At this point, you've doubtlessly heard all about the Iron Bowl -- the passion, the pageantry, the 365-day obsession that pits neighbor versus neighbor and coworker versus coworker in the state of Alabama. It's all true. Children can literally break into tears at the sight of the rival school's logo and fans tend to celebrate the opponent's loss as much as their own victory. One thing the rivalry has not been able to produce, at least in the last decade-plus, is a game that had a massive impact on a national level.
Alabama and Auburn have not been good at the same time very often recently. Only once in their last 14 meetings have both teams been ranked for the Iron Bowl (in 2005, when Alabama was No. 8 and Auburn No. 11), and only once in the last 35 years have both been ranked in the top 10 when they met (the 1994 matchup pitted No. 4 Alabama against No. 6 Auburn). So in addition to the hysteria that surrounds this annual donnybrook, we're going to get some championship caliber football, which should make Friday's Iron Bowl one of the greatest in the game's storied history.
1. Cam Newton and the 'D' word. How will Auburn quarterback Cam Newton handle the distractions? How will other Auburn players handle the distractions? Will the distractions affect Alabama? These questions have enveloped the state for the better part of three weeks. The distractions, of course, are the well-documented allegations that Cam Newton's father asked Mississippi State for $180,000 when Cam was being recruited. Auburn coach Gene Chizik has kept his quarterback off-limits to the media since Nov. 9 and will not address the situation himself. Newton appears to have compartmentalized the NCAA investigation, lighting up Chattanooga and Georgia for 640 total yards and nine touchdowns in his two games since the storm started. Both those games were at home, however. The road, and especially Bryant-Denny Stadium, will be a whole different thing. Elite athletes can sometimes rise up in that type of atmosphere and become even more productive, and Newton has proven to be the type. But no one knows how three weeks of drama will impact his play when he heads to an extremely hostile environment.
2. Navigating the Tide. Assuming Newton plays at his Heisman-worthy level, the question becomes how Auburn will try to attack the nation's No. 1 scoring defense. In Alabama's two losses, South Carolina's Stephen Garcia and LSU's Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee completed 31 of 40 passes for 409 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Alabama's secondary also surrendered 357 yards passing to Ryan Mallett, so the Tigers would be wise to use Newton's arm more than his legs. That said, it seems Newton's running and the outside speed of backs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb concern Alabama coach Nick Saban the most. "You can't just play good gap control on the inside," Saban said about controlling Auburn's run game. "The perimeter players need to do a good job as well. I think that's a real key. This takes a lot of discipline for everybody to do exactly what they're supposed to do and be exactly where they're supposed to be because Auburn attacks the perimeter just as effectively as they do the interior." Auburn runs 71 percent of the time, but to beat Alabama, Newton is going to have to throw more than usual.
3. Welcome back, Trent. It appears Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who was injured in the first half against LSU, will be healthy and ready to play, which is obviously good news for the Tide. Alabama now has the option of rotating Mark Ingram with Richardson, keeping a fresh, physical back on the field all game. The Tide will want to grind things out and keep Newton off the field, and the return of Richardson, who is averaging 6.9 yards per carry, will allow them to do that. Ingram has not put up the dominating numbers he posted during last year's Heisman run, but Richardson's presence may spark a big day for him. If Ingram continues to struggle, Richardson will be there to pick up the slack.
Alabama enters the game as a four-point favorite. Alabama is 7-1 in its last eight home games against the spread, but just 4-3 versus the SEC this year. Auburn is 6-1 versus the SEC this year against the spread, but is 3-9 in its last 12 road games. Auburn has covered in four of the last five matchups. There's no definitive trend.
Alabama leads the nation in interceptions (21), but is tied for last in the nation in fumble recoveries (three).
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup. Pauline evaluated Alabama's top prospects earlier this season before the Arkansas and Florida games and looked at Auburn's top players prior to the Tigers' game with LSU.
QB Cam Newton, Auburn: Newton must decide whether he's going to take his game to the NFL after this season. His physical talents are a step ahead of Tim Tebow, yet Newton's body of work and overall football awareness are fractional compared to the former Heisman Trophy winner. Newton brings a great amount of upside, but his game needs a lot of work and he is by no means a sure thing. Grade: Second-round prospect.
OLB Don'ta Hightower, Alabama: The junior rebounded well from the knee injury which kept him on the sidelines for most of the 2009 season. He's a three-down linebacker who is effective stuffing the run or defending the pass. Hightower possesses the size and athleticism to be used in a variety of defensive systems at the next level. Grade: Second-round prospect.
OL James Carpenter, Alabama: The senior left tackle has stepped up his game this season and is exceeding scouts' expectations. He's a heady blocker who gets the most from his talents. Carpenter projects as a guard on many NFL draft boards. Grade: Fourth-round prospect.
OL Ryan Pugh, Auburn: Pugh has been durable and versatile for Auburn, holding down the tackle and center spots during his career. He's an average athlete and does not possess great upside, but he'll find a home in the NFL as an inexpensive utility lineman. Grade: Sixth-round prospect.
Auburn has put together an undefeated season thanks to a dash of luck (Clemson), timely defensive plays (South Carolina, LSU) and a whole lot of Cam Newton (25 passing TDs, 17 rushing TDs). Auburn has not, however, had to face a top 10 team on the road. Alabama's defense will feed off the frenzied crowd and keep Newton relatively under control, while its offense will be able to score on a suspect Auburn defense. 'Bama will wreck its rival's perfect season. ALABAMA 34, AUBURN 31