TUSCALOOSA _ It's a statement that has raised more eyebrows, as if to say "Oh really?" this week than when he actually made it.
Before playing Georgia on Nov. 14, Auburn senior tailback Ben Tate was quoted by the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald as saying "I know I'm the best back in the state."
"I bet if you went and broke down film and asked teams in the SEC who is the best back in the state. I mean I feel like it's me," Tate said.
"Don't get me wrong, he's a good running back. He's a very good running back. He's only a sophomore and he's having a great year, but at the same time, his team is winning, they're undefeated so of course, he's going to be talked about."
He, of course, is University of Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram, who is on the cover of this week's issue of Sports Illustrated and Monday was named a finalist for the Maxwell Award for college football player of the year along with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy.
Tate? He had 67 rushing yards on 20 carries against the Bulldogs and has since said he hopes Ingram wins the Heisman Trophy.
"I don't know the context of how all that played out," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said during his press conference Tuesday. "I'm sure it was very innocent. I wasn't there, I didn't hear it. Ben is a confident guy. There's no question about it, but he is also very complimentary of others, too, because I believe what you didn't mention was that he was very complimentary of Mark as well. People can make that into what they want to make it in, but in my opinion, it was probably done in a very innocent way.
"Do I want all of our players to have confidence? Absolutely."
Despite Tate's backtracking, Alabama players were surprised to hear the initial statement, which has since made its way through the Crimson Tide locker room.
"Everybody's entitled to their opinion," Ingram said after Saturday's 45-0 victory against Chattanooga. "He's a great back. I respect his game. He's a great runner. I appreciate the way he runs the ball.
"I'm not going to talk about anything. I'm just going to let the way I play talk for me."
"I don't know what to make of that," said junior quarterback Greg McElroy, who was clearly surprised by the statement. "He wouldn't get my vote and I think that goes without saying. If that's the way he feels, then I guess we'll find out."
Nevertheless, both players are key to their respective offenses, which rank second and third in the Southeastern Conference rushing, with the Tide averaging 225.6 yards and the Tigers 219.5. Ingram leads the conference with 127.2 yards per game and is 72 yards shy of setting the Alabama single-season rushing record (Bobby Humphrey, 1,471, 1986).
Tate is third with 109.9. Although he's had six 100-yard rushing games this season, the back has only done it once over the past four games (144 on 25 carries against Ole Miss).
"Ben Tate is a big, strong, fast guy that's hard to tackle," Nick Saban said. "He's got a great stiff arm when he gets out in the open field and that kind of stuff. They do a good job of utilizing what he does well and he does a good job executing for them."
He also said: "Their ability to run the ball makes them probably the best running team we have faced all year."
However, the way the two teams use their running backs is what really sets the two apart. Auburn (7-4, 3-4 SEC) uses a spread attack that tries to get teams off-balance with quick snaps and different looks, including an occasional three-backfield formation.
No. 2 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) tries to be more balanced and methodical. The Tide leads the conference in time of possession while Auburn is 10th.
"There's no comparison there, they are used differently," Chizik said.
Ingram is averaging 6.82 yards per carry, gains 10 yards or more 22.6 percent of the time (230 touches) and has 885 yards after contract (54.5 percent of his total yards). He also has 1,000 rushing yards against SEC opponents.
The other factor to consider for Friday is that Alabama is ranked second in the nation in rushing defense (70.4 yards per game), while Auburn is 10th in the conference (169.7).
"Coming into the year we knew that we were going to have a bulls-eye on our backs," Ingram said. "But we knew that if we kept working hard and improving as a team we would be fine. We knew we were going to get everyone's best shot.
"I was always confident that I would have a lot of success, but I think the biggest stride you make is from your freshman to your sophomore year. You grow up as a player and learn the game. Obviously I'm a lot more confident this year and I understand the offense and defenses. Becoming a better student of the game has helped me out."