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November 26, 2009

20 years later, here we go again

To borrow a line from the Beatles, it was (roughly) 20 years ago today Auburn finally brought the Crimson Tide home to play.

They've been going after it ever since on their respective campuses, but that was the game that really turned the rivalry known as the Iron Bowl into a geographical backyard brawl.

Granted, it's always been intense when the University of Alabama faces Auburn and the series once endured a four-decade hiatus due to a dispute between the schools, but before 1989 Alabama was 30-22-1 in the series primarily played at Legion Field. Since then, Auburn holds a slim 11-9 advantage, with its six-game winning streak shattered last year, 36-0 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Former Auburn athletic director David Housel once called that 1989 game the "most emotional day in Auburn history" and said there were so many people greeting the players on the way to the stadium that: "It was as if the Children of Israel had been freed from Pharaoh. Or the Berlin Wall had come down."

One can't help draw comparisons to this year's game because back then Alabama was 10-0 and ranked second nationally, with Auburn fans still stinging from losing nine straight Iron Bowls from 1973-81. Yet the Tigers pulled out an impressive 30-20 victory.

"After years of bondage, our people were finally delivered to the Promised Land," Housel also said, referring to the fact it took more than 100 years to get a home game against Alabama.

So once again, No. 2 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) is thinking national championship, with the musical equivalent to a bonus track next week when it holds a rematch with No. 1 Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

And, once again, the Tigers would like nothing better than to be spoilers, although have the added incentive of trying to ruin sophomore running back Mark Ingram's bid to win the Heisman Trophy and remain two up on the Tide for the award.

In 1985 when Bo Jackson won, Auburn was No. 7 with Alabama unranked. The lead changed hands four times in the fourth quarter before Tide kicker Van Tiffin, who missed a 52-yard field goal into the wind earlier, made a game-winner from the same distance against the wind.

"My dad hates Auburn," said Tiffin's son Leigh, a senior who is a finalist for the Lou Groza Award for kicker of the year. "Yeah, he really does. I don't know if that's a Ray Perkins thing he picked up when he was here or what. I guess I'm not a big fan, either. I never had that passionate hatred. I saw them as another team, you know? Maybe it's something that goes way back to when he was growing up and Alabama being so good all the time. I don't know.

"That's one team he doesn't like. That's one team he definitely wants to beat."

Van Tiffin's famous kick remains his legacy, and is probably only exceeded in Iron Bowl lore by "Punt, Bama, Punt," when Auburn's Bill Newton blocked consecutive punts and David Langner returned both for touchdowns for a 17-16 victory in 1972. Alabama went into that game undefeated too and had already wrapped up the SEC title.

"He told me basically it was the only kick ever where he felt like it was almost an out-of-body experience," Leigh Tiffin said. "It just happened so fast, just a blur."

Other legendary games in the series include 1971, when both teams came in undefeated and Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan went on to win the Heisman but running back Johnny Musso led a 31-7 victory, and 1981. Paul "Bear" Bryant's 315th victory made him the winning coach in major college football history.

"Sure I'd like to beat Notre Dame, don't get me wrong," Bryant said before retiring in 1982. "But nothing matters more than beating that cow college on the other side of the state."

Regardless, Alabama vs. Auburn remains the most heated intra-state football rivalry in the county, if not biggest overall, which requires someone to see firsthand to fully appreciate no matter where it's played. Those who grew up here fully understand, but it prompted Bill Curry, who coached Alabama from 1987-89 but never defeated Auburn, to once say, "I thought I understood something about rivalries, but until I'd experienced Alabama-Auburn, I didn't understand anything at all."

The same holds true for some of Alabama's key players.

"I knew how passionate all the players and coaches were about it, but I didn't understand until I go to play in and experience it," said Ingram, a Michigan native who needs 72 rushing yards to break the UA single-season rushing record. "It's one of the greatest rivalries in all of college football. I grew up watching Michigan vs. Michigan State and Ohio State vs. Michigan. I've been a part of some historic rivalries, but in this one the people and everybody involved in both programs it means so much to them."

"Nothing compares to this one," said junior quarterback Greg McElroy, who hails from Texas. "It's just the fact that there are two marquee programs in the state that really get a majority of the focus from both the fan base and the media attention. I think that's what makes this rivalry so important in the fact that this is our state championship game. It's obviously two SEC West teams that have a lot of success in years past and have a lot of tradition on both ends.

"It's going to be an exciting game. It's always fun to play on the road, especially against a tough SEC opponent. It's going to be quite a challenge for us this week."


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