Keep your enemies closer: Alabama

Kevin C. Cox

It's Iron Bowl week, and we're discussing Auburn-Alabama with our most hated blogger rivals.

Thanks to Todd Jones from SB Nation's Alabama site, Roll 'Bama Roll, for answering this week's questions.

The Iron Bowl rivalry is one of the best in sports, and as a consequence, it's one of the nastiest. Why is it so nasty? The close proximity of the fans? Alabama's perceived arrogance? Auburn's perceived inferiority complex? The fact that college football is the only thing many people in this state have to enjoy? What?

Saying the rivalry is "nasty" ties into your next question better, so I'll address that then, but I do believe that the Iron Bowl is certainly the most intense rivalry in college football, and it's all because we have to live together. Michigan and Ohio State fans may have occasional encounters (or in our respective cases, you run into UT and UGA fans every now and again), but for the most part, after the game is over, everyone goes home and then spends the rest of the year surrounded by fellow fans. Not so here. We're neighbors, co-workers, relatives, the guy that delivers your pizza and etc., and to make it even more intense, EVERYONE has a side and EVERYONE has some pretty strong opinions. If you want to start a conversation in this state with strangers, you don't say "how about this weather?," you open with "so how long you think Nick Saban is staying at Alabama?" Maybe having a pro team would make it otherwise, but I'm pretty sure even then we'd all figure out some way to include it in the rivalry ("there's more Bama players on the roster, suck it Boogs!").

As for it being the nastiest...

Do you think the rivalry has gone too far? If not, do you think it's possible for it to go too far?

... yes, things have gotten out of hand. Harvey Updyke is the most obvious example of someone using the rivalry on the field to justify insane behavior off of it, but even beyond him, I think a lot of fans from both sides have gone down an "us and them" rabbit hole to the exclusion of reality, largely thanks to call in shows like Finebaum and the ability to remain anonymous on the Internet. Like I said before, we all live and work with each other, and I'm old enough to remember a time when the only Auburn fans I knew were the Auburn fans I personally knew in my day-to-day life. Yeah, you joked and had fun and gave them hell when you beat them and wanted to fake sick for three months so you wouldn't have to go to school and face their giving you hell, but you had to look them in the eye every day, and being a jerk about the rivalry wasn't the best way to conduct yourself. There was always going to be one or two people you knew who went over the top with it, but for the most part, you identified the jerks in your life as jerks, not "rival fans." That's all changed. Now, people have the ability to communicate with a wider array of fellow fans, as well as selectively sample the absolute worst of the opposing fans, and I think that's gone a long way towards allowing us to use our own selective bias to associate the worst tendencies of human nature with the other team. Rather than be exposed to a handful of opposing fans and see how they conduct themselves individually in their daily lives, you only have to see one singular aspect of who they are online, which usually intensely magnifies that one aspect thanks to the fact there is basically no accountability for your opinions. In other words "This is my friend Bob, he's a barner/bammer, but he's a solid bro" has now been replaced with "man, these $%&#ing bammers/boogs won't shut the $%&* up, I was on facebook this afternoon and ..." And it's easy to have a nasty opinion of an entire fanbase when that's by and large the only representation you routinely deal with.

Both sides have enjoyed miraculous victories and stunning defeats. Which Alabama win in the series ranks as your favorite?

I have to go with 1985, which is funny because I didn't actually watch it. I was only 7 at the time, and my grandfather lived in Tampa, so we went down there for Thanksgiving. Being only 7, I wanted to go swim in the hotel pool rather than watch a football game, so my wonderful Mother agreed to go watch me while my Dad and brothers (who are significantly older than I am) watched the game. They'd shout down updates to her from the balcony all along, and you'd here them up there shouting and carrying on, but after Auburn went up 23-22 and we got the ball back, things got really quiet. After a minute or two, Mom had just made some comment like "well, I guess we didn't pull this one out," and then we heard them screaming and yelling and had to run back up to the room to see what was going on, where my Dad and brothers were still going nuts (which was an odd sight in it's own right since they're all pretty reserved guys who don't let a lot phase them) describing what had happened. That's the night I realized "oh, we're Alabama fans, and that means something."

And which soul-crushing loss do you consider to be Alabama's worst defeat? If it's 2010, which may be the obvious choice, what would you list as the second-worst loss?

2010 is the most soul-crushing because it's the most recent, but beyond that, I have to go with 2002. We'd had a great season despite all the NCAA stuff, ranked in the top ten, our defense was playing lights out, Brodie Croyle had emerged as a true freshman and was really enjoyable to watch play, and it just seemed like there was no chance y'all were going to win that game ... and then y'all came out and scored two quick touchdowns and added a FG in the 2nd quarter while completely shutting us down. Of course we found out later on that our coach had basically taken the week off from preparing for this game to get the Texas A&M job lined up, but at the time I remember feeling tremendously let down and disappointed by what I saw on the field. Even worse, my family runs a screen printing company and we had to go print score shirts after the game, so all night long I had to keep seeing "17-7" over and over and over. Yeah, that sucked.

Who is your least favorite Auburn player of all time? Who really burns you up? Again, if it's Cam, who's your No. 2?

Ryan Pugh. Y'all know why, no need to elaborate.

What will Alabama's offense look like on Saturday? Will offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier heed fans' advice and "RUN THE BALL," or will he allow A.J. McCarron plenty of opportunities to sling it around?

Honestly, I understand the "RUN THE BALL" crowd from a visceral perspective (and even from a "WHAT ARE WE DOING IN THE RED ZONE" against Texas A&M perspective), but I think most people aren't willing to acknowledge that we don't have the same stable of running backs that we've had the past few seasons thanks to injuries. Eddie Lacy is a veteran, and I think he's tremendously talented, but he sat out all spring and summer recovering from a turf toe injury and then missed some of fall after spraining his ankle, so he missed a ton of conditioning work and isn't the kind of 30-carry work horse that we got used to with Ingram and Richardson. T.J. Yeldon has played incredibly for a true freshman, but in back-to-back weeks he put the ball on the ground and killed critical scoring opportunities. With both Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart out with injuries, we have NO ONE behind them but another true freshman (Kenyan Drake) and walk-ons. As much as the RB tandems of Ingram/Richardson and Richardson/Lacy were praised, there has always been a third and even fourth change-of-pace guy that has contributed to the offense, and that facet is just gone now. All that is to say you're still going to see the game plan resting on McCarron with a very healthy dose of the run, but this offense is definitely not the same run-heavy one we've gotten used to the last few years, simply because the cupboard got real bare real quick early in the season.

At the end of the day, which offensive player will have the biggest impact?

It will be A.J. McCarron. Again, the offense basically runs through him, and if he has a great day, then we'll have a great chance to sustain drives and have plenty of scoring opportunities. The biggest concern is where does our offense go in the 3rd quarter or when absolutely need to stay on the field and keep the other team's off of it? That's really what killed us against LSU and Texas A&M, not the break downs in the secondary (though that didn't help).

What about the Tide defense? How are Nick Saban and Kirby Smart going to try to stop the vaunted Auburn offensive attack?

Y'all moving back to a more pro-style offense really plays into what we do on defense, which really made that an even more head-scratching decision. Our biggest struggles have been against spread teams that can go up tempo and dictate the flow of the game that way, but outside of LSU (who is really the only other team in the conference that I have to look at and say "they're just as talented and deep at every single position as we are"), no one has really been able to beat us at our own game. I'm sure we'll blitz the living daylights out of Wallace and try to force him into some early mistakes, but the focus will mostly have to be on keeping McCalebb, Mason, and Prosch from being effective with just the front seven.

Which defensive player for the Tide will have the best afternoon?

Probably C.J. Mosley. He's a little undersized for what we usually like at inside linebacker, but he's our best athlete at the position and is still pretty stout against the run. Having him on the field gives us a lot more flexibility in disguising our coverages and using our dime/nickel sub packages without giving up a lot inside.

Every single matchup in this game favors the Tide. Which matchup favors Alabama the most?

Offensive line vs. the Auburn front seven. Lemonier looked like he was going to be a world beater early in the season but has really fallen off lately, and even though Dee Ford has been quietly solid, unless Lemonier wakes up and has a great game on the other end, he won't be near as effective. Daren Bates is a great linebacker, but honestly, I can't name another Auburn LB beyond "the one with the hair," so...

Is there anything at all Auburn may be able to take advantage of?

Our special teams play has been pretty nerve-wracking for several seasons now, and a KO return TD in last year's Iron Bowl had y'all right back in it to start the second half, so if we sputter on offense for any significant stretch, there's a real opportunity for Auburn to win a good old fashioned "defense and special teams" kind of game.

How will the game play out? Do you see Auburn rising up and keeping it close? Will Saban try to run up the score and truly embarrass the Tigers? How confident are you in Tide domination? Care to predict the final score?

I think it will play out a lot like last year's game. Y'all have nothing to lose, and ruining our season after getting the miracles we needed to be back in the BCS hunt would at least put a cherry on top of a horrendously bad season, so I'm expecting Chizik to just throw everything he possibly can at us and hope for some "cheap" scores early to keep it close going into the second half. I'm reasonably sure this is going to be a blowout by the end of the game, again much like last season, but all AU needs are a few big-hitter plays to keep things interesting, and unfortunately, we've shown an ability to allow those these last few weeks. Saban won't run up a score, i.e. leave the starters in the whole game and keep throwing for the end zone, but he's smart enough to understand both the nature of rivalry games AND the fact that a struggling performance here will give voters an excuse to move Alabama down again in the polls, so I'm sure he'll want to win as convincingly as possible without obviously trying to score late for no other reason than to run it up.

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