Iron Bowl is more than super

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 18, 2005

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – Floridian Mike Shula got a quick lesson in describing the Iron Bowl when he arrived at Alabama as a player two decades ago.

Namely he learned the Super Bowl analogy doesn’t really work. “To me, it’s more intense than the Super Bowl because it’s a different type of crowd,” said Shula, now the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide’s head coach and a converted Iron Bowl junkie.

In other words, there won’t be too many people in the stands when Alabama and No. 11 Auburn tangle Saturday who just want to see a good ball game and socialize. They’d better choose sides quickly.

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Auburn offensive line coach Hugh Nall got a side order of Iron Bowl reality at a local eatery shortly after arriving on the job.

“I ordered breakfast and somebody asked if I was one of the new coaches,” Nall said. “I said, ‘I am.’ They said, ‘I hope you enjoy your breakfast. There are 302 days until we play Alabama.’

“Is there pressure? Heck yeah, there’s pressure.”

This year, especially.

The Crimson Tide (9-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) and Tigers (8-2, 6-1) have the best combined record since they were 19-0-1 entering the 1994 game. They’re both playing for a BCS bowl berth and, if LSU loses one of its final two games, an SEC Western Division title.

For a change, there’s no need for an “at least we ruined your season, too” element. The high rankings also ensure the interest extends well beyond the state’s borders.

As Auburn safety Will Herring put it, “It’s just going to add to the fire and the fury.”

“Alabama’s not a mediocre team like they’ve been the last few years,” Herring said. “And even when they are on paper a mediocre team, everybody’s serious.”

This version doesn’t quite have the national significance of that 1994 game, when No. 4 Alabama was 10-0 and No. 6 Auburn was 9-0-1. The Tide went up 21-0 and held on for a 21-14 win to remain in national title contention.

But Sherman Williams, Jay Barker&Co. lost 24-23 to Florida in the SEC championship game. At least they beat the Tigers, snapping Auburn’s 21-game unbeaten streak.

The winner of this one also could wind up playing for the SEC title. And the alternative?

“It wouldn’t be fun,” Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle said. “There’s a big difference between you’re 10-1 and you beat Auburn and 9-2 and you get a pat on the back and, ‘Y’all had a good season.'”

That’s because just about everybody in Alabama pays attention. And even those few who’d rather not still have to hear about it for days, weeks, months at the office or church or supermarket.

“The whole state shuts down,” Croyle said. “This is for bragging rights the rest of the year. This is the game. This is what everybody looks forward to the entire year.”

Croyle’s counterpart, Auburn sophomore Brandon Cox, will play in his first Iron Bowl. He’s learned quickly about ducking the pre-game hype, heading straight from class Monday to his apartment _ and staying there.

“I really didn’t have anything to do with football,” Cox said.

But for the fans, he says, “It’s what people talk about 365 days a year. It’s what makes this something special.”

Shula has exposed friends from other major colleges and his father Don _ a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach familiar with Super Bowls _ to the Iron Bowl experience.

“They had no clue what this game was about,” Mike Shula said. “It’s just an electrifying atmosphere. It’s something that I think anybody who played here or coached here will remember for the rest of their lives.

“It’s hard for anything else to compare to it.”

And that’s why the Tide seniors who brought a program back from NCAA probation and a 4-9 season to a 9-0 start _ before last week’s overtime loss to No. 4 LSU _ still have a gaping void in their careers. They’re 0-3 against the Tigers.

“They want more than to be known as the seniors that kind of laid the foundation,” Shula said.

The job, linebacker DeMeco Ryans said, is “not done. We have to beat Auburn to put Alabama back on the map.”

The Tiger seniors, on the other hand, can finish 4-0 against their arch rival.

“Wow, I don’t know how many people can say they went through college and that’s happened,” Auburn defensive tackle T.J. Jackson said. “The key thing is just to remember what this game is. This game has a lot riding on it.”

Despite all the “throw-out-the-records” rivalry rhetoric, history gives Alabama the edge even though the oddsmakers favor Auburn by seven points. The higher ranked team has a 36-10 advantage, though two of those upsets have come in the last three years.

Rankings aside, Auburn receiver Courtney Taylor is sometimes taken aback by how seriously fans take this game. But he also understands the reality.

“There’s huge pressure from both sides,” Taylor said. “This is why you come to Auburn. This is why you compete on this level _ to play in games this big and of this magnitude. You can’t ask for