TUSCALOOSA | The statistics suggest one thing. The rivalry factor suggests something else.
When the University of Alabama meets Auburn Saturday in the 76th renewal of the Iron Bowl, the home Tigers will bring one of the poorer rush defenses in the NCAA against one of the game's elite rush offenses. The Tigers rank 98th out of 120 teams in the NCAA in rush defense, allowing 193 yards per game. But if Iron Bowl history suggests anything, it is that the underdog in the series will often play above its usual game.
And whether it holds true in 2011 or not, that is what UA players are expecting.
"I'm not worried about people saying they're struggling or their run defense is not so good because they're going to be good when they play against us," said Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
The AU coaching staff got an early indication that run defense would be a struggle for the Tigers when Utah State opened the season with 227 rushing yards at Auburn. Mississippi State piled up 333 on the ground a week later, and Clemson followed with 238. Since then, there has been some improvement, and it hasn't gone unnoticed by UA coach Nick Saban.
"They've got a lot of young guys, a lot of guys they had to replace from a year ago," Saban said. "They seem to be getting better and better and better as the year has gone on. They seem to play especially well when they're playing at home. They've had some tough games on the road."
Richardson figures to be the toughest challenge Auburn has faced at the running back position this year. With 1,380 rushing yards, he will pass Glen Coffee and Shaun Alexander for third place on the Crimson Tide's single-season rushing list with just four yards against the Tigers. The Heisman Trophy candidate has rushed for over 100 yards in eight of 11 games this season. As a team, Alabama has averaged 220.4 rushing yards per game, ranking No. 16 in the NCAA and No. 1 in the Southeastern Conference.
But numbers, UA center William Vlachos said, matter not in the Iron Bowl.
"I've played against their defense the last couple of years, and it's the most physical game you're going to play in every year. Last year, I came off the field just bleeding out of my mouth, my hands were bleeding," Vlachos said. "It's just one of those games that ... I'm not that worried about statistics with this game because it really ain't gonna matter. Alabama-Auburn, it's a whole different deal."
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0196.