Diminished intensity

Auburn's struggles, Alabama's success has taken edge off Iron Bowl

Updated: November 21, 2012, 10:28 AM ET
By Alex Scarborough | TideNation

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- David Housel is as grounded an Auburn man as you'll find. He doesn't curse Harvey Updyke or fan the anti-Alabama flames. He applauds Nick Saban and even finds room to compliment the success of the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide. Age and distance have loosened the grip of fandom on the former Auburn University athletic director, bringing light to the blinding vitriol that often colors the Iron Bowl rivalry.

When Housel speaks, it's from a historical perspective. The old cliche of "Throw out the records when these teams meet" doesn't ring true to him. He can count on one hand the number of times there's been an upset in the Iron Bowl. He had to reach all the way back to 1949 -- a 14-13 Auburn win -- to find five.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEven minor upsets, like the one Cam Newton engineered in 2010, are rare in the Iron Bowl.
"Just the other day the Governor -- and I think very highly of the Governor; I'm a Robert Bentley man -- he said you can throw the record books out," Housel said in a slow, distinctive Southern tone. The 66-year-old isn't politically inclined, but he knows his football. "With all due respect to my Governor, he's wrong. You cannot throw the record books out. The best team going into this game 99 percent of the time wins."

"There have been a few notable upsets, but they are notably few."

Housel understands Auburn (3-8, 0-7) will likely lose to Alabama (10-1, 6-1) on Saturday afternoon. He doesn't need a Las Vegas point spread or coach speak to tell him what he already knows: Alabama is up and Auburn is down.

How it got that way traces back to the most minor of upsets in the Iron Bowl's history two years ago. Alabama, favored by less than a touchdown at home, saw a 24-0 lead diminish as Auburn roared back for a last-second 28-27 win. The Tigers, with eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton at quarterback, won the SEC Championship and eventually the national title.

What happened next flummoxes even the most ardent Auburn supporters. Even Housel can't find a comparison in the school's history.

An 8-5 followup season wasn't the best, but it was bearable. Newton, Nick Fairley and many of the key cogs in the Tigers' championship run were gone. Three consecutive top-20 recruiting classes were supposed to refresh the coffers and plug the leaks.

They didn't.

Michael Dyer, Auburn's record-setting freshman tailback in 2010, was forced to leave the program after run-ins with the law. Jovon Robinson, a potential backup at running back, left too because of a forged high school transcript. Even freshman quarterback Zeke Pike, the Tigers' most heralded recruit in the 2012 class, found himself a new home after an arrest for public intoxication. At the same press conference where coach Gene Chizik announced Pike's intent to transfer, he had to reaffirm the release of defensive back Jonathan Rose, a top recruit in the 2011 signing class.

The hits didn't stop there.

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who engineered Auburn's inventive spread attack, left to become head coach at Arkansas State. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof was let go after giving up more than 400 yards per game in 2011. Two new, ideologically different coordinators sent a shockwave through the program. Scott Loeffler wanted a more pro-style attack on offense and Brian VanGorder craved more big bodies on defense. Neither found what they were looking for.

The result this season has been a three-win Auburn team with little hope for the future. If Auburn loses to Alabama, it will be only the second time the Tigers have finished 3-8 or worse since 1952. Chizik is on the hot seat and Saban has found himself in the odd position of defending a supposed rival.

"Gene Chizik has done a really good job," Saban said on Monday. "All I know is playing against him, it's always a tough game, they are always well-coached and they are always well-prepared. That's all I can comment about."

Those were kind words, but Auburn's record speaks for itself. The ineptitude on offense does, too. Auburn is ranked 100th or lower in scoring and total offense this season. It has suffered the fifth-most negative plays and is in the bottom 15 percent of teams in turnover margin and first downs.

Auburn's three wins have come against unranked, unrecognizable teams: Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. Barring a miracle win over Alabama, Auburn will go winless in the SEC for the first time in more than 30 years.

"Quite frankly, most people will be glad to get this over with," Housel said of the Iron Bowl. "It's going to be what it's going to be and then Auburn is going to have to find a way to get more competitive."

Housel compared it to the battle of David and Goliath.

"That's a great example, but little David didn't slay Goliath but one time," Housel explained. "Auburn had its one time in 2010."

The post-championship years have gone two separate directions in this state: Auburn has gone belly-up since winning the title in 2010 while Alabama has continued its steady climb to the top and is on pace to compete for its third national championship since 2009.

Where Auburn's roster and coaching staff have been unstable, Alabama has been a steady ship. When offensive coordinator Jim McElwain left to become the head coach at Colorado State and Sal Sunseri the defensive coordinator at Tennessee this offseason, Saban turned to a familiar face in Lance Thompson to coach linebackers and a malleable personality in Doug Nussmeier to lead the offense. The Tide's identity in both positions have not changed.

At quarterback, little has changed. AJ McCarron will make his 23rd straight start under center for Alabama on Saturday. Meanwhile, freshman Jonathan Wallace will be making only his fourth career start for Auburn.

The mismatches in experience and production go up and down the line. The one area Auburn might outfox Alabama is special teams, but that's not much incentive for fans to tune in to watch.

The Iron Bowl, for all its luster, has lost its shine this season with Auburn and Alabama resting on opposite ends of the college football spectrum.

According to Housel, the energy around the game has worn off.

"In terms of 365 days a year like some folks say, I think that intensity has diminished," he said.

No amount of tree poisoning, trophy defacing or talk-show poison can change that. While Alabama fights for a title, Auburn fights for nothing. Not even a man like David Housel can get geared up for The Cotton State's biggest sporting event of the year.

After all, iron is forged when a hammer and an anvil strike at the right point, and this year they're too far apart to meet in the middle.

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter