TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The so-called “noise” surrounding Iron Bowl week could be heard and seen in just about every corner of the state of Alabama on Monday.
On the sports-talk radio airwaves, with boisterous and biased fans from Huntsville to Mobile and Decatur to Satsuma happily and haughtily screaming about what lies ahead come Saturday.
Among the cluster of versatile construction workers on Alabama’s campus donning Crimson Tide safety helmets.
And along the tree-lined avenues of the state’s charming small towns, with certain areas overtly showing favoritism toward either Alabama or Auburn.
Yes, the “noise” could be heard and experienced everywhere on this flawless fall day in central Alabama, except for maybe the serene quarters of the Crimson Tide’s football facility. It was business as usual for coach Nick Saban and his players, all of whom were respectful and engaging, but relatively ho-hum when fielding questions about their enduring legacies with this classic matchup, Auburn’s top playmakers and, predictably, the infamous “Kick Six” play.
(It’s worth noting: There was nary a three-word mention of “last-place Auburn” in the SEC West.)
Has it already been two years since Auburn earned perhaps its most memorable victory in school history, with Tigers defender Chris Davis fielding a missed Alabama field goal — with no time left on the clock and the score deadlocked at 28 — and taking it back the length of the field for the game-winning touchdown?
(With that victory, Auburn usurped No. 1 Alabama as the SEC West champion and eventually reached the final championship game of the BCS era, losing to Florida State in the waning seconds.)
The Auburn-Alabama history, which dates back to 1893 (the Tigers won 32-22 that day), has produced hundreds of long-lasting memories over the years. But until 2013, the iconic Iron Bowl had never incurred such a wild momentum swing with no time remaining.
That last caveat should appease the older Auburn crowd, many of whom still treat the Punt, Baby, Punt! upset of No. 2 Alabama (circa 1972) like it happened last week. On that crisp December day, 43 years ago, the Tigers pulled off the ultimate reversal of fortune, transforming a late 13-point deficit into a 17-16 victory after returning two blocked punts for touchdowns in the second half.
(Auburn’s Bill Newton blocked both Alabama punts … and David Langner scored both touchdowns.)
“The Iron Bowl is one of the great rivalries in college football, and it means a lot to the people in this state,” said Saban, who has collected three national championships and five Iron Bowl victories in his eight-plus seasons in Tuscaloosa. He then added how it’s important to “play your best football on the road” and “not let any outside noise affect you.”
Saban’s deep cast of blue-chippers should be familiar with external pressures by now. In today’s college game, no program garners more respect and injects more fear into the opposition than Alabama. By extension, the Crimson Tide players fully understand how every visiting stadium resembles a hornet’s nest of activity — at least prior to kickoff.
But that’s usually when the fun ends, with Alabama winning its last five true road tests by an average margin of 18.4 points.
“(Auburn’s stadium) is loud, up there with LSU,” said senior center Ryan Kelly. “But we know it’s going to be loud. Every stadium is rocking on game day, so we’ll be ready for it.”
Kelly hails from West Chester, Ohio, a Midwest football haunt that views the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry on a similar plane as Alabama-Auburn. Kelly has invoked a diplomatic approach for choosing between the two clashes.
“(My friends/family from Ohio) have to come to one of the (Iron Bowl) games, or Alabama games in general, to understand what it means,” Kelly said. “(In this state), this is all people have, and (the Iron Bowl) means a lot to them.”
The eminently personable Kelly also exhibited some deft diplomacy when pressed for his initial response to the ‘Kick Six’ mini-miracle from two years ago — his only visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I just kind of walked off the field (in a haze), and that’s all I’m going to (say).”
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It’s equal parts riveting and comical to watch Alabama media members pepper the Tide upperclassmen with “game plan” questions involving Auburn — on a Monday afternoon.
These college kids may be athletically gifted and poised beyond their years, but very few have access — or even a concrete notion — to what the blueprint for victory may entail five days before kickoff.
Football players are creatures of habit. They’re conditioned to get the weekly plans on Tuesday or Wednesday and then proceed from there, trusting the absurd prep work of the coaches and advance scouts.
When asked about a few nuances of Saturday’s game plan, senior linebacker Reggie Ragland joked, “I don’t know. But I’ll let you know when I find out.”
When queried about how Alabama might combat Carl Lawson or any other playmaker along the defensive line, Kelly replied, “I don’t know. We’ll find out (when the game plan arrives).”
Therein lies the disparate beauty of the Iron Bowl experience: Auburn and Alabama fans devote every day of every year to this game, knowing that bragging rights are always on the line. However, the coaches and players — the ones who truly affect each outcome — remain loyal to their time-tested strategy of seldom looking past what currently lies on the schedule.
Unless we’re talking about Charleston Southern, although Alabama (10-1, 6-1 SEC) merits credit for quickly crushing the Buccaneers at home last Saturday. The same could not be said about certain powers from the SEC East — Florida surviving lowly Florida Atlantic in overtime, UGA escaping Georgia Southern in overtime … and South Carolina falling to The Citadel for the second time since 1990.
“(Playing Auburn) is an opportunity you really appreciate, as a competitor,” said Saban, already on the short list of greatest coaches in college history (187 wins, four national titles). “Our team has put themselves in a position where they have an opportunity to keep the goals in front of them … it’s going to take our best effort of the year; and I’m excited about the opportunity that we have.”
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The obsessive side of Auburn vs. Alabama was well-chronicled in the ESPN “30 For 30” documentary Roll Tide/War Eagle, adding color to a go-for-broke rivalry that often places friends, family, coworkers and even horticultural experts on opposite sides. But the book “A War in Dixie” also has its place in Iron Bowl lore, with authors Ivan Maisel and Kelly Whiteside providing the ultimate insider’s look into a battle that began 20 years before the birth of Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Of course, the “Dixie” book predates the launch of the College Football Playoff era. As such, football fans still don’t have a firm grasp or perspective to what truly constitutes a Playoff lock, outside of finishing the regular season 12-0. It’s the only guarantee that comes with a new system, where five conference champions — along with Notre Dame during elite seasons — can only fit into four semifinal slots.
Alabama’s No. 2 CFP ranking has little significance right now. Yes, the Crimson Tide have a chance to overtake Clemson for the eventual top spot on Dec. 6 (the final rankings release); but they also won’t factor in the national-title hunt with a loss to either Auburn or Florida the following week (SEC Championship game). Furthermore, falling to Auburn would provide Ole Miss (8-3, 5-2 SEC) with a backdoor chance to capture the SEC West title thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage.
By contrast, top-ranked LSU (2011) and Oklahoma (2003) had the inexplicable luxury of potentially losing their conference championships … and still reaching the BCS title game. That type of cushion no longer exists in the Playoff era.
This might explain why the Crimson Tide quartet of Kelly, Ragland, cornerback Cyrus Jones and Heisman front-runner Derrick Henry (1,526 rushing yards, 21 TDs) have yet to reach an emotional peak for the Auburn showdown.
Simply put, they’re aware of how everything can unravel quickly.
“You only get these opportunities (for a championship) once, and you’ve got to make them count,” Kelly said.
A few minutes later, the All-American candidate Jones offered this group-centric nugget:
“This team’s way more focused” going down to Auburn, said Jones, obliquely comparing the 2013 and 2015 Alabama squads during Iron Bowl Week. “Everybody has the same goals, no big egos on the team. Everyone just trying to compete and reach our goals of winning a championship; and I think we’re doing a good job so far. But the job’s not done yet.”
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.