Behind Enemy Lines – Part 6
Part 5 – Why can’t Auburn and Alabama be good at the same time?
It’s a refrain I’ve heard several times this season, from preseason — when Auburn was getting lots of preseason buzz (even considered a dark-horse title contender by some) and ‘Bama was reeling from the November losing streak and a slew of off-the-field problems — until now, with Alabama undefeated and top-ranked and headed for arguably the best SEC Championship Game ever, and Auburn sinking at 5-6 and tons of negative speculation all the way around. (Here’s where I remind everyone that I’m not in any way overlooking The Game Formerly Known As The Iron Bowl, not with six years’ worth of frustration to exorcise and the Aubs seething after several near-misses. Back to the homily.)
Anyway, when the conference split into divisions back in 1992, I thought of the Western division as the domain of Auburn and Alabama (obviously, I’m biased). I thought of every season’s game ultimately deciding the participant in the Championship Game, first in Birmingham, then in Atlanta.
It hasn’t played out that way. Auburn and ‘Bama seem to cycle back and forth — when one is down, the other up. And vice-versa.
Moreover, the rise of one team seems to coincide with the fall of the other. Alabama’s last national title, 1992, came in the same season that poor health, poor play and NCAA wolves drove Pat Dye into retirement. Auburn’s first trip to the SECCG came in Year 1 of the Mike DuBose debacle, as ‘Bama began its descent into … whatever the last decade has been. Of course, their brief rise in ’99 came with Auburn’s first Tuberville team finishing a frustrating 5-6 (including a loss to Alabama IN Auburn, of all places); Tuberville’s Auburn team returned the favor the following season by beating a 3-8 Tide team to win the SEC West in Tuscaloosa. Even as Auburn was flirting with the BCS title in 2004, Alabama was dragging their rating down by staggering to the Music City Bowl (sorry about that, by the way).
A cursory glance at the history of the two programs shows this has nearly always been the case. Since the series resumed in 1948, the two teams have met as undefeateds exactly twice — 1971 and 1994, which was dampered slightly by Auburn’s probation and a tie against Georgia the previous week.
The reasons for this are difficult to discern. The simplest explanation would be that Alabama isn’t a deep enough state to provide the adequate number of quality recruits for two top-flight SEC programs. Which would make sense, except that Alabama has always slanted toward Tuscaloosa in recruiting — Auburn’s best players have historically come from Georgia and Florida, and both programs now do plenty of region-and-nation-wide recruiting.
So what do we make of the current situation? Well, Alabama isn’t going anywhere — the Tide’s roster contains a handful of seniors, and there’s no reason to think Nick Saban won’t continue to recruit at a high level. And Auburn … well, I don’t think Auburn’s staying down long — provided they don’t junk Tuberville in December (probably won’t happen), my guess is they settle the OC situation and things get better on The Plains. Maybe the two get to meet as undefeateds eventually down the line.
For now, we’ll have to settle for what we have. The score needs to be settled anyway, no matter the record.