TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – Maybe Alabama and Auburn had something else on their minds entering the Iron Bowl warmup acts, like each other.
It took both teams some time to get going against FCS teams last Saturday. Now, the second-ranked Crimson Tide and 15th-ranked Tigers turn their focus exclusively to the rivalry – already a hot topic year-round among fans in the state.
”It’s the biggest college rivalry in history, so of course you’re going to want to have fun and do the things you’ve got to do to prepare for it,” Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said.
For the sixth straight year, Saturday night’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium will have national title implications. The winner of the Iron Bowl has won four of the last five BCS championships. Both were in contention for the national title going into the 2013 game, won by Auburn on Chris Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed field goal on the final play.
Whether it causes heartache or elation, it’s been hard to escape the play that sealed ”Kick-Six” and Davis’ name forever into the Iron Bowl vault.
”It shows up on the TV every now and again, and it breaks our heart every time,” Tide safety Landon Collins said. ”In one second they took our whole chance away of winning anything, and definitely it rewinds in my head. Definitely it will rewind in my head constantly throughout this week.”
Davis’ 109-yard return, only the fourth such play recorded by the NCAA, gave the fourth-ranked Tigers a 34-28 win over the No. 1 Tide. They ultimately played for the national title instead of the Bama team many expected to get that shot.
Now, the Tide (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) are the only Iron Bowl participant left standing. Alabama, which holds the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings, can secure a berth for the SEC championship game against either No. 8 Georgia or No. 17 Missouri with a victory.
Auburn (8-3, 4-3) is angling to play the spoiler and land a bigger bowl.
Chances are, neither team will struggle to get up for this one.
”When you play a game like the Iron Bowl, it’s always in the back of your mind,” Tigers linebacker Kris Frost said. ”It’s in the back of your mind at the beginning of the season. You don’t look past any team, but you know that game means a lot to us obviously being the biggest football rivalry in the country.”
Auburn, which had dropped two straight games, trailed 7-0 midway through the second quarter of the eventual 31-7 victory over Samford. The Tide led just 17-14 early in the second quarter before rolling to a 48-14 win over Western Carolina.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was at a loss when asked about the challenge of keeping his players focused on Saturday’s game with the Iron Bowl looming.
”I obviously don’t have the answer to that question, so it’s more difficult than what I can figure out,” he said. ”We were as flat as a pancake when we went out there, so I didn’t do a very good job.”
Auburn is dealing with its own lingering issues. The Tigers rose as high as No. 3 in the playoff rankings before fumbling away the Texas A&M game and getting routed at Georgia.
The slow start against Samford had fans even more restless.
Quarterback Nick Marshall, once regarded as a Heisman Trophy candidate, was held to 171 passing yards and minus-8 yards rushing. He came in having run for 739 yards.
He and his Alabama counterpart, Blake Sims, both played deeper into Saturday’s games than their coaches probably wanted. Sims is getting his first Iron Bowl start in his final game at Bryant-Denny.
”I’m just happy to have the opportunity to play in it,” he said. ”I’ve been waiting five years for it. Auburn is a great team.”
Sims is mostly tasked with getting the ball to players like receiver Amari Cooper and tailback T.J. Yeldon. The former running back also ran for two third-and-long conversions on a decisive touchdown drive against No. 4 Mississippi State, a threat the Crimson Tide hasn’t had in recent quarterbacks.
”The quarterback doesn’t carry it a whole lot, but when he does he’s a threat to go the whole way,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. ”He’s big and fast. He can get the ball outside, whereas that was a play you didn’t really worry about (in the past).
”You packed the box and made sure you stopped the running back.”
The Tide has even at times employed the zone read plays that have been so effective for Marshall and the Tigers the past two years.
Both are quick, shifty players who can outrun many pursuing linebackers or make them miss.
Marshall has attempted 73 fewer passes than Sims, but run twice as much. He hasn’t been effective running the past two games, and Auburn’s offense has sputtered at times as a result.
”He’s an athlete,” Tide safety Nick Perry said. ”He’s probably going to be the most elusive guy we’ve faced all season. He makes a lot of great plays. You just have to contain him and don’t allow him to beat us. Allow other people to beat us.”