The more adventurous Gus Malzahn gets in his first Iron Bowl as Auburn's head coach, the more vanilla Alabama's Nick Saban plans to be. "The number one thing that you want to try to do is get your players lined up so that they are in position to key and react to the plays that they have to defend," Saban told reporters this week. "I think when you try to get too complicated or too cute, that's when you make a lot of mental errors. When you make mental errors against this team, they make you pay."
Only Alabama's fifth-year seniors were around the program in 2009, when Malzahn took an Auburn offense that had no business challenging Alabama's defense and nearly upset the national title-bound Crimson Tide. That's why Saban will be on high alert as top-ranked Alabama prepares to face fourth-ranked Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) in one of the most meaningful meetings in the history of a rivalry that already means more to the opposing fan bases than any other in college football. (This is not debatable. When a Michigan fan commits first-degree herbicide in Columbus, then we can discuss it.) Though Alabama seems to have the edge in each phase of the game, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have good reason to worry.
They worry because they remember The Storm back in 2009. Only Saban didn't call it just any storm. During an interview with the Crimson Tide Radio Network as he left the field for halftime with the score tied at 14, Saban added another word ahead of storm that accurately described how messy things would have gotten had Alabama lost that game. 'Bama entered that Black Friday 11-0 and on pace to clash with fellow unbeaten Florida in the SEC championship the following week. Auburn was 7-4 in coach Gene Chizik's debut season. Had the Tide stumbled instead of clawing back for a 26-21 win, a not-insignificant number of Yellowhammer State phone calls the following Monday would have started with the word "Pawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwl" and included the word "fired."
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Given what we've seen from Auburn in 2012 and '13, it has become quite clear Malzahn -- with a huge assist from Cam Newton -- was the true impetus for the Tigers' success during the first three years of Chizik's tenure. That was readily apparent in the '09 Iron Bowl, but the significance of that game got buried by two factors. First, the college football world quickly shifted its attention to the Alabama-Florida matchup, which was a de facto national championship semifinal. Second, casual sports fans were engrossed that day by the news of a one-car crash outside the suburban Orlando home of Tiger Woods. Needless to say, that story mushroomed quickly.
But those who attended that Iron Bowl remember how Malzahn schemed the Tigers into a competitive game against a more talented opponent. Auburn's first possession was a work of art. The Tigers used the same formation on three of their first four plays, and each play built upon the previous one. They all involved tailback Ben Tate motioning into the backfield and a read-option look between Tate and quarterback Chris Todd. The first of the three was a handoff to Tate up the middle for a one-yard gain. The second was a fake to Tate up the middle followed by a sprint-out pass to Mario Fannin to the right for a seven-yard gain. After a speed-option pitch to Onterio McCalebb picked up a first down, the Tigers jumped back into the formation they used on the first two plays. Todd took the snap and faked to Tate up the middle. He then sprinted right while Fannin floated into the flat just as he did two plays earlier. While most of Alabama's defenders chased Fannin to the right, Todd flipped the ball to receiver Terrell Zachary, who was sprinting from right to left in the backfield. Zachary took the ball and blazed 67 yards for a touchdown.
With nothing to lose, the Tigers tried an onside kick and recovered. Their next possession featured a double pass involving Todd and converted quarterback Kodi Burns that turned into a 22-yard gain for receiver Darvin Adams. On the next play, Malzahn called for receiver Emory Blake to take an end around, stop and throw a pass at Adams in the end zone. That one didn't work, but the Tide's defense was so discombobulated that the usually lead-footed Todd gained 13 yards on a quarterback draw. The drive ended with a one-yard Todd-to-Eric Smith touchdown pass, and Auburn led by 14 in the first quarter.
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"Those are the plays that we've always had," Tate told The Birmingham News that day. "We've always had them in our arsenal, just sitting there waiting to use them." Said Malzahn to the paper: "We didn't want to leave anything out there. We wanted to give our guys the best chance of winning, try to be aggressive, so early on we did."
The Tigers didn't have the talent to stay with the Tide that day, and Malzahn's bag of tricks ultimately ran dry. After Auburn scored its third and final touchdown with 11:05 remaining in the third quarter, the Tigers gained only 19 yards from that point until their desperation drive in the final 84 seconds. Alabama ground out a win thanks to a 15-play drive that featured two clutch catches by Julio Jones and a proper introduction to the collegiate brilliance of Trent Richardson.
Still, Malzahn earned Saban's respect that day. "Only the strong survive," Saban said after the game. "But the strong still get their asses whipped. That was my message to the team."
On Saturday, Malzahn will have a better team than the group he had in 2009. He'll be running the show. Once again, he'll empty his arsenal. Only this time, that arsenal will be deeper. But Alabama's defense will expect the kitchen sink and everything else. Saban and Smart will make sure of that. They know The Storm is coming, and the Tide will only weather it if they play their best game of the season.
• Iowa at Nebraska (Friday): Neither of these teams has suffered an unacceptable loss -- despite what Nebraska fans might think about a 34-23 defeat at Minnesota on Oct. 26 -- but the line of demarcation between a successful season and a disappointing one for both might be this game. There is more pressure on Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were supposed to compete for the Legends Division title, and the folks in Lincoln are trying to decide if coach Bo Pelini's customary 9-4 campaign is good enough. Iowa's preseason expectations weren't as high, and the team has played well in the second half of the season. Besides, Kirk Ferentz won't be going anywhere. His buyout is the remainder of his contract, which runs through 2020. That shouldn't be an issue this year, anyway. A win in Lincoln could be another sign that the Hawkeyes are on an upward trajectory.
• Arkansas at LSU (Friday): The Tigers partied like it was 2011 on Saturday during their 34-10 win over Texas A&M, holding the Aggies to 10 points and 299 yards. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks lost in overtime to Mississippi State last week and are in danger of going winless in SEC play for the first time since joining the league in 1992.
• Florida International at Florida Atlantic (Friday): Since firing head coach Carl Pelini for whatever reason school officials are now providing, the Owls are 3-0. If they beat the Panthers, they'll become bowl eligible. It would have been perfectly understandable if FAU had lost every game after the upheaval, but interim coach Brian Wright and his staff kept the team together. It didn't hurt that the Owls' final three games came against Southern Miss, New Mexico State and FIU.
• Fresno State at San Jose State (Friday): The Bulldogs were leapfrogged by Northern Illinois in the BCS standings last week, but all is not lost. Fresno State is already more popular than NIU with human voters. The computers are the issue. Beating the Spartans probably won't give the Bulldogs much of a bump with human voters, but those voters should be entertained by the quarterback matchup between Fresno State's Derek Carr and San Jose State's David Fales.
• Washington State at Washington (Friday): The Cougars are already bowl eligible after winning their last two games, but an Apple Cup victory would be the cherry on top of the 2013 season. If you sent an anti-Mike Leach email to Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, however, don't expect any bowl tickets. For Washington, a win would get the Huskies off the seven-win plateau after three consecutive 7-6 finishes.
• Oregon State at Oregon (Friday): The Ducks looked listless last Saturday in Tucson. Will they get up for a rivalry game, or are they as bored with this season as they were with the Rose Bowl?
• South Florida at UCF (Friday): If the Knights win, they clinch a BCS bowl berth. If the Bulls win, they probably keep the Knights from clinching that BCS bowl berth for another week.
• Florida State at Florida: State attorney Willie Meggs has extended the timeline on deciding whether to charge Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston, who has been accused of sexual assault. Now, the decision may not come until after the ACC championship and the Heisman Trophy vote. Winston will likely play against Florida, but considering the Gators just lost to FCS Georgia Southern, he may not need to stay in the game for long. On the other side of the field, it seems Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease is at peace with what is about to happen. "If it's not meant to be ... I came into this with friends, and I'm walking out of it with friends," Pease told The Gainesville Sun on Tuesday. Pease -- and maybe offensive line coach Tim Davis -- could be axed in an attempt to satisfy the bloodlust of Gators fans clamoring for regime change. It appears Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley will stand by his pledge to bring back head coach Will Muschamp in 2014, but some changes will be made.
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• Ohio State at Michigan: Though it probably won't be as severe as it will in Gainesville -- where the fans of the undefeated visiting team have no desire to watch the carnage against a home team that didn't hold up its end of the rivalry bargain -- there will be some Michigan fans who sell their tickets to Ohio State fans. Those Buckeyes naturally want to watch their team march toward a second consecutive undefeated season. Those Wolverines likely don't want to watch another hundred-and-something-yard offensive explosion from their squad. Brian Cook of MGOBlog wrote an excellent piece on this phenomenon. Be warned. There is some strong language, but Michigan's play-calling of late has inspired a lot of profanity.
• Duke at North Carolina: Since it's so unusual for these two schools to meet with some sort of football championship implications, I'll translate into a language each fan base can understand. If the Blue Devils win, they'll be the No. 2 seed in the ACC championship in the Charlotte region. If the Tar Heels win, they'll increase their chances of being selected for the BIT (Belk Bowl Invitational Thing).
• Baylor at TCU: With plays and games in general, Bears coaches emphasize forgetting the last one and focusing on the next one. "Now is the time to practice what we preach," Baylor guard Cyril Richardson told reporters this week. "We are definitely going to do that. This week of practice we are going to focus on TCU and getting a win." The Bears will have to do that, because the Horned Frogs' secondary is good enough to cover Baylor's receivers one-on-one. That means the run game and defense will have to pick up the slack. They didn't last Saturday against Oklahoma State.
• Clemson at South Carolina: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told The State that he is not concerned about "nanny nanny boo boo" with regard to pregame trash talk concerning the Tigers' four-game losing streak to the Gamecocks. A source inside the South Carolina program confirmed that Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier remains unconcerned about "I know you are, but what am I?"
• Notre Dame at Stanford: We always talk about the personnel changes a defense must make when facing an offense that uses four or five wide receivers. But what about the changes that are required when an offense goes to a seven- or eight-lineman set, as Stanford often does? Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly discussed that this week. For a team such as the Fighting Irish that runs a three-man defensive front, coaches must decide whether to add a fourth down lineman or continue dropping a linebacker onto the line of scrimmage. "The question is, can you get them on the field in time? And so, generally, you can't," Kelly told reporters this week. "The way they play, you are not going to get a chance to get [the extra lineman] on the field. So you have to live with the personnel that you have on the field, and that's generally how they play. So we are going to have to figure out ways to stop power with our field personnel."
• Texas A&M at Missouri: The assumption all year has been that Johnny Manziel will leave for the NFL after this season. But what if he has another game like last week's against LSU? That won't be good for his draft stock. The Aggies' defense should be better in 2014, so the potential for a more successful campaign could be a lure for Manziel to stay. Leaving remains the most likely option, but it's no longer so easy to dismiss the idea of Manziel returning to College Station. Of course, things can change in a hurry. A huge game against Missouri would probably put Manziel right back in the Heisman race and keep him on the expected track. Meanwhile, Mizzou can win the SEC East by beating the Aggies. If the Tigers want 'Bama (or Auburn), they'll have to shut down Manziel.
• Arizona at Arizona State: Colin Becht wrote a fascinating story for SI.com about Arizona State coach Todd Graham, who discussed his abrupt departure from Pittsburgh and how he has turned around the fortunes of the Sun Devils so quickly. Meanwhile, the popular joke on Twitter last Saturday was that Michigan should consider hiring that Arizona coach who just thumped Oregon. Graham and Rich Rodriguez have the state's programs moving in the right direction, but there is only one Territorial Cup. For the Sun Devils, a win would allow them to host the Pac-12 championship next week against Stanford. For the Wildcats, a victory would provide bragging rights and a better bowl destination.
The real Power Rankings
Sure, I rank football teams every Tuesday during the season. Today, we're going to rank something that actually matters: Thanksgiving side dishes.
1. Macaroni and cheese: This is the king of sides no matter the occasion. Mac and cheese is the 1995 Nebraska of sides, Tommie Frazier-ing its way down your esophagus. At Thanksgiving, my responsibilities are turkey, chocolate chip cookies and mac and cheese. I fry up some thick-cut bacon and then crumble it into my mac and cheese before I bake it. Yes, I bake it. People stop eating soupy mac and cheese when they graduate from elementary school.
2. Mashed potatoes and gravy: Not one or the other. Both. Together.
3. Sweet potato casserole: During a Twitter conversation earlier this week with Dan Rubenstein of SBNation.com and The Solid Verbal podcast, I was horrified to learn that there are people whose families don't serve sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving. This is akin to enjoying music yet never listening to The Beatles.
4. Dressing: Yankees call it stuffing. I'm not married to a type of bread (white or cornbread), but I am delighted when a little sausage gets mixed in there.
5. Cranberry sauce: The real stuff for the taste. The can-shaped stuff for the nostalgia.
Vintage video of the week
The team that is favored to win the Iron Bowl doesn't always emerge victorious. That should give Auburn fans hope for Saturday. However, this clip that proves the point will probably make them wretch. In 1984, Auburn entered the Iron Bowl with an 8-3 record. Alabama was 4-6.
Trailing 17-15 with three and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Tigers coach Pat Dye opted to send his offense on the field on fourth-and-goal with the ball inside the one-yard line instead of kicking a field goal that would have put Auburn ahead by one. Brent Fullwood took the ball on a sweep to the right and got stuffed by Alabama's Rory Turner. After the game, Dye revealed that fellow backs Bo Jackson and Tommie Agee went the wrong way and therefore couldn't block for Fullwood. "Bo went the wrong way on the sweep," Dye told United Press International. "If I had known Bo was going to go the wrong way, I would have called for the field goal."
The play will be forever known as "Wrong Way Bo," though a more accurate name would be "Wrong Guy, Pat." When you need less than a yard and Bo Jackson is on your team, you give the ball to Bo Jackson. Jackson had missed six games that season with a shoulder injury -- so Fullwood was actually Auburn's leading rusher for the year -- but Jackson ran for 120 yards against the Crimson Tide that day. Auburn had another chance to take the lead with nine seconds remaining, but Robert McGinty's field goal attempt sailed wide left. The loss knocked Auburn out of the Sugar Bowl and into the Liberty Bowl. For Alabama, the win provided a tiny bit of solace at the end of the Tide's first losing season in 27 years.
On the menu
Leftover turkey, at your house. I could give you a place near one of this week's big games, but we all know what you're eating. Besides, there's nothing better than a pile of leftover turkey between two slices of bread with a little spicy mustard while watching Black Friday football. Load up. At halftime, you have to hang the Christmas lights.