*Courtesy Auburn Media Relations
AUBURN, Ala. – Former Auburn quarterback Ben Leard had watched it on television. He’d witnessed it as a recruit. But he says playing in the Iron Bowl against Alabama was the experience of a lifetime.
Leard, who started against Alabama in 1999 and 2000, came to Auburn from Hartwell, Ga. But he learned quickly about the game that comes in late November or early December of every season.
“That game changes you forever,” says Leard, who lives in Auburn and is an agent at J. Smith Lanier & Co. “Nothing compares to it. It is the epitome of intensity. Every backyard football game, every high school game you’ve ever played, every workout you’ve ever had leads to that game. It is the pinnacle of football to be involved in it.
“There’s always a hero on one sideline or the other that you wouldn’t think would do it. Guys suddenly step to the top and are heroes in this game. And they’ll remember it forever.”
But even in the Iron Bowl, some games are bigger than others.
In the 65 years since the series was renewed, four Heisman Trophy winners and dozens of All-Americans have played in the football game now known as the Iron Bowl. Championships have been won. Legendary coaches have faced off in games that became legends themselves.
But never before have both teams arrived at the season finale ranked in the top four. Not until this season. No. 4 Auburn (10-1, 6-1) and No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0) are set to meet Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Kickoff time on CBS is set for 2:30 p.m. The winner will move on to Atlanta to play Missouri or South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game and will stay alive in the race to play in the BCS Championship Game.
Beyond winning the state championship, the Iron Bowl stakes are typically high for one team or the other. Alabama has entered the game as a ranked team 41 times and Auburn 33 times. But only 17 times have both teams been ranked.
Alabama leads the series 42-34-1, but in games in which both teams have been ranked, Auburn holds an 11-7 edge and has won nine out of the last 10. Since Bear Bryant retired after the 1982 season, Auburn’s only loss in an Iron Bowl featuring two ranked teams was 21-14 to Gene Stallings’ unbeaten Tide in 1994.
The college football world will be watching Saturday to see if Auburn can do it again. ESPN’s College GameDay will be in town. The stadium will be filled to capacity and thousands of fans without tickets will be on campus to be a part of it the spectacle.
First-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says Alabama is talented and consistent on both sides of the ball. He says, to win, his team will have to play its best game. But as the game approaches, he says they’ll do what they’ve done to get here.
“Really, it’s not that tough for me,” Malzahn says. “Really, I don’t think it will be that tough for our team. Any time you are in a routine and have been somewhat successful, it’s a lot easier to stay in that routine.”
Malzahn says he doesn’t need the extra motivation of a winner-take-all game.
“I’m pretty motivated,” Malzahn says. “We could be playing a junior high team and I’d be motivated.”
Senior defensive end Nosa Eguae, the only player on the Auburn roster who was a starter on the 2010 national championship team, says players will follow the lead of their coach.
“We football players are creatures of habit,” Eguae says. “We get in a routine and do that routine. Every player has a routine. I’m sticking to the routine. I’m sticking to the things that got me here.”
Auburn and Alabama met as ranked teams for the first time in 1959. No. 19 Alabama beat No. 11 Auburn 10-0 to break a five-game drought in the series. A year later, No. 17 Alabama beat No. 8 Auburn, winner of eight straight, 3-0. In 1963, No. 17 Auburn beat No. 8 Alabama 10-8.
The significance of what is to come is not lost on Auburn players, who lost to Alabama 49-0 to finish off a 3-9 season a year ago.
“I’m amped up as ever about this game,” junior tight end C.J. Uzomah says. “With what happened to those two teams (Oregon and Baylor) last night, it’s been magnified even a little bit more. We’re going to not have to let that outside pressure feed in and let all the media and hype affect us. We know a lot is at stake in this game.”
Even with school out for Thanksgiving, signs of the significance of Saturday’s game are everywhere. Already, fans are beginning to arrive on campus.
“I didn’t think about it until I looked at Twitter and the RV’s somebody had posted,”
Uzomah says. “I just sat back and said to myself ‘This is going to be huge.’ Seven days, and people are already on campus tailgating and getting ready?
“In my mind, it’s going to be the most unbelievable crowd and atmosphere I’ve ever been in. I’m looking forward to it. I think having all eyes on us and Jordan-Hare watching that game is going to be awesome.”
Dameyune Craig, Auburn’s Iron Bowl starter in 1996 and 1997, will coach in the game for the first time Saturday. Craig, Auburn’s wide receivers coach, said that opportunity was part of what led to his decision to leave Florida State.
“I wish everybody could just line up one time and walk the Tiger Walk and walk on that field in uniform,” Craig says. “That’s the best feeling I think any young man from Alabama can experience. I wasn’t even made when I wasn’t playing. I was just happy to be on the field and be a part of it.”
Following are the 17 previous Iron Bowls in which both teams were ranked:
No. 19 Alabama 10, No. 11 Auburn 0
No. 17 Alabama 3, No. 8 Auburn 0
No. 9 Auburn 10, No. 6 Alabama 8
No. 15 Alabama 24, No. 18 Auburn 16
No. 3 Alabama 31, No. 5 Auburn 7
No. 9 Auburn 17, No. 2 Alabama 16
No. 2 Alabama 17, No. 7 Auburn 13
No. 1 Alabama 25, No. 14 Auburn 18
No. 3 Auburn 23, No. 19 Alabama 20
No. 14 Auburn 21, No. 7 Alabama 17
No. 7 Auburn 10, No. 18 Alabama 0
No. 7 Auburn 15, No. 17 Alabama 10
No. 11 Auburn 30, No. 2 Alabama 20
No. 6 Auburn 22, No. 11 Alabama 14
No. 4 Alabama 21, No. 6 Auburn 14
No. 21 Auburn 31, No. 17 Alabama 27
No. 11 Auburn 28, No. 8 Alabama 18
No. 2 Auburn 28, No. 9 Alabama 27
No. 4 Auburn vs. No. 1 Alabama, Jordan-Hare Stadium.