Relax, Alabama: the heat's all on No. 2 Auburn
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - No. 9 Alabama can just relax and play ball.
No national championship shot potentially hangs in the balance, no Heisman Trophy chances are on the line. It's No. 2 Auburn's turn to feel the heat in Friday's Iron Bowl.
"Those guys are undefeated and going to the SEC championship game," Crimson Tide tailback Mark Ingram said. "If they win out, they're going to play for the national championship. All the pressure is on them. It's like reversed roles."
Alabama (9-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) entered the last two meetings unbeaten and in national championship contention, winning both times. Now, Cam Newton and the Tigers (11-0, 7-0) are the surprising SEC West champions and two wins from playing for it all.
And once again, this feverishly intense, 365-day-a-year bragfest can captivate much of the college football nation - not just the state. For all its statewide glory, the Iron Bowl hasn't pitted two top 10 teams against each other since 1994.
For added measure, it also features last year's Heisman Trophy winner Ingram and this season's leading contender in Newton, the electrifying Auburn quarterback who injects even more pizazz into the rivalry.
He has spent the last three weeks under the spotlight for questions about his status amid allegations his father solicited a six-figure payday from Mississippi State when that school was recruiting Newton.
It hasn't kept him off the field, or slowed him down so far.
Assuming his status hasn't changed, that's one of those "external factors" Tide coach Nick Saban refers to as potential distractions.
Opposing defenses still haven't been able to stop the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder, who has been lethal both passing and running, juking and bulldozing defenders.
"Every little crease you give him, he will take it," Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus said. "He has deceptive speed where he can just get out and then get away from people. He has some moves that he can get away. We are just going to have to try our best to contain him. It's hard to just stop Cam."
The Cam factor is only one reason this has been one of the more anticipated Iron Bowls in recent memory. It might have featured two national title hopefuls, but Alabama fell at No. 6 LSU three weeks ago.
Still, it's no coincidence that stores statewide are advertising "Pre-Black Friday" sales instead of banking on game day shoppers. The term "Black Friday" takes on a different meaning for those on the losing side in a state where Iron Bowl neutrality is strongly discouraged.
"The state is going to shut down when this game is played," Auburn guard Mike Berry said.
The Tigers might be vying for a national title, but they still haven't wrapped up No. 1 in the state. Alabama is a 4½-point favorite.
"Even though we've had a winning record this year, people still expect us to lose," Berry said. "We still carry that as a chip on our shoulder."
Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy isn't ready to yield state supremacy.
"We've done pretty well over the past few years, and we have obviously walked away with a lot of trophies and a lot of rings and things of that nature," McElroy said. "But this year we are obviously playing for something a little different. We understand that, but what we're playing for is still something very impactful on the season.
"We can walk away feeling very good about ourselves with a 10-2 regular season. That is no easy task in the SEC."
The Tide has been dominant at home, winning 20 in a row to match the second-longest home winning streak in school history. Alabama has allowed only 39 points in six home games.
The school certainly picked a good year to enlarge the stadium to 101,821.
The Tigers have most of their marquee games at home and struggled at Kentucky and Mississippi State. However, Auburn has won six of the seven meetings in Tuscaloosa, the lone loss a 36-0 humbler two years ago that ended Auburn's six-year reign.
That signaled the wide gap between the two programs in Saban's second year. Gene Chizik has Auburn breathing down the Tide's neck in his own Year 2.
Now, that's heat Alabama can feel.
"You just want to keep it going," Dareus said. "The legacy of the Crimson Tide runs deep in the state of Alabama and we have to keep it going. I don't think we want to be the ones to stop it, just do the best we can to keep the spirit going."