TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The 75th Iron Bowl has ramifications that extend well beyond state pride.
This bitter, tradition-soaked Alabama-Auburn rivalry has once again become a matchup with national significance after going through some doldrums when one team was down, the other up, or both were mired in mediocrity.
Then the ninth-ranked Crimson Tide returned to the top of the rankings two years ago and made the game a national force once again. Now, it's No. 2 Auburn that is 11-0 and fighting for a national championship going into Friday's game while 'Bama (9-2) is still nursing hopes of a BCS bid.
"It says a lot for the football in this state to have two teams of this caliber playing," Tide coach Nick Saban said on Sunday.
It certainly says plenty about the current state of football in Alabama.
The two in-state rivals haven't both entered the Iron Bowl ranked in the Top 10 since 1994, when no. 4 Alabama beat No. 6 Auburn 24-14.
"Of course it goes up a notch," Tide quarterback Greg McElroy said. "There's more riding on the game for both teams. I think everyone cares an awful lot about the outcome considering the impact it could have not only on the national scene but also in the Southeastern Conference.
"We're very thrilled and excited to have the opportunity to play Auburn with them having the success that they've had."
The rivalry, of course, never lost any luster in the state of Alabama, where toddlers get dressed up in orange and blue or crimson and white. It's important to choose sides early, after all.
It seems sure to grab the attention of college football fans without a rooting interest, as well.
This is the first time in five years both teams have even been ranked for the regular-season finale.
The Tigers have already secured a spot in the SEC championship game against No. 18 South Carolina and have ridden quarterback Cam Newton into national title contention.
An unranked Auburn team came a last-minute 'Bama touchdown drive from possibly derailing the Tide's championship hopes last season. That was substantial progress from the 36-0 drubbing on the Tigers' last visit to Tuscaloosa two years ago, the game's widest margin in 46 years and the end of a six-year Auburn winning streak.
Popular coach Tommy Tuberville resigned under pressure a few days later, and athletic director Jay Jacobs hired Gene Chizik.
"It was a lowpoint. It's really amazing how far we have come in a short period of time," said Jacobs, a former Tigers player. "These players in '08, they won five games and they've won 11 this year, and that's with the same guys.
"We've come a long way really at a lot faster pace than I thought we could get here."
It's the same pattern Saban and the Tide followed. Modest progress the first year, and national championship contention the second. Alabama, which won the national title last season, won 12 games in Saban's Year 2, including that five-touchdown demolition.
"They were kind of in the position we are," Auburn center Ryan Pugh said. "They were starting to come back to the forefront of where Alabama football had been for a long time. I think we're doing the same after one tough year in '08. I think we're starting to bring Auburn football back to the front, where they were for so many years.
"I think that you're just going to see an unbelievable matchup Friday night."
This game's compelling storylines aren't just confined to the field. Barring NCAA intervention, Newton seems to control his own destiny in the Heisman Trophy chase, just like Auburn does in the BCS.
But he has been at the center of a controversy the past few weeks after revelations that his father allegedly sought $180,000 from Mississippi State boosters to sign with that school. That would be an NCAA violation and raises questions about his eligibility, though it hasn't kept him from the field yet.
Newton hasn't spoken to the media in nearly two weeks, and it's not clear if he will leading up to the Iron Bowl either. Saban doesn't want that topic overriding his own team's preparation either.
"The focus this week is on the Alabama-Auburn game, it's not about anything that's going on outside," Saban said. "It's not about what happened last year. None of that really matters. It's about this week, this time, this game.
"The culmination of your season sort of gets judged by how you do in a game like this."
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