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November 29, 2013
Gameday: Is this the biggest Iron Bowl?
Is this the biggest Iron Bowl in history?
It's a question worth pondering, and, although a fruitless endeavor, the ensuing discussion provides a history lesson for those with no frame of reference. It's been debated ad nauseam for two weeks, yet there is no definitive answer. It is subjective. Personal tastes aside, however, there are strong cases to be made in favor of and against the 2013 rendition being the most important of the 78-game series.
Whatever side of the issue on which you may fall, there is no arguing that today's contest between Alabama and Auburn is among the most important ever played. Iron sharpens iron, and only one team can forge ahead with its aspirations still intact after today.
Proponents for 2013 will lobby, correctly, that in the 22-year history of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game this is the first time the Iron Bowl will determine the Western Division participant. That is true.
In 1994, the third year after the conference divided into eastern and western divisions, Alabama at 11-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country faced a No. 6 Auburn (9-0-1) squad at Birmingham's Legion Field. The Crimson Tide held off a second-half rally for a 21-14 win after Tigers receiver Frank Sanders was stopped inches short on a fourth-down reception across the middle.
"We argued like heck that he got the first down," said Tommy Bowden, Auburn's offensive coordinator at the time. "I guess it depends on what side you're on whether you think it was good call or a bad call. We knew we were going to Frank, he was our go-to guy. We thought he had it, but the officials said he didn't."
With no instant replay, the call stood and Alabama kept its unbeaten season alive for one more week. That game would have determined the winner of the SEC West, but Auburn was ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA probation.
Hard to fathom that the annual game between two storied and highly successful programs such as Alabama and Auburn never has determined the Western Division champion, but for 21 years that remained the case.
Former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, the architect of the SEC Championship Game (the first conference title game in college football history), looks back in disbelief at the Crimson Tide and Tigers never having met to decide the West.
"No, probably not," Kramer said when asked if he would've believed 21 seasons would come and go before the Iron Bowl decided the division.
Add in the national championship implications for today's game - mainly for Alabama, but with a victory Auburn has an outside shot - and it makes the argument all the more compelling.
Detractors contend that the biggest Iron Bowl was played in 1971, and it's hard to argue that it's not with a closer look at the game and the stakes involved. Alabama, ranked No. 3 (10-0), faced No. 5 Auburn (9-0) on Nov. 27, 1971, at Legion Field with not only the SEC title on the line, but also a trip to the Orange Bowl in a de facto national championship game against top-ranked Nebraska.
Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan had been awarded the Heisman Trophy three days before the game (it was given earlier in the season during those days), but he had no luck against the Crimson Tide, as the Tigers fell 31-7.
Compared to the stakes for today's game - a division title and a chance to play for a conference and national championship - it's easy to see why many still feel the 1971 edition of the Iron Bowl was bigger than today's game.
Former Huntsville Times editor John Pruett said that although it pales in comparison to the media environment of today, the 1971 game had a great deal of excitement around it.
"As I recall it was a tremendous buildup to it," Pruett said. "If that game was played today, it would be off the charts. It was big enough back then. Now I just can't imagine what it would be like. It was the first and only time that both of them came in undefeated and untied.
"This weekend is pretty close to it, but I don't think that we've ever yet seen anything quite like '71. As you see a lot of times in a game like that what happens in the end doesn't match up to the buildup. That was the case in '71. Johnny Musso got loose in the last half, and Alabama pulled away pretty easily. The outcome of the game didn't match the buildup."
Of course Pruett raises an interesting point. All of this discussion is for a game not yet played. Whether or not it holds up with the greats in the series is another matter entirely.
As a newspaper man, Pruett covered every Iron Bowl from 1965 to 2007, and that doesn't include the ones he witnessed as a spectator beginning in 1958. All in all he went to 51 Alabama-Auburn games in a row.
In his estimation, today's game will have a difficult time joining the legendary games.
"I think that a few jump out," Pruett said. "Stabler's run in the mud in '67. Of course '72 and the blocked punts; '89 when Alabama played in Auburn the first time."
The 1972 "Punt Bama Punt" and 1989 games will be tough to top for Auburn folks, especially 1989. After playing at neutral sites for decades, the game went to Jordan-Hare Stadium, ushering in the beginning for what would eventually become the home-and-home series it is today.
By all accounts, Auburn's home stadium might as well have been a powder keg that afternoon as an emotionally charged home crowd cheered on the Tigers as they thwarted an undefeated, No. 2-ranked Alabama squad, 30-20.
Alabama's offense, which was especially sophisticated for the time under offensive coordinator Homer Smith, never got in rhythm.
"It was crazy. Absolutely crazy," former UA fullback Martin Houston said. "It was the loudest game that I ever played in. Bar none. The emotion of the crowd and the sense of it's the first time they had us there was just over the top. It totally impacted our game. We were ahead of the curve in terms of players and quarterbacks really managing the offense by having check-with-me's and audibling. We couldn't throw like we normally did at all because it was so loud. Their fans were into it, their coaches were into it and their players responded."
For Alabama fans the gold standard remains 1985, when quarterback Mike Shula engineered a frantic drive as the clock wound toward zero. After a Shula completion to Greg Richardson with six seconds left, kicker Van Tiffin raced onto the field and drilled a 52-yard, game-winning field goal to give UA a 26-25 victory as time expired.
The game is simply known as "The Kick."
"We got the ball back and it's looking pretty hopeless because Shula gets sacked right off the bat," Van Tiffin said. "I thought there was no way it was going to come down to (a kick). Then things started looking a little more hopeful.
"As a kicker you want the opportunity to make a last-second field goal. It's a dream any kicker would have. But you don't want it to be 52 yards. You want it to be something a little more reasonable."
Today's game is already among the biggest in terms of anticipation. Everyone knows what's at stake for both teams. For it to live on in the memories of legions of Alabama and Auburn fans requires it to be more than hype. It must live up to it.
"Iron Bowls are always a special game," Pruett said. "But the really special ones seem to never die. They're always there in your mind. You can see them just as they were. Those games don't come around often. That's what makes them special."
Reach Aaron Suttles at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0229.