Alabama has other football rivalries, great ones too.
Tennessee is amazing. Ole Miss is always unforgettable, even if the Crimson Tide always wins.
LSU is always a dogfight between 2 programs aiming at the same thing.
Don’t forget Florida. And the neighbor with Georgia, who we remembered well last season – twice.
But the Iron Bowl is just different. Everything about it is in fact.
It’s Alabama’s rivalry of rivalries. To say it means everything is no exaggeration.
It really means everything. To both programs and to 1 state.
For 365 days, every move of Nick Saban and Cadillac Williams — for now Auburn head coaches — revolves around trying to win at the highest level. But at the end of the day, coaching college football in Tuscaloosa and on The Plains always comes down to winning the final game of the regular season against your most hated rival.
In the end, it’s always about the Iron Bowl.
On Saturday afternoon, Bryant-Denny Stadium will host the 87th edition of arguably college football’s greatest rivalry. As usual it will be featured on national television, a country taking a close look at the immense passion 1 southern state can generate for 1 60 minute football game.
It’s between 1 program (Alabama) trying to get through a bad regular season – because only in Alabama and a few other places could a 9-2 record going into the Iron Bowl mean it’s a bad regular season – and another program in transition (Auburn) that fired its head coach on Halloween, appropriately because it’s been a spooky season on The Plains.
The Tide try to hit 10 wins, although they’re usually a little better once Thanksgiving weekend is over.
The resurgent Tigers are trying to qualify for the Bowl after winning their last two games under Williams, who has lit a fire on the program since being named interim head coach in early November.
Alabama is little more than a 3-touchdown favorite, which is no surprise since Alabama is way better and because Alabama is at home.
But this is the Iron Bowl, and the Iron Bowl is different, as any football-loving state knows, and college football fans watching across the country are commemorated at the end of November each year. Just because Bama is set to win and set to win big on Saturday doesn’t mean that will be the case, especially during this crazy and slightly unbalanced season for both programs.
You can look back over many years as examples of Iron Bowls not going down the way it should based on the 2 teams’ records, the location of the game, or the hefty point distribution that told you that 1 team should win and comfortably to win. It’s just one of the 200 things that make the Iron Bowl so beautiful – its unpredictability.
Alabama has won 48 Iron Bowls, but Auburn has also won 37 of them and has drawn 1. The Crimson Tide controlled this rivalry, but they hardly owned it. The Tigers have more than held their own behind legendary names like Bo Jackson and Cam Newton.
For example, you can go back to just the last year. It was an Auburn team that finished 6-6, as this year’s Tigers team is attempting, in Bryan Harsin’s first and, as it turns out, only full season as head coach. The 2021 Tigers had lost three games in a row coming into the Iron Bowl and were lashing out after a 6-2 start. They would lose the Birmingham Bowl a month after the Iron Bowl, finishing 6-7.
What do you think happened right in the middle of that 3 game sled going to the Iron Bowl and losing to Houston in Birmingham where the Tigers only scored 13 points?
What do you think happened to a team from Alabama that ranked 3rd nationally and despite their 1 loss to Texas A&M still had college football playoff ambitions and would choke Georgia in the SEC championship game 7 days after the Iron Bowl and that would be playing for the national championship about 6 weeks after the iron bowl?
An Iron Bowl for the ages was held at Jordan Hare Stadium.
Yes, the Crimson Tide escaped.
They have won.
But it cost everything.
Eventual Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young needed 4 overtimes to get Bama to the finish and the Tide hobbled out of Auburn with playoff hopes barely intact.
This whole scenario, with what you knew went into the Iron Bowl and what you knew happened after the Iron Bowl, tells you what this pressure cooker of a rivalry can produce, even if in a year when it doesn’t produce it should.
When you lose the Iron Bowl, your world crumbles, from the losing team’s head coach to Joe Fan living and breathing this rivalry year-round.
When you win the Iron Bowl, you’re like a 9-year-old who got what they really, really wanted for Christmas, no matter what it took to get it. Your world is made.
“Wow, what a game,” were the childish words Saban spoke after last year’s game.
Because even Nick Saban, who often fumes when things don’t go perfectly, understands that the Iron Bowl is different, behaves differently, and you behave differently when you win – or lose.
The Iron Bowl also has Alabama and Auburn playing like they haven’t played all season. It gets the best of both, regardless of the records that are recorded, the dynamics of the programs that are recorded, or the impact of a win or loss that comes out.
Rewatch last year’s classic on The Plains.
And listen again to Saban’s cheerful and polite words after his team survived.
“After halftime it seemed like everyone was all in and we were fighting like I’ve never seen us fight all year,” he said. “Our players were happier after the game than I’ve ever seen them.”
You hear Saban’s words—that his team fought like he’d never seen them fight and that they were happier than he’s ever seen them—and you grasp the full scope of what an Iron Bowl is in both programs get out of the players.
Auburn had nothing to do with being in the same field with Alabama last year based on all the numbers and momentum, or lack thereof. Except Auburn knew that a win against Alabama would end his season and ruin the Crimson Tide, and the Tigers were home and, well, it was the Iron Bowl.
And that’s exactly what makes the Iron Bowl different. Unlike the rest of Alabama’s amazing rivals and rivalries.
The old adage of saving the best for last?
Well, for the two big schools in the state of Alabama, their regular seasons always end with the best rivalry on their schedules.
For Alabama and Auburn, the best really comes last.
It might even be the best college football rivalry of all.
You can listen to Saban’s reaction after last year’s win or from the other side, the losing side, and the heartache that follows today and in the days and weeks (and months) to come.
It tells you exactly what the Iron Bowl means.
It means everything.
Yes, at the end of the day, with the schools only 160 miles apart, it’s always about the Iron Bowl.