Yesterday’s 42-14 blowout in the 76th Iron Bowl sent a powerful message from Mobile to Muscle Shoals, and the message seems to confirm a celebrated prophecy from ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit: “All due respect to Auburn.. but when Alabama gets this thing going, they control that state.”
Alabama seems intent on painting the state Crimson, and while the Iron Bowl rivalry remains a hotly contested one, the only competition really seems to be between the fans rather than the programs.
It’s not been much of a rivalry on the field, recently.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban is now 3-2 in Iron Bowls. Auburn head coach Gene Chizik is now 1-2. Alabama has won three out of the last four, including two blowouts to end the 2008 and 2011 seasons. The combined score of the last four Iron Bowls is 130-60, for an average score of 33-15, a three-score differential not far from yesterday’s Vegas spread of 21 points.
Alabama fans couldn’t be more satisfied with either the body of work of the Crimson Tide over the last five years, or with yesterday’s statement-making blowout win. The defense is loaded with ferocious talent and impressive depth. The offense dominates the line of scrimmage and is in position to catapult its star into the program’s second Heisman Trophy in three years. From 2008 through 2011, Alabama has been in contention for the national championship in all four seasons. The program has two SEC West titles, one SEC Championship and a BCS Crystal Ball. If pundits and analysts are correct—Alabama is a better than even candidate to play for its 14th national title.
Alabama is a program that is still improving. Game to game, season to season, recruiting class to recruiting class. Alabama has dismembered every opponent on the schedule in 2011 except one (and is in line to avenge that loss).
The program’s opponents—and its chief rival—don’t need to concern themselves with the players who may or may not declare early for the NFL Draft. They need to worry about the guys the Alabama staff redshirted in 2011. Alabama’s backups to the backups would probably have been starters in Starkville, Oxford and Auburn, and the 2012 class is already looking like another one of then nation’s best. Two of Alabama’s biggest playmakers yesterday were Tight End Brad Smelley and Defensive Back Dee Milliner. When was the last time you heard either of these names mentioned during SportsCenter highlights? The team is full of great players that people have never heard of.
Auburn fans are mired in uncertainty and concern. Since Chizik and defensive coordinator Ted Roof arrived at the Plains, the program has produced statistically the worst three years in the program’s modern history. Chizik & Co. caught lightning in a bottle with last year’s experienced offensive line, talented playmakers and the twin freaks Cam Newton and Nick Fairley. They rode that to a 14-0 perfect season and their first title since 1957. But astute observers examine the body of work over the last three years and see a lot of unanswered questions. They look at the performance of their team over the 2011 season, and they see cause for grave concern. Offensively, they’ve regressed. They don’t look anything like the yardage eating, point scoring machine of last season. Have they even improved over the course of this year? Does Auburn’s offense look much better than it did at the end of the 2009 season? The answer to both questions has to be “no.”
Auburn is a program that made a lower tier bowl with Chris Todd in 2009 and will make a return trip to that tier with Clint Moseley. Despite three straight quality recruiting classes, Auburn is still a program populated by youth and inexperience. Auburn has been blown out by every decent football team they’ve faced. Clemson, LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama each took turns beating the daylights out of the 2010 champs. Think about that. Auburn faced five decent teams in the 2011 season and never seriously challenged even one of them.
Think about this, also: As a head coach, Gene Chizik is 20-29 without a Quarterback named Cam Newton. That includes a 5-19 mark at Iowa State, an 8-5 season in 2009 and a 7-5 record to date this season. Twenty and Twenty-nine without Cam Newton.
When it steps on the field, Alabama is a serious threat to beat anyone they play. Auburn is only a threat to beat Utah State and Mississippi State in down-to-the wire finishes. Their possible bowl opponents include the same Clemson team that demolished them in September and a scandal-ridden Penn State. They’d likely only be favored against the latter. Alabama will be a coin toss against LSU and an overwhelming favorite against any Sugar Bowl opponent should the BCS selection process tap someone else.
The future is bright in Tuscaloosa. In Auburn, it’s uncertain.
The final score of yesterday’s game was an exclamation point on a statement that’s being written in Crimson. It’s confirmation that Herbstreit was right. Alabama has this thing going, it is controlling this state, and yesterday showed that there’s not much Auburn’s been able to do about it.