Rolling With the Tide
By JOHN ZENOR
AP Sports Writer
November 23, 2009; 2:28 p.m.
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -- The next game is the biggest.
That's Alabama coach Nick Saban's mantra, repeated over and over whether his team is playing LSU or Chattanooga. He might as well stick with it.
The No. 2 Crimson Tide (11-0, 7-0 SEC) visit bitter rival Auburn on Friday in the Iron Bowl. Win there, and the games really will keep getting bigger. The next would be against top-ranked Florida for the SEC championship and a shot at the national title.
Saban doesn't buy the statewide sentiment that this is an annual make-or-break game, though.
"There's probably a lot of people in Alabama, whether they're Auburn fans or Alabama fans, that probably equate the success or failure of the season based on what happens in this game," he said after his team's 45-0 demolition of Chattanooga. "I'm not sure that's exactly right."
But, he added, "this is a very important game for a lot of reasons and for a lot of people."
The Tigers (7-4, 3-4) would love to deal a blow to the Tide's national title hopes and better their own bowl prospects. Not to mention find some redemption after Alabama emphatically ended Auburn's six-year Iron Bowl winning streak with a 36-0 thrashing last season.
There is some recent history of a significant Iron Bowl underdog damaging its rival's national title hopes, last year's mismatch notwithstanding. A 'Bama team on its way to a 6-6 season in 2004 led Auburn 6-0 at halftime, in a surprisingly close 21-13 game that pushed the unbeaten Tigers from a tie for No. 2 with Oklahoma and effectively out of the BCS title game.
This Tide team doesn't need style points. Only an upset would really matter, and Auburn would love to oblige.
"That's our rival," Tigers tight end Tommy Trott said. "We'd love nothing more than to wreck an undefeated season, to upset them when they're riding on their high horse, ranked (second) in the country. That'd be awesome."
Auburn coach Gene Chizik was the Tigers' defensive coordinator for that '04 team.
"It was one of those physical games," he recalled Sunday. "It was at their place. And it was a hard-hitting, field-position game. It was close. It didn't matter how many at the time Alabama had won or lost. They were going to fight. They were going to play hard-nosed, physical football as the rivalry would have it over the years. That's how you play it."
This time, the roles are reversed and Chizik is hoping that tendency holds up for his team.
Trott, a Montgomery native, is one of the players who grew up with the rivalry. He had a newspaper clipping from Auburn's 1995 win on his bedroom wall for years growing up.
"It really is an awesome thing," Trott said. "It's the one time in my life and most of these guys on this team's life that you can dictate what a million people are going to feel like when they wake up the morning after the Iron Bowl. You're going to dictate what Auburn and Alabama fans are going to feel like, well over a million people."
Tide quarterback Greg McElroy lacks that lifelong connection. The Texan was probably more familiar with Texas-Texas A&M or Texas-Oklahoma when he arrived.
Last season, he came off the bench and endeared himself to Alabama fans with a late 34-yard touchdown pass to Marquis Maze. Two years ago, the Tide left as 17-10 losers.
"I am looking forward to it," McElroy said. "It's the greatest rivalry in college football, in my opinion. It'll be a good experience. They're playing well. It's at their place, which is always exciting.
"I can't forget the taste that was in our mouths a couple of years ago walking out of there a loser."
The game does feature some interesting subplots: Alabama has the nation's top defense going against Gus Malzahn's fast-paced offense. Auburn's defense is giving up more points than anybody in the league. The Tide has a Heisman Trophy candidate in Mark Ingram, the SEC's leading rusher with 1,399 yards. Auburn counters with Ben Tate, the No. 3 rusher with 1,209 yards.
Saban still isn't fully buying into the hype.
The next week's game will be the biggest, after all.
"Next week when I have this press conference, you're going to say, 'Is the SEC championship game the most important game?'" he chastised reporters. "You sensationalize whatever game it is, however you want to do it. Which is great. We have to play good every week."