TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Maybe Alabama and Auburn had something else on their minds entering the Iron Bowl warmup acts, like each other.
It took both teams some time to get going against FCS teams on Saturday. Now, the second-ranked Crimson Tide and 15th-ranked Tigers can turn their focus exclusively to the rivalry — already a hot topic year-round among fans in the state.
“It’s the biggest college rivalry in history, so of course you’re going to want to have fun and do the things you’ve got to do to prepare for it,” Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said.
For the sixth straight year, Saturday night’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium will have national title implications. The winner of the Iron Bowl has won four of the last five BCS championships. Both were in contention for the national title going into the 2013 game, won by Auburn on Chris Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed field goal on the final play.
Now, the Tide (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) is the only Iron Bowl participant left standing. Alabama, which holds the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings, can secure a berth for the SEC championship game against either No. 8 Georgia or No. 17 Missouri with a victory.
Auburn (8-3, 4-3) is angling to play the spoiler and land a bigger bowl.
Chances are, neither team will struggle to get up for this one.
“When you play a game like the Iron Bowl, it’s always in the back of your mind,” Tigers linebacker Kris Frost said. “It’s in the back of your mind at the beginning of the season. You don’t look past any team, but you know that game means a lot to us obviously being the biggest football rivalry in the country.”
Auburn, which had dropped two straight games, trailed 7-0 midway through the second quarter of the eventual 31-7 victory over Samford. The Tide led just 17-14 early in the second quarter before rolling to a 48-14 win over Western Carolina.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was at a loss when asked about the challenge of keeping his players focused on Saturday’s game with the Iron Bowl looming.
“I obviously don’t have the answer to that question, so it’s more difficult than what I can figure out,” he said. “We were as flat as a pancake when we went out there, so I didn’t do a very good job.”
Auburn is dealing with its own lingering issues. The Tigers rose as high as No. 3 in the playoff rankings before fumbling away the Texas A&M game and getting routed at Georgia.
The slow start against Samford had fans even more restless.
Quarterback Nick Marshall, once regarded as a Heisman Trophy candidate, was held to 171 passing yards and minus-8 yards rushing.
He came in having run for 739 yards.
He and his Alabama counterpart, Blake Sims, both played deeper into Saturday’s games than their coaches probably wanted. Sims is getting his first Iron Bowl start in his final game at Bryant-Denny.
“I’m just happy to have the opportunity to play in it,” he said. “I’ve been waiting five years for it. Auburn is a great team.”