Iron Bowl: Why Alabama and Auburn own the greatest college football rivalry in America

The Alabama and Auburn game is set for Saturday,

“I love you.”

… Alabama football coach Ray Perkins to kicker Van Tiffin moments after his 52-yard field goal as time expired to upset No. 7 Auburn, 25-23, on Nov. 30, 1985, in front of 75,808 at Legion Field in Birmingham.

And I was in love at first sight at age 24. That was my first Iron Bowl in person.

I was the Alabama beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser, which had about half a dozen people covering the game. Tailback Bo Jackson gained 142 yards on 31 carries and scored two touchdowns against an Alabama defense with linebackers Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas and despite – it was revealed later – two cracked ribs. He won the Heisman Trophy a week later.

It was Perkins’ second straight win over Auburn and put his unranked team at 8-2-1, while Auburn fell to 8-2. Perkins had lost his first one as coach in 1983 after replacing Paul “Bear” Bryant, which somewhat explains the love part. Perkins then fell to 4-6 in 1984 for the Tide’s first losing season since 1957 – the year before Bryant’s arrival – and was in danger of being fired. Then he upset No. 11 and 8-3 Auburn, 17-15, to finish 5-6. And he was off.

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1982:  Head coach Pat Dye and the Auburn Tigers celebrate on the sidelines during an NCAA game circa 1982.

1982: Head coach Pat Dye and the Auburn Tigers celebrate on the sidelines during an NCAA game circa 1982.
(Collegiate Images via Getty Images)

Bryant had won nine straight over Auburn, which he called “that farm school,” from 1973 through 1981 before his former assistant, Pat Dye, beat him, 23-22, in 1982 in Dye’s second season as coach. Before retiring, Bryant coached only one more game – a 21-15 win over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl. He died on Jan. 26, 1983, at 69, with six national championships at Alabama. He is buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham – two miles from Legion Field.

The Legion Field crowd noise sticks with me from that 1985 Iron Bowl. Even during lulls of play on the field, there was a constant sustained lower growl with intermittent roars in the stands, depending on what happened. And a lot happened in the ’85 game in a back-and-forth affair. There were four lead changes in the fourth quarter and two in the final minute.

“It’s still the greatest game I ever saw,” said the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum, who covered it that day for the Birmingham Post-Herald.

Then in a rush, it was over. The regular season was over, and football Christmas was over.

That’s how it will be Saturday when No. 3 Alabama (10-1, 6-1 SEC) plays at Auburn (6-5, 3-4 SEC) at 2:30 p.m. on CBS. And it won’t matter that Auburn comes in struggling and on a three-game losing streak without starting quarterback Bo Nix for the second straight week because of an ankle injury.

The Tide is a 19-point favorite by FanDuel, but that doesn’t always matter in this one. In recent weeks, Alabama looked human and not so relevant in narrow wins over a bad LSU team and an average Arkansas. New Auburn quarterback TJ Finley could improve drastically in his second start, mainly if Alabama’s defense plays as poorly as it has at times this season.

Chances are Iron Bowl No. 86 will be unique and memorable like a lot of Christmases.

Here are five reasons why Alabama-Auburn is the greatest rivalry in college football:

5. THE IRON BOWL NAME: It’s the best name of a game in history – next to the Super Bowl. Before I knew the reason it was called the Iron Bowl, I assumed the name came about because it’s a hard game, requiring young men of iron to win it. And that is true in a way. The game actually got that name because it was played in Birmingham from 1904 through 1988 – a city near plentiful mineral deposits with a rich history in iron and steel production that is called “The Pittsburgh of the South.” Simple, makes sense, like a good, hard tackle.

4. BALANCE OF POWERS: The series is close, with Alabama leading just 47-37-1. Alabama has won nine of the last 13, but Auburn won seven of eight before that, including six straight from 2002-07. Both teams tend to be national powers. Yes, Alabama has won six national championships under coach Nick Saban from 2009 through last season, but Auburn won the national championship in the 2010 season and played for it in the 2013 season. Auburn also finished 13-0 in 2004, but there were no playoffs at the time and the Tigers did not get selected for the BCS national championship game. Auburn also went 11-0 in 1993 and 10-0 in 1957 but did not play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. So, this game tends to have national significance, in addition to the annual in-state importance akin to Armageddon.

Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide during warm ups before playing the Texas A&M Aggies  at Kyle Field on October 09, 2021 in College Station, Texas.

Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide during warm ups before playing the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field on October 09, 2021 in College Station, Texas.
(Bob Levey/Getty Images)

3. EQUALITY OF SCHOOLS: Unlike in many rivalries, one school is not seen as the hoity-toity university (Ole Miss in Oxford ) and the other as the farm school institution (Mississippi State in Starkville), regardless of Bryant’s jabbing comment. Or at least, they shouldn’t be. Auburn is an Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) College, and it is in a more rural area in Auburn than Alabama is in Tuscaloosa. But Auburn is not seen as some school in the woods. The two schools and their surrounding areas look strikingly similar. The two football facilities are twins.

They are both public schools – Auburn one the eastern edge of the state and Alabama on the western edge with 159 miles in between, primarily on U.S. Highway 82. They are kind of like twin brothers. Rich and poor people go to both schools. Many people go to Auburn for undergraduate studies and then to Alabama for law school.

One of the reasons these two schools’ teams and fan bases fight and hate one another so much is because they are so much the same. They meet around Thanksgiving every year on the football field table to end the season; it is brother vs. brother. Both schools still fill their rosters with in-state players, resulting in former high school teammates playing against one another. Often, the players on the field get along better than the fans in the stands.

There are even coaches who have coached for both programs. Bill Oliver played at Alabama under Bryant and was an assistant coach and defensive coordinator there for many years and liked to make fun of Auburn. But he ended his career as an assistant at Auburn and then as its interim head coach in 1998. Pat Dye was an Alabama assistant coach under Bear Bryant, then became Auburn’s head coach. Former Alabama head coach Mike DuBose played for Bryant at Alabama and was an assistant coach for many years with the Tide, but there were times in his career when he was interested in coaching at Auburn.

2. THE MEDIA IS SO INTO IT: Naturally, there have always been a lot of Alabama and Auburn graduates who become sportswriters covering the two teams. And no matter how talented and professional they are, they tend to favor the school they went to or favor the school they grew up as fans of if they went to school out of state and came back. The result is a lot of passionate media and a few homers, but of course, that is true everywhere.

While I was covering Alabama for the Montgomery Advertiser in 1985 and ’86 and Alabama and Auburn at the Mobile Press-Register paper from 1993-98, I was always amazed at how much Alabama beat writers knew about what was going on behind the scenes at Auburn and vice versa. Often, it seemed that they knew more gossip about the other school than the one they were covering. Auburn writers in 1993 were constantly saying, “The NCAA’s about to come down on Alabama hard.”

There was also a sports editor in Alabama who was such an Alabama fan that he would wear Alabama hats and belt buckles to games. He even cheered at Alabama spring games. When Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Oliver left the Tide for Auburn, he couldn’t believe it and was so upset that he instructed his Alabama and Auburn writers not to write any columns about it because it was such a sensitive subject.

“This is war,” he said one day in the office.

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin signals to players during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Akron on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Auburn, Ala.

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin signals to players during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Akron on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Auburn, Ala.
(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

1. ONLY TWO: The No. 1 reason why Alabama-Auburn is the greatest college football rivalry is that there is basically nothing else in the state as far as sports. There has never been an NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball team in Alabama. There is no other major football program to divert attention from the big two. One can say the same thing about the Ole Miss-Mississippi State Egg Bowl, though Southern Mississippi has frequently been better than both schools to its north. That has not happened in Alabama. You are on one side or the other. Nothing else matters.

GUILBEAU POLL: 1.Georgia (11-0, 8-0). 2. Alabama (10-1, 6-1). 3. Ole Miss (9-2, 5-2). 4. Texas A&M (8-3, 4-3). 5. Arkansas (7-3, 3-4). 6. Mississippi State (7-4, 4-3). 7. Tennessee (6-5, 3-4). 8. Kentucky (8-3, 5-3). 9. Missouri (6-5, 3-4). 10. South Carolina (6-5, 3-5). 11. Auburn (6-5, 3-4). 12. LSU (5-6, 2-5). 13. Florida (5-6, 2-6). 14. Vanderbilt (2-9, 0-7).

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HOLIDAY TV SCHEDULE (CFP rankings, FanDuel point spreads, central times)

THURSDAY

No. 12 Ole Miss (9-2, 5-2 SEC) at No. 25 Mississippi State (7-4, 4-3), 2.5-point favorite, 6:30 p.m., ESPN.

FRIDAY

Missouri (6-5, 3-4) at No. 21 Arkansas (7-4, 3-4), 14.5 favorite, 2:30 p.m., CBS.

SATURDAY

Florida (5-6, 2-6), 2.5 favorite, at Florida State (5-6, 4-4 ACC), 11 a.m., ESPN; No. 1 Georgia (11-0, 8-0), 35.5 favorite, at Georgia Tech (3-8, 2-6 ACC), 11 a.m., ABC; No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1), 19.5 favorite, at Auburn (6-5, 3-4), 2:30 p.m., CBS; Vanderbilt (2-8, 0-6) at Tennessee (6-5, 3-4), 31.5 favorite, 2:45 p.m., SEC Network; Kentucky (8-3, 5-3) at Louisville (6-5, 4-4 ACC), 2.5 favorite, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2; No. 16 Texas A&M (8-3, 4-3), 6.5 favorite, at LSU (5-6, 2-5), 6 p.m., ESPN; South Carolina (6-5, 3-5) at Clemson (8-3, 6-2 ACC), 11.5 favorite, 6:30 p.m., SEC Network.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young broke a school passing yards record that had stood since 1969 in the Tide’s 42-35 win over Arkansas Saturday. He completed 31 of 40 passes for 559 yards, breaking the record of 484 set by Scott Hunter in a 49-26 loss to Auburn on Nov. 29, 1969. Young is second in SEC history behind Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello, who threw for 623 in a 44-34 win at LSU to open the 2020 season. Young replaced Georgia’s Eric Zeier, who was No. 2 with 544 yards against Southern Mississippi in 1993.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“Oh, we’re going to beat Texas A&M. We’re going to beat them.”

–LSU linebacker Damone Clark after the Tigers’ 27-14 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday.

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