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High Stakes Poker Game Taking Place In Alabama

By Jay Coulter

Few would argue that this year’s off season has been one of the more interesting in recent state history. Most of the media coverage has been aimed at one program and one person in particular, new Alabama coach Nick Saban.

It’s hard to turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without reading what Saban had for lunch today.

Without playing a game, the state media and Alabama fans have proclaimed the Tide is back. How many times have we heard that?

If you’re an outsider and new to the state, you probably don’t know that Auburn has won 21 of its last 24 SEC games and is riding a 33-5 record over the past three years.

How big is the Saban hiring at Alabama? It landed Saban on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week in a glowing article about him coming to save one of college football’s crown jewels. In a first for a national magazine, it let one of the university’s own professors write the article.

No I’m not kidding.  Rick Bragg is a professor of writing at Alabama.

This reminds me of the local weekly newspaper in my hometown that let’s political candidates write their own stories during an election. I expect it here, but not in New York City.

Mention this to any Auburn person and you get the same response – a shake of the head and slight laughter. It hasn’t stopped since January. Open up Friday’s USA Today and there’s Saban again, on the cover of its 2007 College Football section.

These are high stakes times for a once proud football program. Give Alabama credit. Their Sports Information Department has been mega successful this year – Saban could take lessons from them. They’ve managed to ratchet up the hype and get the entire country to buy in.

It’s not hard at Alabama. Like it or not, they are one of the storied programs of the 20th century.

Bear Bryant built a program that defined the state for more than 40 years. His legacy has also brought down most of what he worked so hard to build.

It’s like the worthless kid who inherits all the money from his rich dad. It’s just a matter of time before he blows it.

Those who run the Tide athletic program know it. The Alabama fans know it. They’ve pushed all their chips to the middle of the table – all $32 million of them and bet on one person. This is not lost on the college football world. When you are in a high stakes poker game, you get your picture on the cover of magazines.

It’s popular these days for fans to say that Auburn gets no respect. I disagree. The Tigers get plenty of respect. They’ve appeared on ESPN more than any other school in history. That doesn’t happen without national respect.

Auburn’s lack of coverage can be attributed to expectations for the coming season. Generally picked between 14th and 18th in the nation, the Tigers are not a big story this year. With road games to Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, you can’t expect fans across America to get excited about Auburn’s chances.

When Auburn is good the coverage is there.  Look back to 2003. The Tigers were picked to win the national championship by Sporting News Magazine; our running backs were on the front page of the New York Times. Nobody got more coverage than Auburn.

Tommy Tuberville’s group takes a back seat to no one – including Alabama. That’s why Tuscaloosa is putting up the big bucks. This battle has gotten away from them.

I’m amused when I talk with my Alabama friends who crow about landing one of the top high school signing classes in the country – and it’s only August. First off, that’s a bunch of crap. A commitment by a high school athlete in August is about as meaningful as a Nick Saban contract.

When talking about recruiting at Auburn and Alabama, rankings mean very little. Both schools are going to get their players. Alabama has been landing quality classes each year since Bryant’s death. So has Auburn. The difference has been coaching, not talent. Auburn and Alabama will always get its share of recruits unless they are on probation – and then they’ll just get fewer players, not less quality. There’s simply too much to go around in this part of the country.

With the arrival of Saban in Tuscaloosa and Tuberville trying to extend his domination of the SEC, where do both programs stand heading into the 2007 season?

Reality should hit Alabama pretty early. They face Arkansas, Georgia and Florida State in consecutive weeks in September. The honeymoon will end for Saban before the leaves turn. There’s little doubt Alabama will be better disciplined and better coached. Money can buy that for you. What it can’t buy is depth and that’s what wins championships and the Iron Bowl.

For Auburn it comes down to four games. We know them well. At Florida. At Arkansas. At LSU. At Georgia. This defines the season. It’s that simple... and that hard. Should the Tigers split with Florida and LSU on the road they will have an excellent chance to return to Atlanta in December.

And that will be a bargain at half the price Alabama is paying Saban.