No. 2 Alabama welcomes struggling rival Auburn

So much has changed since the last time Alabama welcomed Auburn

into its immense home stadium.

The second-ranked Crimson Tide, victims of the largest comeback

in Iron Bowl history two years ago, is the team with flourishing

Southeastern Conference and national title aspirations going into

Saturday’s game.

The Tigers (3-8, 0-7 SEC) bare scant resemblance to the team

that Cam Newton rallied from 24 points down two years ago on their

way to a national title.

With everything left to play for, Alabama (10-1, 6-1) is a 31.5

favorite in what might be one of the bigger mismatches the Iron

Bowl rivalry has seen. The Tide defensive end Damion Square gives a

simple explanation for what’s dangerous about this opponent: ”It’s

Auburn.”

”It’s a rivalry and it’s important to them just like it’s

important to us,” Square said. ”I know that they’re going to come

play some bigtime football. Those guys get recruited like we get

recruited. They’re real talented guys and they can do their job

well. So despite what they’ve got going on down there, they’re

going to come down here and try to win them a football game.”

Auburn hasn’t put up much of a fight against top-tier SEC

competition the past two seasons, except for a two-point loss to

No. 8 LSU early in the season.

Tigers coach Gene Chizik faces a performance evaluation by

athletic director Jay Jacobs and President Jay Gogue after the game

with his job potentially on the line.

Chizik said it will take ”a near-flawless” performance to pull

off the upset.

”Our guys understand this is a one-game season,” he said.

”They’re going into it with excitement and passion.”

A Tide win at nearly 102,000-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium would

lock up a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game against No.

3 Georgia with a shot at playing for a second straight BCS title

and third in four years. Alabama climbed into that position when

Oregon and Kansas State were upset – the kind of fate the Tide is

trying to avoid.

”If your best football game is not good enough to win, then I’m

OK with that,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ”I just want the

players to play their best game and have the right disposition

about doing that, rather than being caught up in the circumstances

of what’s at stake.”

Alabama is loaded with finalists for national honors like

quarterback AJ McCarron (Johnny Unitas Golden Arm), center Barrett

Jones (Outland Trophy) and Dee Milliner (Jim Thorpe Award).

Auburn has an ever-shuffling starting lineup at several

positions including quarterback, where Jonathan Wallace becomes the

second freshman passer to start for the Tigers in the Iron

Bowl.

”No one’s believing that we can go down there and win,” Auburn

defensive tackle Angelo Blackson said. ”Statistically, it’s not

possible, but as a team we’re going to come in there and fight to

the end. We’re not going to lay down again. We’re not happy to just

be in the game with them. We’re going to go down there and try to

win.”

The numbers, at least, set the stage for a potentially lopsided

game.

The Tigers will put the nation’s 112th-rated offense against the

No. 2 defense, which allows the fewest points nationally.

”There’s not a lot of true what you would be able to say

`weakness’ on their defense,” Chizik said. ”You’ve just got to

find ways to get first downs and try to hit a big play here and

there, but they’re hard to come by.”

The Tigers will try to do that with tailbacks Tre Mason and

Onterio McCalebb – who returned a kick for a touchdown in last

season’s meeting – and wide receiver Emory Blake, easily Wallace’s

most reliable target.

Alabama tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon bring the SEC’s No.

2 rushing offense against a defense at the bottom of the league in

defending the run. Making things even more interesting, Yeldon was

a longtime Auburn commitment before signing with the Tide in

January.

The freshman has already racked up 809 yards, just 61 behind his

backfield mate Lacy.

”I’m happy he’s on our side,” Tide guard Chance Warmack

said.

McCarron, meanwhile, faces a secondary that has had six

different starting combinations and only produced one

interception.

McCarron was getting Heisman Trophy buzz two weeks ago before a

two-interception game against No. 9 Texas A&M.

Wallace was making his first SEC start that day in a 38-0 defeat

to Georgia and might be one of several freshmen starting for the

Tigers.

Auburn’s Blake is hoping to get a chance to test the message

he’s heard from fans since arriving in the state from Texas.

”Even my freshmen year, I had some fans tell me, `It doesn’t

matter if you lose every game. As long as you beat Alabama at the

end of the year, we’ll be happy,”’ Blake said. ”That’s just how

much impact this game has on our fans.”