What has Happened to the Iron Bowl?
By Matt Smith
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The Iron Bowl is still one of the sport’s greatest spectacles, but it’s not what it used to be or what it could be.
For the baby-boomer generation, famous Alabama-Auburn moments have an iron-clad seal in the grand history of college football. Ken Stabler’s “Run in the Mud” in 1967. “Punt, Bama, Punt” in 1972. Bo Jackson going over the top in 1982. Van Tiffin’s kick in 1985. For millennials, there is “The Comeback” in 2010 that propelled Auburn to its first national title in a half-century and well, that’s about it.
The Iron Bowl is perceived by many (myself included) as the greatest rivalry in college sports. All you have to do is listen to one hour of The Paul Finebaum Show this week, and you’ll see why. Unlike Texas-Oklahoma, Michigan-Ohio State, or Notre Dame-USC, their fans don’t just convene once a year and then go their separate ways. They live in and amongst each other 365 days a year.
Auburn and Alabama will meet for the 65th consecutive season at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon when the 3-8 Tigers travel to Bryant-Denny Stadium to face the 10-1 Crimson Tide, a game expected to be decided long before the 4:44 p.m. sunset in Tuscaloosa. The sun is also expected to set on the tenure of Gene Chizik at Auburn, as the Tigers are on the verge of their first winless SEC season since 1980. Most of the nation’s collective eyeballs will be tuned to Florida-Florida State or Oregon-Oregon State (if you have the Pac-12 Network).
Sadly, despite the 2010 meeting being one of the more iconic college football games of the past decade, the Iron Bowl has taken a sharp downturn. Don’t get me wrong, Bryant-Denny Stadium will be filled to the brim, and every Auburn fan, despite what they may proclaim behind the shields of their Twitter accounts, will be tuned into the CBS broadcast hoping for a miracle against second-ranked Alabama. However, given the inherent factors (conference, proximity, three straight national titles), recent history will tell you the Iron Bowl isn’t what it could be.
Saturday will mark the 15th time in the past 17 meetings that at least one of the two teams hasn’t been ranked. Only the 2005 and 2010 games have featured two Top 25 teams, an alarming statistic given the SEC and BCS hardware that resides in the state. Despite being each team’s SEC finale in every year except for 2001 (Auburn-LSU was moved to December after the 9/11 attacks), the Iron Bowl has never been a winner-take-all contest for an SEC Championship Game berth (it did decide the SEC West champion in 1994, but Auburn was ineligible for the SEC Championship Game). ESPN’s College Gameday has broadcasted live from the Iron Bowl just once since 1997, compared to five times for Michigan-Ohio State and Texas-Oklahoma, and four times for Notre Dame-USC.
A number of factors have contributed to the lack of marquee matchups. Alabama had just four winning seasons between 1997 and 2006, due in large part to botched coaching hire after botched coaching hire and a crippling two-year postseason ban in 2003. Auburn has had just three heads coaches since Pat Dye’s “resignation” after the 1992 season, but holds only a 9-7 edge in the series since 1996. Despite two unbeaten seasons, Auburn has finished with fewer than three losses just one other time in that stretch, an 11-2 2006 campaign.
Some of it is purely bad timing. Alabama has entered the Iron Bowl with national title hopes still alive in the three of the past four seasons. The one exception, in 2010, was the one time Auburn was still a crystal ball contender on Thanksgiving weekend. The high point of the Tuberville era at Auburn, 2003-2006, coincided with Mike Shula’s four-year reign on the Capstone, in which Alabama was on probation related to the infamous Albert Means recruitment.
With Auburn about to make a coaching change and Alabama in the running for its third national title in four seasons, the lull in the rivalry may continue for the foreseeable future. Given the trends of the rivalry, by the time Auburn becomes a national contender again, Nick Saban will be retired and the Tide will have slipped back to 7-5 and 8-4 seasons.
Saturday marks arguably the lowest point of the rivalry. Our friends in Las Vegas have established No. 2 Alabama as around a 32-point favorite over an Auburn team which has lost its past nine SEC games. One team is headed in one direction, with the other heading in an entirely different one.
Sadly, that’s nothing new lately in the Iron Bowl. It’s still one of the sport’s greatest spectacles, but it’s not what it used to be or what it could be. An entire generation of fans lacks the memories from the rivalry that the previous generation does. That won’t change on Saturday – unless changing the channel during the second quarter is considered memorable.