Plenty on the line when Tide meets Tigers
by Marq Burnett at Ryan Black
Nov 29, 2013 | 2421 views |  0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alabama running back Trent Richardson during a win at Auburn in 2011. Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
Alabama running back Trent Richardson during a win at Auburn in 2011. Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
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Rhett Lashlee could try to describe what it’s like to take part in an Iron Bowl.

Auburn’s offensive coordinator believed he couldn’t do it justice, though.

Where words fail, experience reigns.

“It doesn’t matter which place you’re playing at, the atmosphere in pregame is electric,” said Lashlee, who got his first taste of the Iron Bowl as an offensive graduate assistant at Auburn in 2009-10. “It’s important for everybody. It’s important to this state. It’s important for both sides. Obviously, this year there is a little more on the line. Both sides will be ready to play. You don’t ever have to worry about that. ... They are going to play their guts out. It’s the best rivalry in college football, hands down.”

Statewide bragging rights, a trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game and Alabama’s inside track to winning a third straight national title all hang in the balance.

The Crimson Tide has been in this spot before, with everything appearing to ride on one game. When the Tide traveled to College Station to battle Texas A&M, it was hyped as the biggest matchup of the season. The stakes are high every time the Tide faces LSU, and this year was no exception. So the Iron Bowl will be no different for Tide quarterback AJ McCarron.

“(We just have to) play our game,” McCarron said. “You guys like to make this game a lot bigger and every other game of the century a lot bigger than what it is. It’s just another Saturday. It’s just another team. Let’s just go out and take care of our business, play the way we’re supposed to play. We’ll be fine.”

While Auburn hasn’t been in many of these big national games, running back Tre Mason said the Tigers aren’t at a disadvantage.

“Not at all. We feel like we’re ready,” Mason said. “We worked hard for this. We feel like we’ve earned everything we have now, so we’re just ready to step on a stage like this and execute what we have to do.”

Players from both sides acknowledged this time around is special because both teams have something to play for as opposed to the past two years.

“It means something to us, knowing the position we’re in and what’s at stake,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “Obviously, it’s going to mean a little bit to us. However, Coach (Gus) Malzahn and his entire staff is saying, ‘Don’t feed into the magnitude of this game and what everyone is trying to bring into this game with the publicity and all that.’ He’s kind of saying, ‘Just take a deep breath. Relax. We’re going to play our game.’”

Added Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood: “It’s a great feeling, knowing you are going in this game and everybody has something to lose. It’s the last time for me and us seniors to play Auburn again. It’s going to be really exciting. It’s going to be a game to watch. They are going to bring their A-game. We have to play Bama ball.”

Tide right guard Anthony Steen said the team practiced a little harder because “it’s the biggest game we’ve had.” Linebacker C.J. Mosley said he hasn’t had to change his leadership style to make the younger players understand the magnitude of this rivalry.

“I think for this game, they get it,” Mosley said. “You still throw it out there because you have to. It’s one of the last games — and the biggest game. But I think the guys know what our process is and what we’re trying to do here. We’ve been all about business this week and, just like every other week, trying to get better every day.”

For some of the Tigers, this week has been an emotional roller coaster. Aside from the game itself, Saturday also doubles as Senior Day, marking the final time some will play in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Senior defensive end Dee Ford said this has been a “very tough” week, and said he is “going to have to take some sleeping pills to try to go to sleep.”

“I sit up at night thinking about the game, thinking about big moments,” Ford said. “I’m really trying not to focus on it being my last one. I don’t want it to be too emotional. I still want to be focused. It’s senior day and I have a lot of family coming in. It’s definitely something I really have to control during week, really try to get that sleep and get rest. You can get caught up at night just thinking about everything you have to do and what’s at stake. It will be all right.”

The raucous atmosphere may rival that of the 1989 game, the first contest between the two in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tide thrives in hostile environments, having not lost a road game since 2010. To a man, every player will tell you they prefer playing on the road because there are less distractions. They also enjoy the boos.

“Definitely. I love these kinds of games,” Tide safety Landon Collins said. “They’re going to talk a lot of trash and that’s the type of thing I like. I don’t like quiet games, it takes that fire out of me. You have to stay focused, you have to stay mentally focused more. These are the types of games that are very, very crazy and these are the types of games I like. Just like the last Mississippi State game, and I expect more from Auburn fans.”

Few can speak to the passion the rivalry evokes from both fan bases better than Ellis Johnson.

Auburn’s defensive coordinator has been in the business for 38 years, with stops all over the Southeast. No school takes up more space on his resume than Alabama, however. Johnson spent four years as the outside linebackers coach under Gene Stallings from 1990-93 before returning to take over the Tide’s defensive coordinator position in another four-year stretch from 1997-2000.

Thirteen years removed from his last Iron Bowl, Johnson is thrilled to engage in the rivalry once more.

“It’s just Auburn and Alabama. It doesn’t get much better,” he said. “It’s fun to be involved in the rivalry — it was then, it is now, and I’m real excited about it. And to have an opportunity like we’ve put ourselves in — to play against the No. 1 team in the nation and have some things riding on it? I don’t think anybody could have dreamed our football team would have had this opportunity. So we’re very lucky and obviously very excited about it.”
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