Archive for Saturday, November 19, 2005

Bama-Auburn tops big day for Top 25

November 19, 2005

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— Floridian Mike Shula got a quick Iron Bowl lesson when he arrived two decades ago at Alabama as a player.

Namely, he learned the Super Bowl analogy doesn't really work. "To me, it's more intense than the Super Bowl because it's a different type of crowd," said Shula, now the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide's coach and a converted Iron Bowl junkie.

In other words, today, when Alabama and No. 11 Auburn tangle, there won't be too many people in the stands who just want to see a good ballgame and socialize. They'd better choose sides quickly.

Auburn offensive line coach Hugh Nall got a side order of Iron Bowl reality at a local eatery shortly after arriving on the job.

"I ordered breakfast and somebody asked if I was one of the new coaches," Nall said. "I said, 'I am.' They said, 'I hope you enjoy your breakfast. There are 302 days until we play Alabama.'

"Is there pressure? Heck yeah, there's pressure."

This year, especially.

The Crimson Tide (9-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) and Tigers (8-2, 6-1) have the best combined record since they were 19-0-1 entering the 1994 game. They're both playing with a chance for a Bowl Championship Series berth and, if LSU loses one of its final two games, an SEC Western Division title.

No. 4 LSU plays Mississippi today at home and Arkansas next week.

For a change, there's no need for an "at least we ruined your season, too" element. The high rankings also ensure the interest extends well beyond the state's borders.

As Auburn safety Will Herring put it, "It's just going to add to the fire and the fury."

"Alabama's not a mediocre team like they've been the last few years," Herring said. "And even when they are on paper a mediocre team, everybody's serious."

This version doesn't quite have the national significance of that 1994 game, when No. 4 Alabama was 10-0 and No. 6 Auburn was 9-0-1. The Tide went up 21-0 and held on for a 21-14 victory to remain in national-title contention.

Sherman Williams, Jay Barker & Co. went on to lose 24-23 to Florida in the SEC championship game. But at least they beat the Tigers, snapping Auburn's 21-game unbeaten streak.

The winner of the Iron Bowl could wind up playing for the SEC title in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 3. And the alternative?

"It wouldn't be fun," Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle said. "There's a big difference between you're 10-1 and you beat Auburn and 9-2 and you get a pat on the back and, 'Y'all had a good season."'

That's because just about everybody in Alabama pays attention. And even those few who'd rather not still have to hear about it for days, weeks, months at the office or church or supermarket.

"The whole state shuts down," Croyle said. "This is for bragging rights the rest of the year. This is the game. This is what everybody looks forward to the entire year."

The Iron Bowl is just one of the highlights on the Top 25 schedule for this rivalry weekend.

The Big Ten annual big game matches No. 9 Ohio State at No. 17 Michigan. Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines have conference-title hopes, but they'll have to watch what No. 5 Penn State does later today at Michigan State to find out which team goes to the BCS. The Nittany Lions control their destiny. With a win, they'll play in a BCS game for the first time. A Michigan State victory means the winner of Ohio State-Michigan takes the Big Ten's automatic BCS bid.

No. 1 Southern California steps outside of the Pac-10 to play host to No. 16 Fresno State. USC has won 32 straight, and two more will get the Trojans to the Rose Bowl.

No. 3 Miami is home to face Georgia Tech, and No. 6 Notre Dame will play host to Syracuse.

No. 7 Virginia Tech plays its first game since losing to Miami two weeks ago, traveling to rival Virginia.

No. 10 Oregon is home for the Civil War against Oregon State; No. 14 Georgia can lock up the SEC East title at home against Kentucky; and Steve Spurrier is introduced to the Palmetto State's rivalry game when No. 19 South Carolina plays Clemson.

No. 21 Texas Tech plays Oklahoma at home; No. 23 Boston College is at Maryland; and No. 24 UTEP can earn a spot in the Conference USA title game against UAB.

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