These teams are actually good! Like, both of them!
Alabama comes into Saturday's game at Jordan-Hare Stadium right where everyone expected, undefeated and sitting in the catbird's seat for a fourth national championship in five years. The Tide have defeated every team on their schedule sans one (Texas A&M) by double digits, and their 28.6 average margin of victory even eclipsed their mark from last season.
This was all expected.
What's going on the Eastern side of the state came straight from nowhere. A season after finishing with their worst winning percentage in more than a half-century, the Tigers are 10-1 and ranked fourth in the country behind Gus Malzahn's revamped passing attack. Win this game, and we're very likely having a long conversation about whether undefeated Ohio State or one-loss Auburn is more deserving of a national championship berth.
It's a contest that represents two starkly different things for both programs. But despite the differences in where they are and where they might be going forward, the stakes are no smaller for either side.
For Alabama, it's a case of duality for the program and its head coach.
Nick Saban's place in college football lore has already been cemented. He's one of the best handful of coaches in the sport's history, a program whisperer who can rub his sensei magic on a team and create a national title contender. Not that he'd know what a sensei is or why the hell you're asking him about it.
A victory here only sets the stage for a continued leap up the pantheon. Last season, Saban became the first head coach to win three outright national championships in four years since Frank Leahy did so at Notre Dame in the late 1940s. Doing so four times in five years takes us back to the days where there were about 12 college football programs on the planet, coaches had second and third jobs and Congressional hearings were being had to discuss the sport's safety. (Well, OK, maybe not all that much has changed.)
Saban is the best coach of this modern era. Where coaches are freaks, who need almost sociopathic tendencies to succeed. Jamison Hensley of ESPN went inside the week of Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh last week, showing just how exhausting the profession could be. Now imagine doing all that while recruiting, glad-handing with boosters and making sure your players, most of whom aren't even of legal drinking age, stay out of trouble.
Saban. Bowden. Bryant. Robinson. Hayes. Schembechler. Paterno. Whatever. However you want to fix your all-time coaching hierarchy, it begins with those names in some order. That's the legacy that Saban leaves no matter what, but keep in mind that one more national title for Saban would give him one more than Paterno and Bowden combined and put his relatively short run as Alabama coach up against any longer run historically.
Of course, Saturday's game also gives Saban an opportunity to do something he never has: beat Auburn when they're actually, you know, good. Over the past two seasons, Saban has made sport of embarrassing his biggest rival. Alabama has outscored Auburn 91-14 since the Tigers' 2011 victory, including a 49-0 thumping last season.
Overall, Saban holds a 6-5 record against the Tigers. Not bad. But as ESPN Stats & Info pointed out this week, he's never beaten a Tigers squad that had nine wins or more:
Nick Saban is 6-5 overall against Auburn as a head coach, but 0-5 against an Auburn team that finishes the season with at least nine wins.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 25, 2013
Something Saban hasn't done? Color me intrigued. It's hard to imagine any program having Saban's number, but the stats indicate he's a bit behind the 8-ball against Auburn. Could Saturday's game finally be his chance at the only necessary redemptive piece of his legacy?
If he doesn't, you can thank Malzahn, who has in one season put together a Saban-like rebuild project in Auburn. It's become in vogue to call the Tigers "lucky," highlighting their Hail Mary win over Georgia two weeks ago, their somewhat weak schedule for an SEC team and the fact they've won five games by seven points or less this season.
That would all obscure the rubble from which Malzahn has built a winner. The 2012 Auburn Tigers weren't just a bad football team. They were a train wreck. An embarrassment. An indictment on every decision-maker within a 60-mile radius of that football program.
When Malzahn took the Auburn job, it was understandably met with skepticism. If you're trying to rid yourself of the man who allowed your program to fall into shambles in Gene Chizik, what's the point in hiring the dude who was his right-hand man a couple of years ago?
Apparently, this was the point. Malzahn has crafted Nick Marshall into a wildly flawed version of Cam Newton, nearly matching the former Heisman winner's prowess running while just trying to avoid mistakes throwing the ball. Marshall has done both just fine, and Tre Mason has been there every step of the way to record his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. A year after having the No. 111 rated offense and No. 95 defense in Football Outsiders' combined efficiency ratings, the Tigers are inside the Top 25 in both categories in 2013.
It's an amazingly quick turnaround, one that even Saban has to marvel at. The Tide went just 7-6 in his first season in Tuscaloosa, and it took three years to get Alabama back in its rightful spot atop the nation. With a win on Saturday, Malzahn not only shuts up all talk of "luck" but sets up one of the most intriguing BCS questions in recent memory.
Either way, the whole world is watching again. And that's the way it's supposed to be.
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