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November 23, 2012

Alabama the overwhelming favorite in the state

TUSCALOOSA | Red or blue. The choice is yours.

In all honesty, the choice is rarely one's own when it comes to allegiances that run this deep, usually decided by birth, but the opposing ideologies remain real. Red or blue. You must pick. There is no straddling the fence. Not if you want to be taken seriously.

Choose red for tradition, a representation of excellence and a proud history of winning. It's derided for its hubris.

Pick blue to be different, a symbol of individualism and an underdog spirit always clawing to claim supremacy. It's picked at for its little brother syndrome.

Each side has held the state for a while, alternating moments at the mountaintop. Each has tasted the sweetness of owning resounding victories.

In the 76-game history of the Iron Bowl, disparate levels of talent and success have weaved back and forth, populating different eras and allowing one side or the other to reign supreme. Each holds extended, multigame winning streaks over the other.

Iron Bowl through the years

In fact, a large chunk of the series history lies in the University of Alabama or Auburn having the upper hand over its cross-state foe. Eight times the Tide or Tigers have held at least a four-in-a-row advantage, and believe it or not, 23 games, or 30 percent of the series, witnessed a shutout, with Alabama blanking Auburn 15 times and the Tigers stymieing the Tide in eight games.

The point is, one of college football's most celebrated blood feuds, the cause of derision between neighbors and an unhealthy obsession within the state, has seen its ebbs and flows.

But in 2012, an election year mind you, the votes are in and they flow crimson and unwavering: Alabama remains a red state.

As No. 2 Alabama controls its own destiny for a second Bowl Championship Series national title game appearance in a row and third in four years, Auburn limps to the finish, concluding a woeful season that ranks among the worst in school history. If the Crimson Tide prevails as is overwhelmingly expected (Las Vegas installed UA as a 33-point favorite), the Tigers will wrap up 2012 without a conference win at 0-8. This just two seasons after standing on the podium in Glendale, Ariz., as the kings of college football.

It's helpful when viewing the series to gaze through the prism of B.B. and A.B., or Before Bryant and After Bryant.

In the 22 Iron Bowls before Paul W. "Bear" Bryant returned to his alma mater in 1958, Auburn led the series 12-9-1. When Bryant retired following the 1982 season, Alabama had wrested control of the rivalry thanks to a 19-6 run over the Tigers during his 25 years.

Since that time it's been a mixed bag, with both leading the way at various times - including Auburn's historic six in a row from 2002-07. It wasn't that long ago that Auburn controlled the state, a six-game hammer in its hand and its pick of the cream-of-the-crop in-state recruits.

So what went wrong?

Most observers tipped the scale towards Tuscaloosa the minute Nick Saban agreed to become the Tide's head coach in January 2007.

"Well, I made a statement, I was on a television show the moment he was hired, and I said I thought Alabama would win a national championship within four years," said Paul Finebaum, a nationally-syndicated radio talk show host based out of Birmingham. "Of course I got that wrong by a year. You knew he was successful. That wasn't really an issue. But I just had a feeling that he was in the wrong place in Miami and if the right person ever got to Alabama it would be over. As bad as Alabama was under Mike Shula, and it was pretty bad, the team was competitive even after being on probation and even having someone who was ineffectual as a head coach.

"I kind of thought if the right person comes in here it was over, and I knew he was the right person."

With a single-mindedness toward restocking the crimson cupboard, Saban made recruiting Job One. The effects were swift and eye-popping.

The first full recruiting class quickly became the stuff of legend, with five eventual first-round NFL Draft picks going crimson. Mark Barron, Marcell Dareus, Dont'a Hightower, Mark Ingram and Julio Jones were first-rounders, along with two second-round picks in Terrence Cody and Courtney Upshaw. The class also contained current Alabama starters Barrett Jones, Michael Williams, Damion Square and Robert Lester.

The 2008 class compiled a 48-6 mark over fours years. Alabama has been off and running since.

"Alabama started to gain the momentum for in-state prospects when Nick Saban took the reins as the head coach," TideSports.com recruiting analyst Andrew Bone said. "He flipped Josh Chapman on signing day eve, who was committed to Auburn. The previous staff had offered a grayshirt.

"The University of Alabama is obviously a championship-caliber program to all prospects right now. It's the first thing they mention when you ask about their interest in the Tide."

The rivalry is ever-evolving for the fans. What it has taught them is to enjoy the good times, because they never last forever.

To certain-aged Alabama fans, ones who spent their formative teenage years never experiencing an Iron Bowl win, high school was torture and a hatred of Auburn developed that still burns white-hot.

"It was tough, especially at Briarwood (Christian School) ... lot of Auburn fans there," recent UA graduate Conner Norton said. "When Brodie (Croyle) got sacked 11 times, one of my friends brought 11 paper sacks to school and threw them in my face. They would put pictures of (Tyrone) Prothro up on the wall with his broken leg. It was a pretty harsh environment.

"That really deeply rooted the hate for Auburn through junior high and high school of going six years on Briarwood's south campus without getting a win. It was six years straight of just thinking, 'Finally we're going to do it.' I'd prepare what I was going to say to my friends and prepare what I was going to do. It never happened. I got my house rolled after one of them. I mean, I never got to dish it back on them."

It wasn't all bad for Norton, though. In his four years in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide went 48-6 with one SEC and two national championships. Oh, and a 3-1 record against Auburn.

"I definitely went back to those friends and rubbed it back in," Norton said. "I had quite the college career of winning."

Blake Ells grew up an Auburn legacy in Lauderdale County, and it was never a question where he was going to college. He came of age as an Auburn student from 2000-04, when the Tigers had the Tide firmly under their thumb.

"It was the best of the times," Ells said. "When I was in school Alabama was at one of its worst points in its history. In 2002 when (Tommy) Tuberville started his little run, that was fun to be a part of."

He saw just one loss while on the Plains, topping off his collegiate experience with Auburn's magical 13-0 season in 2004.

This season is most certainly not the best of times or the glory days for Auburn football. Ells recognized the game changed when Saban became part of the rivalry, but said Auburn has done most of the damage to itself this season.

"Alabama had their backs up against the wall, and they had to go out and make a home run hire and Mal Moore went out and made a home run hire," Ells said. "That's basically the situation that Auburn faces going into this offseason. Their backs are against the wall.

"If we're wanting immediate change, the thing that Auburn is so far away from right now is having a quarterback. It's the first time I can remember in a long, long time that the quarterback position at Auburn was this abysmal. Even guys like Brandon Cox were serviceable quarterbacks. Gus Malzahn made Chris Todd statistically one of the best quarterbacks in Auburn history.

"There's been good quarterbacks before, but there's just not right now. And there wasn't last year. That position has dropped off so much, but it can be fixed really quickly. If we're looking at one thing that's got to be fixed to make this competitive again, it's the quarterback position."

To say there isn't much excitement around this year's game may be an understatement. Expectations aren't high among the Auburn faithful. As for Alabama fans, it seems the ones not making plans for Atlanta or South Florida are discussing the Crimson Tide's game plan against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, a berth that still requires a win over the Tigers.

"It's almost comatose," Finebaum said. "I literally just walked out of an Auburn-Alabama party and there's absolutely no buzz for Auburn. Some Alabama fans might think it's fun that the other team's down, but I find it to be sad as someone who has really made a living with this being arguably the best rivalry in college football.

"This is off the charts. I've seen some bad build-ups - (Mike) Dubose's last year and maybe one or two other times - but nothing like this."

Alabama remains a red state in 2012, but the unassailable truth is that it won't be that way forever. Auburn will be back.

Until then, fans will be fans.

Ells, who originally had plans to be in Bryant-Denny Stadium today with one of his good friends, an Alabama fan, figures he'll cozy up to a stool in a neighborhood watering hole.

"I'll drink away my pain," he said.

And if Auburn pulls a stunner?

"I expect to violate all of the Birmingham city noise ordinances."

Norton traveled to Asia for missionary work after graduation, but that hasn't kept him from rooting on his Tide.

He's watched every game this season save for last week, when a delayed flight prevented him from seeing the Western Carolina game. He'll watch today's Iron Bowl in his best crimson. That's what you do in a red state.

TideSports.com Recruiting: Iron Bowl visitors

Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron.suttles@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0229.



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