Every Iron Bowl is meaningful. But the meaning hasn’t always been the same.
Alabama and Auburn face each other on Saturday for in-state bragging rights, the SEC West division title and more. The 2013 game was the only winner-take-all Iron Bowl of the Nick Saban era.
“There’s a lot of significance in this game, and I think the fact that it does have significance and has had significance in the past makes it even more interesting on a national level as well as for our fans, their fans, and all the people who have passion for the game,” Saban said.
That wasn’t the case when he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. Auburn won that game for its sixth straight win in the rivalry, the longest winning streak the Tigers have ever had in the rivalry.
“To be honest with you, 11 years ago, I can’t necessarily remember what I was thinking,” Saban said. “I was thinking they were pretty good and we weren’t so good and we needed to get better. I know I was thinking that. But I’ve always had a lot of appreciation for this rivalry even before being here.”
The game had a different meaning in 2008, when Alabama won to complete an undefeated regular season. The game in 2008 was also the final edition before the Iron Bowl took yet another turn: In every year since 2009, the winner of the Iron Bowl has gone on to play in the College Football Playoff or the BCS National Championship game.
The Iron Bowl has had an edge to it in recent years. The national interest has risen and will rise again with a top-10 matchup this year. But it always meant something to players from the state.
“I watched a lot of Iron Bowls growing up with my grandaddy and my daddy,” said defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, a Birmingham native. “I don’t know, it’s something that you can’t wait to watch yearly.”
There are other reasons for this year’s Iron Bowl to be meaningful. Alabama’s four-year seniors can be the first class to go undefeated against Auburn since the Crimson Tide won nine straight in the series from 1973-81.
Alabama has gotten better since Saban’s first Iron Bowl 11 years ago. The rivalry itself may have become bigger as well, but it’s never been small.
“It always means a lot. It means a lot to our fans,” Saban said. “It means a lot to the coaches who work hard and all the people who have worked hard to put us in this position. So everybody kind of knows what’s at stake.”
There’s more at stake this year than most. There’s no avoiding what this game always means, and what it means now.
“To our fans, regardless, and to our players and to the coaches and the people who work so hard around here, I think that this is always a game of significance,” Saban said. “This particular year, there’s a lot on the line for both teams and that should make it a great game.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.