowl is alive and well because Auburn is a good football team once again. This isn't 2011 or 2012 where Alabama won both games by a combined score of 91-14, failing to surrender a single offensive touchdown in the process. Gus Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator for one of those games and absent at Arkansas State during the other. Since returning as Auburn's head coach this season, he's completely turned around what was a dysfunctional program.

Nick Marshall has developed into one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC, Tre Mason is the league's leading rusher and the defense, while porous at times, has been good at creating takeaways. Sound familiar? It should because you could describe the 2010 Tigers that beat Alabama and won the national championship with Cam Newton and Michael Dyer in the same way.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Nick Marshall has thrown for 1,530 yards and rushed for 823 yards this season.
They were called lucky then, if you remember. Alabama was even favored to beat Auburn in that year's Iron Bowl. The Tigers are a two-touchdown underdog this go around.

"We don't feel lucky, of course," said Auburn defensive end and sack leader Dee Ford. "But we feel like it would definitely close a lot of the mouths [beating Alabama] with the things that we've been hearing. At the end of the day, that's not one of our goals. We're not really worried about the outside world because the outside world didn't even believe in us last year.

"We know it will close mouths [talking] about this being a fluke season."

Teammate C.J. Uzomah said they've been aware of Alabama's success this season. It's been hard to miss the constant media coverage, he explained, and on Saturday, he and his teammates will get to show they're deserving of the same type of respect by playing them heads-up at home.

"I think that's just fuel for us," Uzomah said of the uneven attention paid to the two programs, "just knowing there's so much hype and talk about them that we're going to prove ourselves, and we feel like we will.

"We feel like we've had a great season thus far, but we aren't satisfied. We want to win this game, and I think this will be a measuring stick of how we've grown as a team, where we are and where we want to head."

Malzahn, who called Alabama the best defense his team will see this season, said he's not letting he or his players get too caught up in the national picture. Improving every day is the goal, he said, not worrying about who's saying what. As he told his team a few weeks back: "We'll worry about all that patting ourselves on the back stuff after the season."

"Anytime you win 10 games, your team has done some right things," Malzahn said of proving his team is good and not lucky. "We're playing the No. 1 team in the country for the right to go to Atlanta. That's big enough in its own right."

Taking a cue from their head coach, Alabama's players aren't about to call Auburn lucky either. If anything, they agreed that having their rival playing good football makes the Iron Bowl better.

"They're a great team," UA receiver Christion Jones said, adding that he wasn't surprised by their success. "Auburn's a good unit."

But how good? Just ask Saban, who had no trouble heaping praise on those lucky Auburn Tigers.

"They're one of the leading offensive teams in the country ... Nick Marshall has almost 1,000 yards rushing himself," he explained. "They create a lot of issues and a lot of problems. They have good receivers that can make plays down the field when you try to load up on them.

"Defensively, they've played really, really well. They're hard to score on. ... Very, very good in the kicking game. Most of the time the guy kicks the ball out of the end zone. ... All the way around, this is a very, very good team, and I think their record sort of reflects that."
Iron BowlCredit: ESPN Stats & InfoThe Iron Bowl winner has also gone on to win the BCS national title in each of the past four seasons.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Saturday's epic Iron Bowl on the Plains is what all rivalry games should look like.

When No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) travels to see fourth-ranked Auburn (10-1, 6-1), it will be the first time these two get together with the SEC Western Division title and a shot at the BCS title game on the line. A year removed from these programs going in opposite directions -- Auburn was 3-8 at this point last season -- the Iron Bowl has real life and really high stakes.

"This is why you play the game -- to play in a game like we're going to play at the end of the year where all of the marbles are on the line, and here we go," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. "That's why you play; that's why you're a competitor.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason and Auburn are looking forward to the team's biggest home game in years.
"This is what makes your blood boil. This is what makes you tick. This is what makes you get up early."

And became of the stakes, the Iron Bowl is the king of the rivalries this season. Michigan and Ohio State should always be playing for the Big Ten title and a shot in the bigger game in January. Florida-Florida State, Oklahoma-Texas and Notre Dame-USC should have the same big-time, high-stakes feel year in and year out. In a sport that always seems to battle its own cyclical nature, the best of the best among rivalries should always look and feel this big.

It's what the college football gods intended. Sure, we like surprises. When underdogs succeed, we're all pretty stoked. But these historic rivalries should consistently be front and center.

What Alabama-LSU has had in the last few years is what traditional, historical rivalries like this one should never lack.

Remember when No. 1 Ohio State's thrilling 42-39 victory over No. 2 Michigan to end the 2006 regular season served as a de facto semifinal for the BCS title game? Everyone was watching that one because it meant so much and had two storied programs essentially playing for it all.

Remember the "Bush Push" that featured No. 1 USC and No. 9 Notre Dame? It ended in thrilling fashion in front of the entire country when Reggie Bush nudged Matt Leinart over the goal line with three seconds left for a 34-31 win.

Who can forget the end-of-the-year bouts between Florida and Florida State during the 1990s?

Saturday marks the first time both Alabama and Auburn have been ranked in the BCS standings heading into the Iron Bowl since 2010. Auburn's 28-27 victory helped send the Tigers to the national championship that season. Before that, both teams hadn't been ranked in the game since 2005, and the game wasn't nearly as important in the national scheme of things the way this one is.

"It should always be like that," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said.

"We said that also. We wanted to give our fans what they deserve, and they deserve to be a part of an Iron Bowl that hasn't been like this for years. It's a great feeling."

It's great for the game. The Iron Bowl is the biggest event in the state of Alabama each year, but it's also a major deal nationally. Do I even need to bring up Harvey Updyke?

"I think the roots, they run a little bit deeper down here," Alabama center Ryan Kelly told reporters after Saturday's 49-0 victory over Chattanooga. "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. It's really critical this week that we have a good week at practice in preparation for it."

For both teams, Atlanta and Pasadena are on the line. Alabama is in the driver's seat for the latter destination, while Auburn still needs some help. But imagine how much the Tigers would help themselves with a win over the nation's top-ranked team.

The Tigers own the SEC's best running game (320.3 yards per game), and Alabama has the league's best rush defense (91.3). Just call it an unstoppable force vs an immovable object.

Nick Saban worked from the ground up to get Alabama here. Gus Malzahn has needed just a season.

Alabama grinds on offense and smothers on defense. Auburn spreads you out and is allowing 406 yards a game and has given up 23 points or more five times.

Something will have to give in this historic matchup.

"To be in this situation in probably the biggest rivalry in college football, it's unreal," Auburn running back Tre Mason said. "It's pretty much like the national championship before the national championship to me.

"A lot of people around the country are going to be tuned in, so we have to put on a show."

SEC lunchtime links

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
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We’re 24 hours away from opening kick in Week 10, so let’s take one last look around the SEC in Friday’s edition of the lunch links.

SEC's lunchtime links

August, 26, 2013
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Game week has arrived. No more waiting for the action because it all starts this week. Here are some links from around the SEC to whet your football appetite as game day nears:
Editor's note: The season is nearly upon us and TideNation is taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Tuesday and Thursday we'll go through each week of the Crimson Tide's schedule, starting with the season-opener against Virginia Tech and closing with the finale against Auburn.


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It’s Rankings Week at TideNation. Every day we’ll rank some facet of the Alabama football program heading in 2013. Today we’re ranking the top 10 defensive players the Tide will face this season. On Thursday we’ll switch gears and rank the top 10 freshmen with a chance of making the biggest impact in the fall for UA.

Ranking the defensive players

1. DT Anthony Johnson (LSU): Stop me if you're heard this one before: LSU has one of the best defensive line prospects in the country. Yeah, this year is no different as Johnson steps to the forefront, already the No. 22 prospect on Mel Kiper's early Big Board. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound linemen is nicknamed Freak for a reason. Even behind players like Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan, Johnson shined as a raw talent capable of terrorizing offenses up the middle.

2. LB Denzel Nkemdiche (Ole Miss): He isn't a typical linebacker because of his relatively slight frame, and he's certainly not what you'd call a safety. But Nkemdiche is what every coach covets: a playmaker. In Ole Miss' complex defense, Nkemdiche thrives. He led the Rebels with 82 tackles and chipped in with team-leading 13 tackles for loss. He even finished tied for first with three interceptions.

3. DE James Gayle (Virginia Tech): We'll know right away whether Alabama's retooled offensive line is capable of living up to last year's standard, as Gayle and the Virginia Tech pass rush comes calling in the season opener. As a junior, Gayle tallied 43 tackles and five sacks on his way to a second-team All-ACC selection. He turned down the NFL and comes back to Blacksburg as one of nine returning starters on defense.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLinebacker Lamin Barrow gives the LSU defense some of everything, including much-needed experience.
4. LB A.J. Johnson (Tennessee): It's tough to find a player in the SEC who produced more last season than Johnson, who racked up 138 tackles for the Volunteers. The 50th-ranked player on Kiper's early Big Board, Johnson is a guy who can keep Alabama's ground game from running away from what stands to be a lackluster Tennessee defense.

5. LB Lamin Barrow (LSU): Barrow was understandably lost in the haze of NFL prospects in Death Valley last season. But the 6-2, 229-pound linebacker did finish with a whopping 104 tackles, five pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. There will be a lot of new faces on defense for the Tigers in 2013, and Barrow should serve as the glue to hold the operation together.

6. DT Daniel McCullers (Tennessee): The Vols very own Mount Cody, McCullers is the kind of big-bodied nose guard you can build a defense around. The 6-8, 370-pound prospect ranks 43rd on Kiper's early Big Board, and could see his stock rise farther with a solid 2013 campaign.

7. S Craig Loston (LSU): Loston is a rising star on the Tigers defense who very nearly spirited all the way to the NFL after last season. Unlike many of LSU's underclassmen, Loston decided to return, and coach Les Miles should consider himself lucky for having a veteran to anchor what is an otherwise green secondary. Loston played in 12 games last season and finished with a respectable 55 tackles and three interceptions on his way to a second-team All-SEC selection.

8. DE Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae (Auburn): Say what you will about Ellis Johnson the head coach, but Ellis Johnson the defensive coordinator knows what he's doing. And with a few parts still remaining on Auburn's defense, Johnson has a chance to outdo expectations on the Plains. Ford, who led the Tigers in sacks last season, and Eguae have the tools Johnson can build around up front.

9. LB Avery Williamson (Kentucky): You might not know his name, but the 6-1, 243-pound linebacker finished second in the SEC in tackles (135) and led the conference in solo stops (70) in 2012. With new head coach Mike Stoops breathing new life into the program and its underwhelming defense, Williamson could see his profile rise this season.

10. DE Chris Smith (Arkansas): The Razorbacks were a mess last season, but it wasn't all bad news for Arkansas fans as Smith emerged as a quality pass-rusher, finishing fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks. He and fellow defensive end Trey Flowers combined for a solid 26 tackles for loss last season and helped Arkansas to a top 25 finish nationally in sacks.

Five storylines: The Iron Bowl 

November, 22, 2012
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Alabama fumble recoveryAP Photo/Dave MartinAlabama will aim to create turnovers against Auburn as it did in the season's first eight games.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1) is back in the title hunt after a stunning weekend of college football with upsets of Kansas State and Oregon. This Saturday, the Crimson Tide will look to avoid the same fate as they host in-state rival Auburn (3-8, 0-7) at 2:30 p.m. CT.

Here are five storylines for the game ...

1. Focus on the present, play to win: Alabama players are saying all the right things about keeping their focus on Auburn and not the matchup with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1. It's an easy thing to say, but harder to practice, as evidenced by the Tide's letdown against Texas A&M. Auburn isn't the talent of Texas A&M, but the Tigers still present challenges. (Remember the struggles LSU had on The Plains).

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