In the months leading up to the 2013 college football season, there was not a more anticipated matchup than Alabama's trip to Texas A&M.
CBS used its lone prime-time telecast this season on Alabama's home game against LSU earlier this month, and now the Crimson Tide are preparing for a trip to Auburn in this season's only pairing of fop-four teams. The winner of Saturday's Iron Bowl will win the West Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Is there a publicized showdown in college football these days that doesn't involve Alabama?
"The biggest thing people need to realize is that it's just another game," Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said at a news conference eary this week. "It's just another Saturday. I don't know how many game of the centuries you can play in, but we've played in a few. You can't pay attention to what everybody else is saying about it."
When Alabama visits Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, the Crimson Tide will be playing in their 39th consecutive game as a top-five team. During this stretch, they have been involved in top-five showdowns three times against LSU and once each against Georgia, Notre Dame and now Auburn.
Alabama not only has played in multiple big games recently but has excelled in them, shredding LSU and Notre Dame in the past two BCS championship games by a combined 63-14.
"It's probably a little bit different for every guy based on their experience and knowledge," Alabama coach Nick Saban said when asked about the key to handling games of such magnitude. "Forget everything else: This is the Alabama-Auburn game, and that in itself makes this very special. We just try to emphasize with our players that you've got to focus on the right stuff so that you can go play your best football."
This is Auburn's first game as a top-five team since the top-ranked Tigers topped No. 2 Oregon 22-19 to win the 2010 BCS championship. The Tigers were ranked as high as 15th in 2011 and have steadily moved up this season, slipping into the top five last weekend after Baylor and Oregon were upset.
Saturday is easily the most meaningful game Auburn has played since its BCS title.
"This is what you strive for," Auburn first-year head coach Gus Malzahn said. "You strive for going to Atlanta. Any time you have a chance to play in a game like this, that tells you good things are ahead."
Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator for the 2010 title run and the 2011 season as well, and he is hoping games of this prominence can occur with more regularity.
"Auburn is a great place," he said. "Auburn is a place where you can win and win on a consistent basis. We have tried to get to this point. I am real proud of this team that they have gotten to this point. They have improved each game and set themselves up to go to Atlanta."
Cornerback Chris Davis and defensive linemen Nosa Eguae and Dee Ford are among the handful of Auburn seniors who played in big games as freshmen, but the overwhelming majority of Malzahn's roster is new to this scene.
It's very different at Alabama, where even freshmen such as tight end O.J. Howard and defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson have flourished this season under the spotlight.
"The main thing is to be real with the younger guys and to let them know it's either win or go home," Alabama senior linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "I'm not saying we need to get into all the hype, but this is the game that can get us to where we want to go. We've got to treat it like every other Iron Bowl game."
Auburn's biggest game this season was its 43-38 win over Georgia two weeks ago. The Tigers needed a 73-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds to win; otherwise Alabama already would have been crowned SEC West champs.
"Hopefully our game won't come down to that," Mosley said. "Hopefully we can close it out the old-fashioned way."
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