Iron Bowl bragging rights still mean a lot for Alabama, Auburn

AP photo by Butch Dill / Auburn interim football coach Carnell "Cadillac" Williams reacts as referee Scott Walker signals a touchdown during the first half of the Tigers' home win against Western Kentucky last Saturday.

Alabama can lock up another 10-win campaign. Auburn is targeting bowl eligibility and a happy ending to a trying season.

But this Iron Bowl, more than most in recent memory, is primarily about the year's worth of state bragging rights that comes with a win. Typically, that's enough motivation when these Southeastern Conference rivals take the football field.

The eighth-ranked Crimson Tide (9-2, 5-2, No. 7 College Football Playoff ranking) aren't playing to remain in SEC title or CFP contention but might still enhance their bowl destination. That reality denies Auburn (5-6, 2-5) even the joys of playing the spoiler role, but a bowl shot is on the line for the Tigers.

It will still be a big Saturday in Tuscaloosa for what is, as Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "one of the greatest rivalry games in college football." Important to fans and to players' legacies and offseason moods. It's just that it's not important to national title hopes this time, like it has been for both programs multiple times since Saban took over the Tide.

"It means a lot to us, our players and our fans, and we're going to do the best job we can to get ready for this game," said Saban, whose Alabama teams have all won at least 10 games with the exception of his first in 2007, which won seven times in 13 games.

Auburn got to play the spoiler in 2019, eking out a 48-45 win over the fifth-ranked Tide. LSU had already clinched a spot in the SEC title game en route to a national title, but that loss officially knocked Alabama from CFP contention.

The Tigers almost did it again last season, falling 24-22 in a four-overtime game on the Plains. Alabama survived and went on to win the SEC title against Georgia the following week before falling in a national championship rematch with the Bulldogs in January.

This month, Auburn has staged a minor turnaround with back-to-back wins over Texas A&M and Western Kentucky under interim coach Carnell Williams. It would become a major reversal with an upset of the Tide, who are three-touchdown favorites.

Williams, the hero of the 2003 Iron Bowl for Auburn as a running back, doesn't think he needs a "magical speech" to get his team up for this one. But he has the Tigers playing better lately.

"I truly feel like a lot of stuff that's understood really doesn't need to be said," said Williams, who took over after Bryan Harsin was fired on Oct. 31 after less than two full seasons at Auburn. "I'm looking for our guys to come out and fight and compete, and we're not backing down at all."

This figures to be the last game at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Tide's biggest stars and top NFL prospects: quarterback Bryce Young and linebacker Will Anderson Jr. It could even be their last games in Alabama uniforms if either or both opt out of a bowl game in their first time missing the playoffs.

Both just say they're focused on this game.

"I haven't thought about anything in the future," Young said. "All I care about now is this program."