The Alabama-Auburn game always draws an intense atmosphere, but this year’s will be extraordinary, right?
It’ll be like 1989, when some believe that atmosphere made the difference in Auburn’s 30-20 victory over Alabama in the first Iron Bowl on Auburn’s campus.
Atmosphere could be the X-factor that pushes fourth-ranked Auburn (10-1) past undefeated and top-ranked Alabama (11-0) this year, effectively ending Alabama’s run of consecutive national titles.
Those most intimately familiar with Iron Bowls say don’t believe it. Even those who would most want a special atmosphere to materialize and make a difference for Auburn aren’t counting on it.
“Quite frankly, no,” retired Auburn athletics director and Auburn sports historian David Housel said, when asked if he expects an extraordinary atmosphere for Saturday’s game. He lives in Auburn, and “I get that sense more from the media and from the fans away from Auburn than I do in Auburn itself.”
If Saturday’s game doesn’t produce a memorable atmosphere, it won’t be for lack of stakes.
For the first time, the winner of the Iron Bowl will win the SEC West Division title, and both teams come into the game with national-title prospects. With a victory Saturday and in the SEC Championship a week later, Alabama will secure its third straight berth in the Bowl Championship Series final and fourth in five years. Auburn would need to win Saturday and in the SEC Championship Game, then hope for help, such as undefeated and third-ranked Ohio State losing to No. 11 Michigan State in the Big Ten final.
Also on the line is the chance for a magical ending to Auburn’s magical season. Under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, the Tigers have mounted the nation’s top turnaround after going 3-9 a year ago, Auburn’s worst season in decades.
Saturday’s game will mark the first Iron Bowl since 1971 when both teams came into the game with a top-five ranking, and fourth-ranked Auburn will be the highest-ranked team to play a top-ranked Alabama team in the regular season.
So, the setup would seem to lend itself to a special atmosphere, a la 1989, and the atmosphere could propel underdog Auburn, right?
Alabama has held the nation’s top ranking all season and comes into the game as a 10.5-point favorite. The Crimson Tide has won two straight national titles and three in four years and rides an 18-game winning streak away from home, the nation’s longest active such streak.
With many of the current players, Alabama mounted a dramatic, game-winning drive at LSU a year ago. The Tide went into the Georgia Dome and beat Georgia in last year’s SEC Championship Game.
Just like Auburn, this season’s Alabama team won at Texas A&M, although the Tide’s game in College Station came with hype similar to its “Game of the Century” at home against LSU in 2011.
It’s nothing new for Alabama to play high-stakes games on the road under seventh-year head coach Nick Saban, and it’s nothing new for team leaders like linebacker C.J. Mosley and quarterback AJ McCarron.
McCarron, 2-0 in Iron Bowl starts, has called Saturday’s game just another game.
“I like playing on the road just because I feel like you’re going against all odds and everybody is against you,” he said. “You can just go in there and quiet the crowd and just kind of look at them on your way out, and they’re just in tears or something.
“So, it’s good. I like playing road games.”
Besides, there’s not likely to be a 1989-like atmosphere at Auburn again.
“I think it should be and will be a great, great atmosphere, but at the same time, I don’t think will have the emotional aspect of ’89, because ’89 was almost a religious experience,” Housel said. “It was a dream come true for Auburn people to have the game here.”
There was a lot of history behind that 1989 game.
The Iron Bowl had been played at Birmingham’s Legion Field, essentially Alabama’s second home, from the 1948 resumption of the series after a 41-year hiatus until 1989. In 1986, former Alabama coach Ray Perkins famously said, “Alabama will never play in Auburn.”
Former Auburn coach Pat Dye fought to get the game on Auburn’s campus every other year, and 1989 was the first played in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“As Coach Dye said before the ’89 game, he said, ‘Where it’s being played is more important than who wins,’” Housel said. “That’s certainly not the case here (this year). It’s who wins that’s the most important thing. … The ’89 game will stand alone for Auburn people for what it meant, but I think this game, for both fan bases, is probably bigger.”
At that, he said the crowd’s impact on the ’89 game is debatable.
“It certainly impacted it, but to what degree I don’t know,” Housel said. “When you talk about a crowd impacting a game, I remember the Auburn-Florida State game in 1990. I thought the crowd had a greater impact on that game than it did the Alabama game in ’89.
“It was an intense atmosphere in ’89 -- the orange-and-blue haze from the shakers and the noise, that type thing. It may have had an effect, but, really, I like what AJ McCarron said. It’s just another game, just another big game.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.