Iron Bowl again at center of title picture

The 75th Iron Bowl has ramifications that extend well beyond
state pride.

This bitter, tradition-soaked Alabama-Auburn rivalry has once
again become a matchup with national significance after going
through some doldrums when one team was down, the other up, or both
were mired in mediocrity.

Then the ninth-ranked Crimson Tide returned to the top of the
rankings two years ago and made the game a national force once
again. Now, it’s No. 2 Auburn that is 11-0 and fighting for a
national championship going into Friday’s game while ‘Bama (9-2) is
still nursing hopes of a BCS bid.

”It says a lot for the football in this state to have two teams
of this caliber playing,” Tide coach Nick Saban said on
Sunday.

It certainly says plenty about the current state of football in
Alabama.

The two in-state rivals haven’t both entered the Iron Bowl
ranked in the Top 10 since 1994, when no. 4 Alabama beat No. 6
Auburn 24-14.

”Of course it goes up a notch,” Tide quarterback Greg McElroy
said. ”There’s more riding on the game for both teams. I think
everyone cares an awful lot about the outcome considering the
impact it could have not only on the national scene but also in the
Southeastern Conference.

”We’re very thrilled and excited to have the opportunity to
play Auburn with them having the success that they’ve had.”

The rivalry, of course, never lost any luster in the state of
Alabama, where toddlers get dressed up in orange and blue or
crimson and white. It’s important to choose sides early, after
all.

It seems sure to grab the attention of college football fans
without a rooting interest, as well.

This is the first time in five years both teams have even been
ranked for the regular-season finale.

The Tigers have already secured a spot in the SEC championship
game against No. 18 South Carolina and have ridden quarterback Cam
Newton into national title contention.

An unranked Auburn team came a last-minute ‘Bama touchdown drive
from possibly derailing the Tide’s championship hopes last season.
That was substantial progress from the 36-0 drubbing on the Tigers’
last visit to Tuscaloosa two years ago, the game’s widest margin in
46 years and the end of a six-year Auburn winning streak.

Popular coach Tommy Tuberville resigned under pressure a few
days later, and athletic director Jay Jacobs hired Gene Chizik.

”It was a lowpoint. It’s really amazing how far we have come in
a short period of time,” said Jacobs, a former Tigers player.
”These players in ’08, they won five games and they’ve won 11 this
year, and that’s with the same guys.

”We’ve come a long way really at a lot faster pace than I
thought we could get here.”

It’s the same pattern Saban and the Tide followed. Modest
progress the first year, and national championship contention the
second. Alabama, which won the national title last season, won 12
games in Saban’s Year 2, including that five-touchdown
demolition.

”They were kind of in the position we are,” Auburn center Ryan
Pugh said. ”They were starting to come back to the forefront of
where Alabama football had been for a long time. I think we’re
doing the same after one tough year in ’08. I think we’re starting
to bring Auburn football back to the front, where they were for so
many years.

”I think that you’re just going to see an unbelievable matchup
Friday night.”

This game’s compelling storylines aren’t just confined to the
field. Barring NCAA intervention, Newton seems to control his own
destiny in the Heisman Trophy chase, just like Auburn does in the
BCS.

But he has been at the center of a controversy the past few
weeks after revelations that his father allegedly sought $180,000
from Mississippi State boosters to sign with that school. That
would be an NCAA violation and raises questions about his
eligibility, though it hasn’t kept him from the field yet.

Newton hasn’t spoken to the media in nearly two weeks, and it’s
not clear if he will leading up to the Iron Bowl either. Saban
doesn’t want that topic overriding his own team’s preparation
either.

”The focus this week is on the Alabama-Auburn game, it’s not
about anything that’s going on outside,” Saban said. ”It’s not
about what happened last year. None of that really matters. It’s
about this week, this time, this game.

”The culmination of your season sort of gets judged by how you
do in a game like this.”