- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Saturday's epic Iron Bowl on the Plains is what all rivalry games should look like.
When No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) travels to see fourth-ranked Auburn (10-1, 6-1), it will be the first time these two get together with the SEC Western Division title and a shot at the BCS title game on the line. A year removed from these programs going in opposite directions -- Auburn was 3-8 at this point last season -- the Iron Bowl has real life and really high stakes.
"This is why you play the game -- to play in a game like we're going to play at the end of the year where all of the marbles are on the line, and here we go," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. "That's why you play; that's why you're a competitor.
"This is what makes your blood boil. This is what makes you tick. This is what makes you get up early."
And became of the stakes, the Iron Bowl is the king of the rivalries this season. Michigan and Ohio State should always be playing for the Big Ten title and a shot in the bigger game in January. Florida-Florida State, Oklahoma-Texas and Notre Dame-USC should have the same big-time, high-stakes feel year in and year out. In a sport that always seems to battle its own cyclical nature, the best of the best among rivalries should always look and feel this big.
It's what the college football gods intended. Sure, we like surprises. When underdogs succeed, we're all pretty stoked. But these historic rivalries should consistently be front and center.
What Alabama-LSU has had in the last few years is what traditional, historical rivalries like this one should never lack.
Remember when No. 1 Ohio State's thrilling 42-39 victory over No. 2 Michigan to end the 2006 regular season served as a de facto semifinal for the BCS title game? Everyone was watching that one because it meant so much and had two storied programs essentially playing for it all.
Remember the "Bush Push" that featured No. 1 USC and No. 9 Notre Dame? It ended in thrilling fashion in front of the entire country when Reggie Bush nudged Matt Leinart over the goal line with three seconds left for a 34-31 win.
Who can forget the end-of-the-year bouts between Florida and Florida State during the 1990s?
Saturday marks the first time both Alabama and Auburn have been ranked in the BCS standings heading into the Iron Bowl since 2010. Auburn's 28-27 victory helped send the Tigers to the national championship that season. Before that, both teams hadn't been ranked in the game since 2005, and the game wasn't nearly as important in the national scheme of things the way this one is.
"It should always be like that," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said.
"We said that also. We wanted to give our fans what they deserve, and they deserve to be a part of an Iron Bowl that hasn't been like this for years. It's a great feeling."
It's great for the game. The Iron Bowl is the biggest event in the state of Alabama each year, but it's also a major deal nationally. Do I even need to bring up Harvey Updyke?
"I think the roots, they run a little bit deeper down here," Alabama center Ryan Kelly told reporters after Saturday's 49-0 victory over Chattanooga. "It's always a big game, especially this year. We're two top-10 teams and on the road at Auburn. It's going to be a big game. It's really critical this week that we have a good week at practice in preparation for it."
For both teams, Atlanta and Pasadena are on the line. Alabama is in the driver's seat for the latter destination, while Auburn still needs some help. But imagine how much the Tigers would help themselves with a win over the nation's top-ranked team.
The Tigers own the SEC's best running game (320.3 yards per game), and Alabama has the league's best rush defense (91.3). Just call it an unstoppable force vs an immovable object.
Nick Saban worked from the ground up to get Alabama here. Gus Malzahn has needed just a season.
Alabama grinds on offense and smothers on defense. Auburn spreads you out and is allowing 406 yards a game and has given up 23 points or more five times.
Something will have to give in this historic matchup.
"To be in this situation in probably the biggest rivalry in college football, it's unreal," Auburn running back Tre Mason said. "It's pretty much like the national championship before the national championship to me.
"A lot of people around the country are going to be tuned in, so we have to put on a show."
1dDavid M. Hale