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Tide hope to keep rolling in Iron Bowl

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

AUBURN, Ala. -- Andrew McCain grew up pulling for Auburn, just like the rest of his family.

The Tigers' right tackle knows the reality facing his boyhood team going into Friday's visit by No. 2 Alabama, a double-digit favorite to win its second straight Iron Bowl.

"Anybody who follows college football would call us underdogs, and we understand that," McCain said. "That's the way it should be. They've played better than we have, and more consistently, this year.

"We understand we're underdogs, but at the same time we're working hard to do everything we can to give ourselves a chance to win."

The big game Auburn (7-4, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) couldn't lose has become the one few think the Tigers can win. Alabama (11-0, 7-0) demolished a six-year Iron Bowl losing streak with last year's 36-0 thrashing, seeming to turn the tables in this 365-day-a-year rivalry with one knockout blow.

Now, the Crimson Tide is trying for a title trifecta: state, SEC and national. Alabama faces No. 1 Florida in the SEC championship game next week, with the winner securing a shot at the national title.

First things first.

"This is one of the best rivalry games in football, two great schools in a state that have had the opportunity to play for 100 years now," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "There is nothing really outside of this game that really matters this week.

"You can throw out the records, rankings, awards -- nothing else really matters."

Auburn is certainly hoping that well-worn cliche holds up. It's a lot to throw out, though.

The records: Alabama has won 23 consecutive regular-season games.

The rankings: Auburn doesn't have one.

The awards: Alabama tailback Mark Ingram is a Heisman Trophy candidate who is a finalist for the Maxwell Award (best all-around player) and Doak Walker (running back). Nose guard Terrence Cody is a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player) and Outland Trophy (best interior lineman).

Then there's last year's lopsided result. If all that seems stacked against Auburn, first-year coach Gene Chizik uses tradition more than that game to get his players going.

"This game is not an obligation, it's a privilege to play," said Chizik, part of three Iron Bowls as Auburn's defensive coordinator. "I want our guys to understand that they're going to be a part of something that is a privilege. That in itself is a huge motivation to play, in my opinion. Somebody's going to go down in the record books Friday. Somebody's going to do something that will go down in history and never be forgotten on one side or the other."

Alabama was ranked No. 2 and gunning for a national title shot 20 years ago on its first visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium after decades of playing in Birmingham. The result: Auburn 30, Alabama 20.

Also, the Tide hasn't won back-to-back Iron Bowls since 1998-99. That history won't exactly help Auburn's depleted defense stop Ingram, the SEC's leading rusher. The Tigers rank last in the SEC in scoring offense and 10th against the run.

"Alabama's not going to try to trick anybody," Chizik said. "They're going to do what they do and try to be more physical than you are. In these rivalry games, that's what it's all about."

Nor will the history help Ben Tate and the Tigers run against Cody & Co., who are giving up just 70.4 yards a game on the ground and haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in the last 31 outings, the nation's longest active streak.

"We're going to try to make them one-dimensional and try to take away the run so they'll have to pass it," Tide linebacker Rolando McClain said. "I think that will be to our advantage."

Tate fueled the fire a couple of weeks ago by saying he was the state's best back. He has been awfully good, ranking third in the SEC with 1,209 yards.

Tate is the key cog in Gus Malzahn's no-huddle, hurry-to-the-line offense that will try to keep Alabama's loaded defense off balance. But quarterback Chris Todd's 19 touchdown passes is one shy of the school record shared by Jason Campbell and Pat Sullivan. And wide receiver Darvin Adam shares the SEC lead with nine touchdown catches.

"They're one of the best offensive teams we've played all season long," Saban said.

Keeping the defense of Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart guessing, with McClain directing the players on the field, isn't easy.

"They have talent at every position," Malzahn said. "They've got a lot of speed and they play very physical. They are where they are supposed to be. They make you earn everything. That's our challenge as an offense, to be balanced and make some plays."

The defensive challenge is trying to keep Ingram in check. The tackle-breaking back has gained exactly 1,000 yards in seven SEC games. He has also flourished in the fourth quarter, when Auburn's defense has been most vulnerable because of depth issues.

Ingram needs just 73 yards to break Bobby Humphrey's 23-year-old Alabama single-season rushing record of 1,471.

"I don't think anybody's really stopped Mark all year," Chizik said. "Your best hope is to try to slow him down. I think he's a great back and all the recognition he's getting is well deserved."

But Saban has emphasized that Ingram knows all that recognition has much to do with the team's success.

For quarterback Greg McElroy, that means sustaining into December. Alabama breezed to a 12-0 regular season in 2008 before losing to Florida in the SEC title game, then to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

"The real season starts after Thanksgiving," McElroy said. "It really does when you think about it. You think about all the success we had last year and the praise and good feelings we had after 11 games last year. Obviously the 12th game was a great one as well last year, but we didn't accomplish anything after that.

"So this team is hungry. The time after Thanksgiving is a time when champions are made."