AUBURN, Ala. — In college football circles, there are three components to a great upset:
1) The prohibitive underdog — either judged by Vegas point spreads or the court of public opinion — pulls off a surprising win.
2) The consensus favorite has much to lose as a consequence of the defeat, in terms of squandering a conference title and/or failing to reach a major bowl.
3) There are extraordinary circumstances behind the stunning victory, enhancing the enduring legacy for years to come.
This may chagrin a cluster of Auburn fans, in hindsight, but the No. 2-ranked Tigers — led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton — were underdogs leading up to the 2010 Iron Bowl, with the Crimson Tide favored by 4 1/2 points. And when Alabama sprinted out to a 24-0 lead at Bryant-Denny Stadium midway through the second quarter, a betting man/woman might have encountered 1,000-to-1 odds of Auburn rallying for the win .
(As history notes, the Newton-led Tigers mounted a magnificent charge in the final 27 minutes of the 2010 Iron Bowl, securing a 28-27 road victory.)
The same holds true for the 2013 Iron Bowl, this time played at Jordan-Hare Stadium: On that Thanksgiving Saturday, Alabama had the No. 1 national ranking, the inside track to the SEC West title and Vegas on its side (seven-point favorites).
(As history notes, Auburn proffered one of the greatest endings in college history, with Chris Davis Jr. returning a potential game-winning field goal from Alabama — which fell short — 109 yards for the upset-clinching touchdown, resulting in a 34-28 Tigers win. This transcendent moment even has an all-time moniker: The Kick Six.)
Given the parenthetical endings listed above, would it even be possible for Auburn to up the ante on the “upset” front — should the Tigers knock off the No. 2 Crimson Tide this week?
In the last five years alone, Auburn has filled its history books with long-lasting memories of Iron Bowl victories. Is it even conceivable to produce an ending more thrilling (or harrowing, depending on one’s perspective) than Newton’s Heisman-clinching “Camback” or the (in)famous Kick Six?
Thankfully, we’ll find out very soon, as Auburn (last place in the SEC West) hosts Alabama on Saturday … a matchup which, on paper, has the makings of a Crimson Tide coronation — in the form of an SEC West title and a berth in next week’s conference championship.
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Auburn (6-5 overall) officially became bowl-eligible last week after its home rout of Idaho; so technically, the Tigers aren’t desperate for an Alabama upset, thus guaranteeing at least one more game for the senior class (and juniors leaving for the NFL draft).
But don’t sell that notion to head coach Gus Malzahn or his players. The group may not have been overt or boastful with their comments to the media on Tuesday, but the passion for this rivalry, this opponent, this venue tangibly burns from within.
“(A victory) would mean that we beat our rival, which is very important to us and important to the people of this state,” said Malzahn, who compliments Alabama for having perhaps the nation’s best defense, running back and special-teams unit. “Overall, I feel like we’re playing one of the most talented teams in the country.”
Kris Frost, a senior linebacker from Matthews, N.C., didn’t have a lot of exposure to the Alabama rivalry before college. But he has since made up for that, with Saturday marking his fifth Iron Bowl with Auburn (including a redshirt campaign).
“We’re definitely a better defense than we were at the beginning of the season,” said Frost of the Tigers, who have allowed an average of 21.3 points in their last three outings. “We’re all about looking forward to the next (game); and this being the biggest rivalry in college football, we’ve got to handle (the hype).”
The hype machine has an extra element this year, with Alabama’s Derrick Henry (1,526 rushing yards, 21 TDs) serving as the likely front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. The junior tailback, who has scored in 16 consecutive games (an SEC record), has racked up 200-plus rushing yards three times since mid-October.
“It’s important for us to attack the run (similarly) to how we handle our pass responsibilities,” noted Frost. “(Henry) has a lot of speed, likes to run downhill. We just need to hit him early, before he gets moving.”
Back to the “Kick Six” for a moment: Upon viewing any program on CBS Sports or CBS Sports Network in the last two years, you’ve undoubtedly caught the musically enhanced image of Tigers offensive lineman Avery Young along the sidelines, just milliseconds after Davis reached the end zone for Auburn’s game-winning score. Just a freshman then, Young bore the look of a precocious, wide-eyed youth who was too stunned to be delirious about his team’s Iron Bowl victory.
It was a classic, impromptu glance looking out at the field of play, with a horde of orange-and-blue-clad fans subsequently rushing the pitch, and one that CBS has milked for the better part of 24 months. The funny thing: Young didn’t even leave his seat on the Auburn bench … until after Davis fielded the missed field-goal attempt.
“(CBS) is probably showing that (promo) right now. I was just on the sidelines, shocked,” recalled Young. “The (CBS) cameraman was on my knees, shooting me, but I had no idea it would blow up like that.” He then added: “I didn’t even get up until (Davis) crossed the 50-yard line. And when he scored, that was great.”
The follow-up question was an easy one: Was that the loudest single roar Young has ever heard at Jordan-Hare? “Oh yeah,” he said, wearing an ear-to-ear grin.
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With Auburn hosting this year’s Iron Bowl, it’s human nature for reporters to pepper Malzahn and Alabama head coach Nick Saban with “Kick Six” questions leading up to Saturday. By extension, it’s almost like the Auburn press has chosen to ignore the absurdity of last year’s result — with the Crimson Tide roaring back for a 55-44 victory in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
By a long shot, it marked the highest-scoring game in Iron Bowl history. It might have also demystified Alabama’s vaunted defense in 2014, which had surrendered mere averages of 14.5 points over the first 11 games. And after beating Missouri in the SEC title game to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff, the Crimson Tide squandered an early lead in the national semis (Sugar Bowl), before eventually falling to Ohio State (42-35).
But that was also a different time for the Auburn offense, with quarterback Nick Marshall leading the team on his senior swan song. The 2015 Tigers have been more erratic on offense, with quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and Sean White combining for only 1,937 yards passing and nine passing touchdowns (against nine interceptions). And outside of Ricardo Louis (44 catches, 675 yards, three TDs), no other Auburn pass-catcher has tallied more than 20 catches or two touchdowns for the season.
(It’s worth noting: D’haquille Williams, a budding NFL prospect at wide receiver, was dismissed from the team back in October.)
On paper, Saturday has the appearance of a one-sided affair. Against SEC foes this season, Auburn has only scored 26-plus points during regulation (excluding the four-OT marathon against Arkansas) once. On a similarly glum note, the Tigers have yet to win a conference game at home.
Alabama, in turn, boasts the No. 3 scoring defense in the country (allowing just 14.5 points per outing); plus, Saban’s crew has all of its seasonal objectives on the line — in terms of claiming the SEC West title, advancing to the conference championship (versus Florida) and moving one step closer to back-to-back invites to the College Football Playoff.
And yet, recent history tells us something extraordinary can — and probably will — occur on The Plains.
“It’s football. We understand that anything can happen at any time, in any game,” says Young, a Florida native. He then added: “I didn’t know much (about the Iron Bowl rivalry) until I got here (to Auburn). It’s insane.”
Regarding Malzahn, a Saturday stunner over the Crimson Tide would also place him in exclusive company: Since 2007, counting just SEC-based head coaches, only Les Miles (LSU) and Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) have defeated Saban, while at Alabama, multiple times.
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.