When the schedules were parsed and processed this summer, Alabama's annual end-of-year game with Auburn looked like just another blowout on its collision course with Pasadena, Calif. Auburn will be better under Gus Malzahn, we thought, but there's no way it will be good.
The Tigers have been the story of college football this season, storming through the SEC schedule with only one loss, a forgivable defeat against LSU in Tiger Stadium. Their last-minute heave to beat Georgia a couple of weeks ago was the signature moment (so far) in a year filled with so many great ones.
Now, the Iron Bowl takes on a whole new importance. It's not just about pride or hatred or rivalry; there are divisions and conferences and national championships at stake.
Get ready for, perhaps, the greatest-ever chapter in this rivalry.
First and foremost, the winner of this year's Iron Bowl will be crowned champion of the SEC West, earning a spot in Atlanta to play either Missouri or South Carolina in the conference championship game.
But really, the stakes of this game are so much grander. They are directly and compellingly tied to the BCS National Championship Game. B/R's Barrett Sallee calls it a de facto and early version of the College Football Playoff:
Treat the Iron Bowl as a national quarterfinal, because that's what it is. The loser is out, and the winner moves on to the semifinals in the SEC Championship Game next weekend.
Sure, if Auburn wins, it'd still need help. But Auburn can only control what Auburn can control.
If Auburn wins, Alabama will likely not get a chance to defend its back-to-back national titles. The Tide would need Texas A&M to beat Missouri, Auburn to lose the SEC Championship Game to South Carolina and either Florida State or Ohio State to suffer a defeat.
Should it win, Auburn would also have an outside shot at the national title itself. The Tigers would simply need to win the SEC championship and pray for an Ohio State or Florida State loss as well.
If Alabama wins, it will advance to the SEC Championship Game and continue to control its own BCS fate. One more win would send it to Pasadena.
Why explain the enormity of this game when we can just show you? Enjoy this hype tape for the Iron Bowl before reading any further.
Corey Grant is a rare double-agent in this game, the same way Nick Marshall and Zach Mettenberger were when they faced Georgia earlier in the year.
The running back started his career at Alabama but found himself buried on the depth chart behind guys like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, so he opted to transfer to Auburn.
Now, Grant is an important piece of the Tigers' four-pronged rushing attack, helping Auburn generate more than 320 yards per game on the ground. He knows, from experience, that Alabama will not take this game lightly.
"It's very important to them," Grant said, according to B/R's Justin Lee. "It's a very tough game to them. They look at it as their No. 1 game of the year. It's going to be treated by them like they were playing in the national championship.
Grant and other Auburn running backs like Tre Mason will be counted on to control the clock, move the chains and keep the ball away from AJ McCarron. Against the Alabama defense, that is no small task.
But against the Alabama offense, it's the only way to win.
Yes, Auburn needs to pound the rock and control the clock to beat Alabama. But it's impossible to defeat the Tide in just one way; at some point, this team will need to get out of its comfort zone and complete some advanced passes.
By that token, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is the biggest X-factor in this game. He has shown a decent arm all season—when allowed off his leash—but no defense the Tigers have faced poses the same threat as Alabama. Not by a long shot.
Watch this video with B/R's Michael Felder, who breaks down why Marshall will be so important on Saturday and what he must do to beat the Tide.
Auburn will need to operate at a high level to score on Alabama's defense, but its real test will come on the other side of the ball. The Tigers simply can't allow points as easily as they did against Georgia and Texas A&M.
Alabama's offense is capable of beating you in multiple ways, excelling just as efficiently with the run as it does with the pass. The latter could be of utmost concern.
Auburn's defense has actually been serviceable against the run, but it ranks 100th in the country in passing defense, allowing 253.7 yards per game. AJ McCarron is chastised by some as a mere "game manager," but he's more than capable of shredding a defense this leaky.
Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae, for one, has learned from experience not to take McCarron for granted.
"He's poised," Eguae said, according to Joel A. Erickson of AL.com. "He leads them. He does everything you want in a quarterback. He's a great quarterback, and we can't wait until Saturday to play him."
Expect Alabama to attack, attack, attack with the pass. It will use the run to soften coverage and set up those throws, but ideally, McCarron will be the driving force.
He lives for big games like this, so Tide fans must be feeling good.
B/R's Marc Torrence wrote an excellent feature this week, tagging along for a day in the life of Kristen Bolden, a die-hard Auburn fan with a twist: She attends the University of Alabama.
It won't shed any light on who might win Saturday's game, but the piece lends a unique voice to what this rivalry means, and how it feels to be an outsider in the midst of such loathing.
Definitely worth a read.
Bryan Matthews, a senior writer at Auburn Undercover, knows more about his Tigers than just about anyone in the country, and he delivered a thorough breakdown of what must go right on Saturday.
With a few lucky breaks and a great game from Nick Marshall, this upset might not be as crazy as it sounds. Auburn has gotten some of both this entire season.
Are the Tigers really a Team of Destiny?
A couple of the biggest awards in the country could be at stake in Jordan-Hare Stadium this Saturday: the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Coach of the Year.
If Jameis Winston isn't charged in his sexual-assault investigation, the Heisman is all but his. However, should the state pursue a case against him, AJ McCarron becomes a very intriguing option.
Alabama's quarterback has never been one for individual awards, which is good because he rarely gets mentioned for them. But this year, finally, folks are starting to realize how good he is, beginning to give him the credit that he deserves.
If he plays well in a win, McCarron will almost certainly be invited to New York for the Heisman presentation—at the very least. But if Auburn wins, the story will become about Malzahn.
Auburn's new head coach inherited a team that hit historic lows in 2012. He was hailed as a great hire, but the Tigers were supposed to be a fixer-upper; it was supposed to be a few years before they could remain competitive this late into a season.
Should Malzahn beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl, you might as well just give him every Coach of the Year award on the spot. Nothing that happens beyond this game would matter.
He'd have earned it.
In summation of everything you've just read, it's clear that this is—at the very least—in the conversation for "Biggest Iron Bowl Ever."
Others have meant more to a particular side, but rarely does a game hold so much significance for both teams in the game; rarely do Auburn and Alabama each have a shot at the BCS national championship this late in the season.
Auburn director of athletics Jay Jacobs thinks that this one will be special beyond comparison, according to B/R's Barrett Sallee:
I don't think there's one bigger because of the implications involved in this one to go to the SEC Championship Game. Certainly the '89 game was big, the '82 game was big because it broke an [Auburn] losing streak and certainly the '71 game. But as far as national implications, there's not one bigger than this.
It's hard to disagree. This isn't some sort of prisoner-of-the-moment declaration; the 2013 Iron Bowl has talent and intrigue to spare, beyond what this rivalry has ever seen before.
Buckle your seatbelts.