published Saturday, November 30th, 2013

This Iron Bowl much bigger even than usual

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron looks for an open receiver behind his blockers as Mississippi State defensive lineman P.J. Jones during their game in Starkville, Miss., in this file photo.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron looks for an open receiver behind his blockers as Mississippi State defensive lineman P.J. Jones during their game in Starkville, Miss., in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Poll
Will Auburn upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl?

AUBURN, Ala. — Bragging rights are taking a back seat for a change in this Iron Bowl.

It's No. 1 Alabama versus No. 4 Auburn today in a rivalry game that has reached epic proportions in the state beyond even the usual craving for 364 days of rubbing it in.

The winner of only the second top-five matchup in the Iron Bowl's 78-year history will play for the Southeastern Conference championship and live on in the national-title derby.

"Oh, man, it's going to be a battle," Crimson Tide receiver Kevin Norwood said.

If the SEC title game has been a national semifinal game during the league's seven-year run of BCS champs, welcome to what could amount to the quarterfinals. Iron Bowl style.

The Tide (11-0, 7-0) remain the national front-runner and are 10.5-point favorites for this one. The Tigers (10-1, 6-1) have arguably been the season's biggest surprise, though unlike Alabama they'd likely still need either No. 2 Florida State or No. 3 Ohio State to lose to be in the BCS finale.

Auburn lost the past two Iron Bowls by a combined 91-14 and failed to produce an offensive touchdown in either game. Much has changed since Gus Malzahn's arrival as head coach.

"We've been fueled by doubt all season," Auburn tailback Tre Mason said. "A lot of guys are fired up, and we like being the underdog."

It hasn't been an ideal position in this game historically. The highest ranked team has gone 42-10 in the Iron Bowl since 1955, but there have been precious few like this one.

The 1971 game pitted No. 3 Alabama versus No. 5 Auburn. The 1989 game was huge for Auburn fans as the first one played at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Perhaps this one will end up topping them all. The Tigers haven't been under this kind of spotlight since the 2010 national championship season that helped give the state a string of four straight.

The teams are jockeying to preserve their hopes of making it five.

"We're going to try not to have that outside pressure feed in and all the media and hype that the outside people are going to bring in affect us, but at the same time we're going to bring that intensity ourselves," Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah said.

No top-ranked Alabama team has faced an opponent ranked this high during the regular season.

Plus, it's Alabama-Auburn, a statewide obsession even in lean years. Tide coach Nick Saban says games like this boil down to execution.

"It really doesn't matter what anybody says, what anybody thinks, who's favored," Saban said. "It really doesn't matter."

Here are five things to watch in the Iron Bowl:

• Marshall vs. McCarron: The Tide's AJ McCarron is a Heisman Trophy candidate with a big-game reputation. Malzahn has fashioned his Auburn offense to take advantage of Nick Marshall's strengths: downfield passing and running. This will be the biggest game of the junior college transfer's career, while McCarron has won two national titles.

• What a rush: It's the SEC's top running game against the best run defense. Auburn ranks second nationally in rushing at 320.3 yards per game behind two of the league's top-six rushers, Marshall and Mason. Alabama is fourth against the run, with opponents managing just 91.3 rushing yards on average. The Tigers have four runners with at least five touchdowns, matching what the Tide have allowed all season.

• Potent offenses: They go about it differently, but both offenses are formidable. The Tigers have scored 30-plus points seven games in a row for the first time since 1994, using a fast-paced style. Alabama is No. 2 in the SEC in points per game (39.7) and has had only 19 three-and-outs in 119 possessions, or 15.8 percent, the fourth-lowest rate nationally.

• Seeing red: Alabama's defense is the SEC's best in several key categories, including scores allowed within the Tide's 20-yard line. Opponents are scoring just 60 percent of the time in the red zone. Auburn is second-stingiest, at 73.7 percent. The Tigers offense has scored on a league-best 42 of 48 red-zone trips (87.5 percent), including 33 touchdowns.

• Tough blockers: Alabama and Auburn could both make a case for having the SEC's best offensive line. Led by Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen, the Tide have allowed just two sacks in the past 29 quarters. Center Ryan Kelly's status is uncertain with a sprained knee. Auburn's Greg Robinson and Reese Dismukes have paved the way for a potent running game and given up 12 sacks.

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