The Iron Bowl is becoming college football's perfect rivalry

Gus Malzahn and Nick Saban - Kevin C. Cox

Alabama-Auburn has always been one of the great rivalries in a sport full of them. But a confluence of factors should elevate the series into football nirvana.

The Iron Bowl has always ranked near the top of the rivalry charts. Factors that set it apart from others include the state's love for college football and the related fact that there are no major pro teams in Alabama to detract attention. The rivalry is the American answer to Barca-Real Madrid or Egypt-Algeria.* It also has a great tradition of memorable games, like Punt Bama Punt, Wrong Way Bo, The Kick, and The Fumble.

But what the rivalry has often lacked is big stakes for both teams.

When Alabama was great under the Bear, Auburn tended to struggle. After the Bear, Pat Dye's Auburn teams rose, followed by Gene Stallings Alabama teams, Tommy Tuberville's Auburn teams, and then Nick Saban's Alabama teams. In each era, one program was generally doing well while the other was struggling (with exceptions), such that the Iron Bowl often featured championship stakes for one team, but not both. It was this dynamic that would often set Auburn-Alabama apart from rivalries like Michigan-Ohio State and Oklahoma-Texas.

That dynamic also appears to be a thing of the past.

We are entering a period in which both Alabama and Auburn should be top-10 teams for the foreseeable future. Alabama is already at the apex of college football, having won three of the last five national titles. Auburn now appears poised to join the Tide in the world of elite programs, as Gene Chizik's demise allowed the Tigers to hire the coaching brain of the 2010 national champions: Gus Malzahn. The winner of the last five Iron Bowls has played in the national title game, and with the way the two programs are recruiting, the spoils of the mildly memorable 2013 game could become a recurring feature.

And even leaving aside the fact that a historically great rivalry is entering a period in which both programs both attain elite status, what other factors are combining to transform Alabama-Auburn from a great rivalry into the perfect rivalry? Here are a few:

1. The clash of schemes.

Styles make fights. And the Iron Bowl now has beautifully contrasting styles.

In the Crimson Corner, we have a defense-first program whose head coach has been critical of hurry-up spread offenses, asking "is this what we want football to be?" In the Navy Blue Corner, we have an offense-first program whose no-huddle, spread guru of a coach turned a converted cornerback, a junior running back with 199 career carries, and various other pieces into an attack that was a minute away from a national title.

Alabama-Auburn has the potential to become a proxy fight between pro-style and no-huddle advocates, between traditional and cutting edge approaches, between golf shirts and sweater vests.

2. Bulletin board material.

Take a fevered rivalry. Add a new offensive coordinator whose previous tenure in the SEC generated a "Remarks and Accusations" section on the coach's Wikipedia page.

Voila, the only thing preventing Alabama-Auburn from becoming an armed conflict requiring UN Peacekeepers is Nick Saban's rule against assistant coaches speaking to the media. Put it this way: if there were one coach in college football who would be likely to stick a finger in the eye of a rival coach during an on-field melee, it would be Lane Kiffin.

3. National reach.

The SEC is ascendant in college football, drawing national attention because of its recent success. The league has its top games in an exclusive slot on CBS, and it adds its own cable network this season. Paul Finebaum, the proselytizer of the rivalry, now gets to project his content throughout the country.

And Auburn and Alabama are atop the SEC West, which is the top division of the top conference in the country. If the SEC West winner ends up a shoe-in for a Playoff spot and Auburn-Alabama decides the West, then the rivalry is in a perfect spot.

4. The aftermath.

The 2013 Iron Bowl wasn't the first college football game to feature a crazy ending.

That said, Miami and Boston College didn't keep playing for big stakes after the Flutie-to-Phelan Hail Mary. Ditto for Colorado and Michigan after Stewart-to-Westbrook. Stanford and Cal kept playing after "the band is on the field," but usually for bragging rights. Boise State hasn't played Oklahoma since the Statue of Liberty Game.

Alabama and Auburn are going to keep playing, most likely with banners at stake, and they will be doing so in the shadow of a game decided by a 109-yard missed field goal return.

5. The NCAA's newfound casual attitude.

One reason why Alabama and Auburn have had fallow periods is their tendencies to run into issues with the NCAA.

Dye's tenure at Auburn ended with the Tigers receiving major sanctions for the Eric Ramsey scandal. Alabama then got sanctioned twice, once in the mid-'90s for playing Antonio Langham after he allegedly signed with an agent and then again in the early Aughts for the Albert Means fiasco. Indeed, Alabama and Auburn fans often blame the "snitching in-state rival" for their respective troubles with the NCAA.

At this stage, however, the NCAA appears to have given up on enforcing its rules, at least against major programs. After dropping the hammer on Penn State, the NCAA has essentially punted despite receiving strong evidence of rules violations by numerous programs, most notably Oregon and North Carolina (or perhaps not, given recent developments in the UNC case). Thus, one of the historical impediments to Alabama and Auburn both maintaining elite status over an extended period of time may be gone.

★★★

It's always possible that a program on a strong trajectory can fall by the wayside. I remember having a discussion with a friend after the 2008 season about USC and Florida appearing poised to dominate indefinitely. Instead, Pete Carroll left for the NFL, Urban Meyer lost his fastball for a time, and now the Trojans and Gators wander the wilderness. I'm also the person who proclaimed a coming Ten-Year War between Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten, a prophecy that gave Brady Hoke more credit than he deserved.

That said, the current trends for Alabama and Auburn are extremely positive. They have everything: excellent coaches, intense fan support, top facilities, and fertile recruiting bases.

Most of all, they have one another as motivators. The end result could be the perfect rivalry: one that fans without a tie to the Tide or Tigers can simply enjoy.

* - The entire Wikipedia article on the series of Egypt-Algeria World Cup qualification matches from 2009 is worth your time if you want to read about sports at its absolute nuttiest. However, if you just want highlights, imagine if Alabama-Auburn involved the following: (1) a backdrop of former Auburn QB Reggie Slack being convicted in absentia for attacking an Alabama team doctor with glass and blinding the doctor in one eye, after which Slack blamed teammate Stacy Danley; (2) before the game, Gus Malzahn "[weeping] at a press conference, expressing fear for his family's safety in the event of defeat"; (3) Auburn fans hacking the web site for The Tuscaloosa News; (4) Alabama fans attacking the Auburn bus in Tuscaloosa, followed by Alabama authorities and media claiming that the Auburn players put on a "display of histrionics pretending to be scared and injured, and smashing up the bus's windows and seats"; (5) a famous Auburn rapper claiming that his brother was killed in violence following the game; and (6) Gene Stallings announcing on the radio after the game that "we are the Crimson Tide and we hold our head high, and whoever insults us should be smacked on his head." And the postscript is that Algeria qualifying for the 2010 World Cup over Egypt led to this.

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