Let's Just Call It What It Is: The Biggest Rivalry In College Football

T.G. Paschal/BamaCentral
Christopher Walsh

For a Crimson Tide fan, there is no bigger day of the year than the annual Auburn game, although things like birthdays, weddings and Christmas come close.

Seriously.

Pick a random day of the year, and ask a random person in the state, “Who won the last game?”

Then ask who Van Tiffin is and wait for the reaction. If the person is a Crimson Tide fan, his or her face will probably light up and they’ll say something like: “You don’t know who Van Tiffin is? Oh you poor thing. Bless your heart,” as if there’s something seriously wrong with you like having brain damage or being terminally ill.

If it’s an Auburn fan, expect the exact opposite reaction, because the 1985 Iron Bowl was decided by a 52-yard field goal as time expired, giving Alabama a dramatic 25-23 victory after the lead changed hands four times in the final 15 minutes.

Fans take this game so seriously that they annually start the countdown to the next one the day after the game. Heavy rains and the threat of a tornado didn’t stop the 1983 meeting when running back Bo Jackson had 258 rushing yards and two touchdowns to lead Auburn to a 23-20 victory.

For players, the No. 1 thing they get asked for the rest of their lives is what their record was in the Iron Bowl. 

The series actually dates back to February 22, 1893, when the two sides met at Birmingham’s Lakeview Park and Auburn claimed a 32-22 victory, and won the subsequent matchup, 40-16. 

The following year, Alabama won 18-0, and a football rivalry was well under way. However, following a 6-6 tie in 1907, the two sides refused to play again for 41 years due in part because of animosity, and the series was revived only after the state legislature threatened to get involved.

Yeah, it’s that extreme. Scott Brown wrote in his book “The Uncivil War” that he had “never felt anything more intense than the hatred between Alabama and Auburn. Period.”

Late ESPN analyst Beano Cook did it one better by referring to the rivalry as “Gettysburg south.”

Why? Because unlike some of the other great rivalries this one is split between neighbors and families, and played in the state where college football is considered "It." There's no pro teams, nothing overshadowing or serving as distractions, and no way for anyone to avoid picking one side or another. 

“I was working the 1995 game at Jordan-Hare, which had zero championship implication, with a producer from another part of the country,” said ESPN’s Rece Davis, himself an Alabama graduate. “He said, ‘I can’t believe how intense this is.’ I said, ‘You should see it when they’re playing for something.’

“Actually, come to think of it, the intensity never changes with the circumstances.”

Things have only ramped up over the past 10-plus years ago in terms of importance and the national-title picture. Only once since 2008 has Alabama gone into Thanksgiving out of the running, and during that time period just one team other than Alabama or Auburn has represented the Western Division in the SEC Championship Game (LSU, which is about to do so a second time).

During the Nick Saban years there's been "The Drive" and the "Kick Six," both of which still make the other side ill. There was the comeback of 2010 and a shootout that resulted in a combined 99 points. Alabama's had two shutouts, yet the 2017 Crimson Tide lost on The Plains and still won the national championship. 

Saturday (2:30 p.m., CBS), Alabama has to avoid a repeat at Auburn if it wants to remain in the national title picture. When the Tigers eliminated the Crimson Tide from BCS Championship Game consideration in 2013, they may have enjoyed Alabama losing more than their own team winning in dramatic fashion (it depends on the person asked).  

It is not for fair-weather or faint-of-heart fans. 

For 50-some years, the two sides met at the neutral site of Legion Field in Birmingham, even though Auburn continually argued that it provided Alabama with an unfair advantage since it was much closer to the Tuscaloosa campus.

Only once have the two sides met when both were undefeated, 1971. The No. 3 Crimson Tide posted a lopsided 31-7 victory over the No. 4 Tigers as Alabama halfback Johnny Musso outshined Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy. However, Alabama lost the national championship game to Nebraska at the Orange Bowl, 38-6.

“Any game that causes married couples to divorce, or even worse in some psychotic cases, must be a pretty big deal,” said Norm Wood of the Daily Press in Virginia.

“I went to Auburn for a basketball game in 1986 shortly after Alabama won the football game, and some Auburn football players told me they hadn’t shown themselves in public for three days,” John Henderson, formerly of the Denver Post said. “Enough said.”

A version of this story originally appeared in "100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Known & Do Before they Die, Triumph Books. 

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