By Kevin McGuire
Few could have expected the turnaround at Auburn to go so well in year one under new head coach Gus Malzahn. Expectations were positive for the Malzahn era given his previous experience with the Tigers as an offensive coordinator during Auburn’s most recent rise to national glory with Cam Newton leading the program to its first and only BCS national championship. Now, ranked fourth in the BCS standings, Malzahn’s Tigers stare down a potential return to national championship glory. The only thing standing in the way is the seemingly immovable rock that is Auburn’s biggest rival, the top-ranked, two-time defending BCS champions from Alabama. Oh, is that all?
This weekend Alabama and Auburn will play what may be the most important Iron Bowl rivalry game in the history of the series, at least since 1971 when No. 3 Alabama and No. 5 Auburn battled for a spot in the Orange Bowl to face No. 1 Nebraska. The Crimson Tide won that year’s match-up of undefeated rivals, but followed that with a 38-6 loss to the Huskers. While the Iron Bowl may have played a role in determining if Alabama or Auburn could advance to the SEC Championship Game before, never has there been an Iron Bowl that decided that fate for both teams. The winner of this weekend’s Iron Bowl will move on to play next weekend in Atlanta against either Missouri or South Carolina for the SEC Championship. It is feasible the winner of the SEC Championship Game could play for the BCS championship as well, but we will digest that topic next week once all of the details are finalized.
It is fitting that the Iron Bowl finally gets to play this kind of role in the SEC, and it is a shock it has not happened like this before. Since the addition of a conference championship game in the SEC in 1992, Alabama and Auburn have never been quite this good in the same season. Make no mistake about this, Auburn is fully capable of not only hanging with undefeated Alabama, but could beat Alabama as well.
Sure, Auburn is going to have to bring its A-game. Even when Alabama is not at its supposed best, it is a difficult team for anyone to beat. That will go for Auburn as well, which makes getting off to a good, solid start a necessity for the Tigers. Auburn does not necessarily have to strike quickly against Alabama, as the Tigers like to do to their opponents. In fact, a fast 14-0 start may not even faze Alabama, if an earlier game this season at Texas A&M is any indication. Alabama, a championship-tested program, has plenty of veteran leadership this season to overcome bursts from their opponents in hostile territory. Digging out of a hole on the road at Texas A&M proved as much, although the environment at Auburn could be something else given the stakes and the heat and passion of the rivalry.
But nobody would expect Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide program to buckle under pressure. AJ McCarron has been a rock for Alabama since the day he became the Tide’s full-time starter a couple of years ago. McCarron has led his team back from a number of tough spots, including this year at Texas A&M, against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and on the road at LSU last season. His steady leadership and drive is what has fueled his rise in the Heisman Trophy conversation, overcoming his relative shortcomings when stacked side-by-side with other candidates in the mix. Despite leading an undefeated team on what could be a third straight national championship, McCarron lacks a coveted “Heisman moment,” which some voters like to see.
With everything on the line this weekend at Auburn, perhaps McCarron can deliver his final Heisman statement.
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Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.