- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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As an Alabama native, I have sworn, written and debated that the annual game between the University of Alabama and Auburn University is the best rivalry in college football. It has been a tougher sell in recent years. Ohio State and Michigan gained national interest for a while. While Texas and Oklahoma played for high stakes throughout the last decade, Alabama suffered the aftereffects of harsh NCAA penalties.
Some beliefs, set in the wet cement of childhood, are not easily dislodged. They remain as true in the fallow times as in the flush. And let's face it -- as Auburn and Alabama prepare to meet at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Friday, the Iron Bowl has never been flusher.
The No. 2, unbeaten Tigers and the No. 11 Crimson Tide haven't been rated this high when they played each other since 1994. Auburn is two victories away from securing a berth in the BCS National Championship Game. Alabama is the defending BCS champion.
Oh, if only the BCS had a ceremony like the Masters, in which the outgoing champ presents the new one with the trophy ....
The state of Alabama is longitudinal in shape, some 330 miles from the Tennessee border to the Gulf of Mexico and slightly more than half that by latitude. The two major state universities are separated by the latter. Alabama is within spitting distance of the Mississippi state line. Auburn is closer to Atlanta than to Birmingham or Mobile. Which is to say, once you step back and look, Alabama and Auburn aren't as far apart as they seem.
The trick, never mastered in this 365-days-a-year rivalry, is stepping back.
"This week brings out the best and the worst in the people of Alabama," said David Housel, who retired as athletic director at Auburn five years ago after spending his entire adult life at the university. "When the game is played, the players and coaches reaching their potential on the football field, it's the best Alabama has to offer."
The response to what happens on the field is what is always in danger of spiraling out of control. Where the fans are concerned, Housel said, "The fear of losing the game is worse than the joy of winning and participating. It's not enough to know you won. You want somebody else to know they got their ass beat."
The transcendence that Auburn feels about its 11-0 season is not shared by the rest of the nation and almost surely will be mocked by Alabama fans on Friday. Tigers quarterback Cam Newton may be the best player in the country, but in the last month Newton and his father have had their reputations sullied by accusations that Cecil Newton shopped his son's talent for money. That's the kind of snack on which opposing fans feast.
"When you put it in context, it's a great time," Housel said. "I think it's going to be one of those times where there's a lot of derision, a lot of spite.... I think it's going to be personal in Tuscaloosa this year. To a certain extent, it's personal every year. This is an exceptional year."
Alabama coach Nick Saban will have none of it.
"The focus this week is on the Alabama-Auburn game," Saban said. "It's not about anything that's going on outside. It's not about what happened last year. None of that really matters. It's about this week, this time, this game, and our focus is going to be on the preparation for our team to play the best football and give our guys the best opportunity to be successful against a very good team."
If you're a football coach, Saban is right. If you're not, he couldn't be more wrong, which is an example of why Saban's ways sometimes mystify football civilians. To Alabama and Auburn fans, what goes on outside and what happened last year -- and all the years before -- always matter.
The state will come to a halt for the kickoff shortly after 1:30 p.m. That doesn't fit with the mood or purpose of Black Friday, the nation's biggest shopping day of the year. The department stores at Bel Air Mall, the biggest commercial center in Mobile, will open at 4 a.m. The rest of the mall, which houses 130-plus stores, will open at 6 a.m. They're not doing that solely because of Black Friday.
"We will show the game in the mall," general manager Tim Nolan said. "We'll have big screens in the common areas."
Does he expect shoppers to watch the game? Maybe, maybe not.
"That's for the employees," Nolan said.
Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville coached Auburn from 1999 through 2008. His seven victories in the Iron Bowl rank third behind the schools' two iconic coaches, Paul "Bear" Bryant (19) of Alabama and Ralph "Shug" Jordan (9) of Auburn.
"The big thing about coaching at Auburn or Alabama, especially being at Auburn, is that no matter what happened, your two biggest games were fun," said Tuberville, referring to how Auburn usually plays Georgia before it plays Alabama. "Your players really prepared, and the fans were really into it whether you won it all or you didn't. That was the fun part of that game, whether you played to get into the national championship, like we did in 2004, or just for pride. It's an awesome, awesome venue."
Tuberville beat Alabama once more than did Pat Dye. It is historically appropriate that Dye's Tigers went 6-6 against the Crimson Tide. Not until his tenure (1981-92) did Auburn feel that Alabama recognized it as an equal.
Before Dye, Auburn endured feelings of inferiority as it traveled to play its archrival in Birmingham year after year. The game took on the nickname "Iron Bowl" in the days when steel mills gave Birmingham its nickname, "Pittsburgh of the South." Legion Field, once the home of several Alabama and Auburn games a year, became known as "Football Capital of the South." Civic officials had that slogan painted on the upper deck façade.
Legion Field doesn't have an upper deck any longer. It doesn't have Alabama and Auburn games, either. Alabama dragged its cleats for years before it entered Jordan-Hare Stadium on Dec. 2, 1989. It's a wonder that Dec. 2 is not an Auburn campus holiday.
The rivalry now has an ebb and flow. Alabama no longer feels the tyranny of losing six consecutive games to Auburn. The streak began in 2002, when Dennis Franchione coached the Tide, lasted through Mike Shula's four seasons and went into 2007, Saban's first season.
Tuberville loved trumpeting the streak. After he coached a flag football team in victory on an Air Force base in the Middle East in the spring of 2008, the winning players hoisted him into the air and carried him off the field.
Tuberville held up seven fingers.
"The worst thing is if one team or the other gets on a streak," Housel said. "Then the other side gets lathered up. Those fingers were a constant reminder. I just don't think that was good. It was fun, but what was fun was not necessarily good."
Six months later, Alabama ended the streak with a resounding 36-0 victory. It turned out to be the last game Tuberville coached at Auburn.
"I tell you one damn thing," Housel said. "If Auburn wins, there will be a whole bunch of people holding up one finger. One in a row. Number one in the state. Number one in the nation."
If Auburn wins, Alabama fans may not hold up the same finger.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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