*Courtesy Auburn Media Relations*
AUBURN, Ala. - For every player on Auburn's football team, the Nov. 30 Iron Bowl against Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium is a big deal. For most, it's the biggest of their college careers. For players from the state of Alabama, it's even bigger deal.
And then there is sophomore running back Corey Grant. For him, it's the biggest deal of all.
Grant starred at Opelika High School. His hyper speed attracted attention from schools all over the country. For a long time, it was widely assumed he would sign with Auburn. But Tommy Tuberville left after 10 years as Auburn's head coach, Gene Chizik was hired and Grant signed with Alabama in February 2011.
After a redshirt season, Grant began to question his decision. Finally, he decided he'd made a mistake. He wanted to play for Auburn. When Alabama coach Nick Saban refused to grant him a release, he left anyway. He had to pay his own way for his first year at Auburn.
"It was a tough decision," Grant said. "I loved Coach Malzahn and his offense. After talking to Coach Saban and how they wanted to utilize me and wanting to get away from home, I kind of did that. I realized that wasn't for me. Coming back here, I feel like, was the right choice."
When No. 6 Auburn (10-1, 6-1) and No. 1 Alabama (10-0, 7-0) meet to decide who represents the West in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, Grant will finally be called on to contribute. He played only a handful of snaps on special teams in Auburn's 49-0 loss in Tuscaloosa last season.
"Since I was there for a year and then transferred here, it's a big thing," Grant said after Wednesday's practice. "Last year didn't go so well. To finally get a chance to actually be on the field and contribute is a very big deal to me."
After sitting out the 2011 season as required by NCAA rules, Grant was one of the stars of spring practice and seemed to be poised for a big year. But he had just nine carries, all of those coming against Alabama A&M and New Mexico State, as Auburn staggered to a 3-9 record that cost Chizik his job.
Gus Malzahn arrived last December as Auburn's head coach, and everything changed.
Grant's first Auburn touchdown was a 75-yard sprint that gave Auburn the lead for good in a season-opening 31-24 victory over Washington State. He finished the game with 146 yards on just nine carries. And he has been a big-play threat ever since.
For the season, Grant has rushed 56 times for 557 yards, an average of 9.9 yards per carry. He has scored five touchdowns. He had a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Tennessee.
Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee knew before he arrived last December to join that Grant had the skills to be a difference-maker. And he was right.
"It's huge," Lashlee said. "He's a big play guy. He's averaging over 10 yards or right at it per carry. It makes you wonder if maybe we should give it to him more. He's explosive, he's fast, he's strong. It's a great element to have."
Little was expected of Auburn's football team this season, but Grant says he finds nothing surprising in the record. And he says the Tigers will be ready when Alabama comes to town.
"After all the work we put in, it's really not that surprising," Grant said. "Coach Malzahn and the coaches will have a great plan. It's our job to go out there and execute, just do what we do and play football. It's going to be a lot of fun."