Auburn head coach Gene Chizik's final chance to avoid a winless SEC season comes next Saturday at No. 4 Alabama.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Alabama-Auburn rivalry has a storied history, Hatfield-vs.-McCoy level hatred and games and performances that inhabit the state’s psyche for decades.
What the Iron Bowl hasn’t been filled with is really big upsets.
The Tigers visit Bryant-Denny Stadium and the second-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday as 31 1/2-point underdogs hoping to change that tradition.
“I would say if Auburn was able to win it, it would be the most surprising win Auburn’s (ever) had,” in the Iron Bowl, said David Housel, a former Auburn athletic director and author of several books on Tigers football.
He has to go all the way back to 1949 to find a possible exception. That’s when the Tigers pulled out a 14-13 win a year after getting pasted 55-0 when the two in-state powers renewed the rivalry following a 41-year break over a disagreement involving an extra 50 cents in per diem money and the selection of officials.
The divide between the two programs nowadays makes those differences look downright silly, if they didn’t already. Alabama fan Harvey Updyke is accused of burning Auburn’s iconic oak trees at Toomer’s Corner after the 2010 Tigers victory. Plus the stakes have been monumental lately.
The winner three years running has won the national title and Alabama (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) hopes to make it four.
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide has steadily maintained its position as one of college football’s powers. The Tigers (3-8, 0-7) have fallen far and fast since Cam Newton and the national title-winning team of two years ago engineered a 24-point comeback that was the largest in Iron Bowl history.
Now, Auburn is gunning for a huge upset that would make this season not quite so bad, after all.
Not all Tigers fans are giving up on the game, but they’re hardly confident either. David Wilbanks has been to every Iron Bowl since 1971, but that streak comes to an end Saturday.
He gave his tickets to his son and nephew, both Auburn students, partly because Auburn is having “probably the worst season that I can remember since the late 70s.”
“I probably would have gone to the game just to keep my streak alive had my son not needed tickets,” said Wilbanks, an Auburn graduate who lives in Sylacauga.
“Our family, we are orange and blue and it runs real deep with us. You just don’t give up on that game, but things don’t look too good and he needed a ticket and what’s Dad to do? I figure it’s time to pass the torch.”
If oddsmakers and perception prove accurate, there might be no better time.
Wilbanks’ streak began the year before the “Punt Bama Punt” game in 1972. Alabama, a 16-point favorite, lost a 13-point lead in the final 5:30 when Bill Newton blocked two punts and David Langer ran both in for touchdowns.
“I was on the fourth row in Section 47 and every score on both sides, Auburn and Alabama, took place right in front of us,” he said. “We were about on the 10-yard line on that end of the field. That was probably the greatest sporting event of my lifetime.”
For Auburn fans, this could join that as one of the most memorable Iron Bowls if the team can pull off a much bigger upset. The Tide might be OK so long as punter Cody Mandell gets decent blocking.
Saban used the “throw the records out” cliche minutes after last weekend’s win over Western Carolina, the first of many such claims. It can be thrown out in this rivalry.
The ranked team has won the last six meetings when the opponent was unranked, dating back to Auburn’s 17-7 upset of No. 9 Alabama in 2002.
The Tide was a three-touchdown favorite going into last season’s meeting and won 42-14.
“I noticed Gov. (Robert) Bentley said the other day you can always throw out the record book and a lot of people say you can throw out the record book when Alabama and Auburn play,” Housel said. “That’s not true. There have been some upsets, but not many upsets. The best team going into this game wins it far more often than not, so you can’t throw out the record book.”
Regardless of what’s happened before, the winner gets serious bragging rights at church, school or the office.
“You don’t have any pro sports in this state, so this is pro football, baseball, basketball all tied into one,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. “This is what this state is all about, and when you’re born in this state you’re usually born one or the other, and if you’re not, you’ve got to make a decision real early on which one you are and then you can’t flip. That’s just the way it is.”
Tide linebacker Nico Johnson is an Alabama native. He had to lose as a sophomore to really get it, though.
“If you don’t beat them, those 365 days are going to be bad for you,” Johnson said.The old saying, “Throw out the records when these two teams play,” doesn’t seem to apply in this year’s Iron Bowl matchup between struggling three-win Auburn and national title contender Alabama.