- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Good luck finding a rivalry in college football as deep-rooted, passion-filled and polarizing in one state as the Iron Bowl.
Alabama and Auburn get it on every year in late November, and they spend the remaining 364 days in that state reliving the game.
It’s not just football. It’s life.
And while it’s a rivalry that has spawned scores of legendary names, games, moments and memories, it has been a while since an Iron Bowl has meant more for both sides going into the game than the one that will be played Saturday afternoon on the Plains.
It’s only the second time in Iron Bowl history that both teams have been ranked in the top five nationally. Alabama is No. 1 and Auburn No. 4 in the latest BCS standings.
The only other time came in 1971, when Alabama entered the game No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and Auburn was No. 5. The Crimson Tide rolled the Tigers and Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan 31-7 that day to capture the SEC championship.
The buildup to that game was obviously huge, especially with both teams being unbeaten and Sullivan being announced as the Heisman winner on Thanksgiving night, two days before the game.
The same goes for the 1989 game, which was the first Iron Bowl to be played at Auburn. Previously, the game had always been played in Birmingham at Legion Field, and there are a lot of Auburn people who will tell you that there will never be a more important game in the series for them than that 1989 affair.
Of course, it helped that the Tigers beat the No. 2 Crimson Tide 30-20 in Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium to earn a share of the SEC championship along with Alabama and Tennessee.
One of the strangest Iron Bowls was played in 1993, when Auburn was on probation after being hit with NCAA sanctions. The game couldn’t be shown on television. So other than those at Jordan-Hare Stadium that day, the only people who saw Auburn's 22-14 win were the 40,000 or so fans who watched the game on closed-circuit television at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Alabama’s campus. Auburn's victory completed an 11-0 season under first-year coach Terry Bowden.
The game in 2010 will go down as the most electrifying comeback in the series. Cam Newton and Auburn rallied from 24 points down to win 28-27 in Tuscaloosa and save the Tigers’ national championship season.
Legendary names on both sides have left their mark in this series.
Ken Stabler's Run in the Mud in 1967 will never be forgotten, nor will Bo Jackson's going over the top in 1982 to beat Alabama in what was Bear Bryant’s last Iron Bowl.
Perhaps the most stunning finish came in the 1972 Punt, Bama, Punt game. Auburn's Bill Newton blocked a pair of punts in the fourth quarter and both were returned for touchdowns by David Langner to give Auburn a 17-16 win over No. 2 Alabama.
It’s hard to find a more thrilling game than the 1985 classic. Van Tiffin booted a 52-yard field goal in the closing seconds to give Alabama a 25-23 win. There were four lead changes in the fourth quarter alone.
So as we try to put into perspective where Saturday’s game ranks in the annals of this storied rivalry, we could go on endlessly talking about the memorable players, plays and games that the Iron Bowl has provided.
But in terms of stakes for both teams, I’m not sure we’ve seen anything quite like this.
Alabama is chasing history and looking for a third straight national championship, something that hasn’t happened in the modern era.
Imagine the thrill for Auburn to be able to end the Crimson Tide’s historic run right there on the Plains, especially when you consider the way Auburn was reeling this time a year ago.
The Tigers were putting a miserable 3-9 season to bed in which they closed out their SEC schedule with a 38-0 blowout loss to Georgia and an even more lopsided 49-0 loss to Alabama.
Now, a year later, here they are going toe-to-toe with Alabama, with the SEC’s Western Division title on the line. Not only that, but Auburn could thrust itself right into the middle of the national championship picture with a win, especially if Florida State or Ohio State stumbles in these next two weeks.
For a rivalry that has given college football junkies just about everything we could ask for over the years (and then some), this game Saturday might be the most anticipated yet because of what it means to both sides.
Let’s hope the game can match the stakes.
7hDavid M. Hale