By Friday night, Auburn will finish the first ten years of the new millenium either 8-2 or 7-3 against it's arch foe and will be able to plant it's orange and blue flag on the decade known as the 'O's. Although there's a real chance of finishing out 0-2, Auburn fans can excuse this by saying that the law of averages caught up with them. Alabama fans will say that Saban is in charge now and that this is what Tigers can look forward to for the next ten years. Regardless, a new dawn will be upon us and it'll all be up for grabs again in the Iron Bowl for the new decade from 2010-2019.
Most teams tend to analyze their big rivalries by the decade, but it's a bit harder for Auburn and Alabama fans for two reasons: 1) the 41-year stoppage of play between 1907 and 1948, and 2) the long shadow cast over the series by Bear Bryant. The tendency, even for Auburn fans, is to want to break it into three parts: before Bear, during, and after. But there's more to it than just one man's imprint. Even the scarcity of games played before the breakup had their own dynamic, as well as did the three decades following the tenure of arguably the greatest football coach ever. The idea of a 25-year coach is an anachronism today, much like the leather football helmet, and I doubt that we'll ever again compare rivalries in CFB solely by the span of a coach's career.
So for a look back, we're going to have a look ALL the way back. The only problem is that with the Iron Bowl, there seems to be a dispute on when the beginning began. Any Auburn fan can tell you that we helped inaugurate CFB in the deep south with the game against Georgia in 1892. Actually, that game was played in February of that year, but is widely credited as being in the 1891 season. Our real 1892 season began in November that year, as we played three games in three days and another February game in 1893, (against Alabama) comprising our four game season. For Alabama, they first started playing football in the fall of 1892, with two games in November, a third in December, and then the February game with us. That was their first season in 1892--four games. It's probably lost to history how THE University of Alabama got upstaged by the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama in bringing this new game of football to the state, but that extra nine month's preparation time might have been the difference in the beginning for the school that would become Auburn.
Now bear in mind that the game of football in the late 19th century basically bore no resemblance to the game of today. Only when the father of modern football, Walter Camp, arrived on the scene at Yale and eventually Stanford did the game begin to morph into something we would recognize today. As a result, some statistical compilers like James Howell and their subscribers like Stassen chose to only include games that started around 1902-1904. This is not correct. They should include all the games that have been played historically.
Recently, I saw a publication on the news stands made by and for Alabama fans use 1902 as the starting point for our series and 1903 for the Tennessee series, in spite of the existence of games between each school before that date. They chose the discredited practice of using these selective records for the sole purpose of boosting the series lead for their team. The correct all-time record between Auburn and Alabama now stands at 39-33-1, Alabama. Using their assumption that the series didn't start until 1902, that would bring it to 38-28-1, which takes five wins out of Auburn's column and only one out of theirs. This is Alabama statistical meddling at it's next-to-worst, with worst being their MNC tabulations. But why wouldn't you factor in the earlier games that were played? They might argue feebly that the games were exhibitions, were not played against varsity teams, and that football was not yet a sanctioned sport. Is that really true?
Alabama was one of the founding members of the SIAA, the very first athletic conference in the nation, that was formed in late 1894, not for gymnastics, but for football. Would they really go ahead and join such an organization only to play exhibitions for the next EIGHT years? Besides, the University itself claims that football started with the 1892 season. But the most telling evidence of all is the picture of Alabama's first football team in 1892:
Notice that U A on the jerseys? Do you think they represented an intramural team? Nor do I. Case closed. Let's begin the begin--all the games should be counted, revisionists be damned. No selective count like you always seem to find in Tuscaloosa in one shape, form or fashion.
1892 - 1907: Auburn, 7-4-1. A little over a decade, but a convenient place to stop before the Dark Years--the stoppage of play for 41 seasons. The only tie in the series came that last year, 1907, and probably helped fuel some of the discontent that led to the stoppage. The fact that we played two games in Tuscaloosa during this time, four in Montgomery and the rest in Birmingham was probably the primary reason. Little else can be gleaned from this period other than the record. Football was still in it's infacy, but it was being played. Both teams were still members of the SIAA and Auburn even won a conference crown in 1900.
1908-1947: The Dark Years. No games played. During this time, Alabama and Auburn remained in the same conferences, both leaping from the SIAA in 1922 to help found the Southern Conference. Alabama had five Rose Bowl appearances in the 1920s and 30s, putting southern football on the map and becoming a premier team outside the northeast and midwest. Both teams defected again from the Southern conference to start the Southeastern Conference in 1933. During this four-decade long interval, Auburn captured two SIAA conference championships and one Southern crown. Alabama racked up four Southern conference and five SEC crowns
1948-49: Tie, 2-2. Shouldn't really count for much, as the series began again for the 1948 season. That game is most notable for the 55-0 beating that Auburn took from the Tide, the largest margin of victory in the series. The decade of the 1940s, marred by many teams not fielding squads because of the war, had little of consequence for both teams. Auburn achieved no conference crowns but Alabama had one in 1945, one of Frank Thomas' last teams that went 10-0.
1950-1959: Tie, 5-5.Auburn outscored the Tide by an average of 16-12 during this decade, which was marked by the arrival of Paul Bryant for the 1958 season. Shug himself assumed head coaching duties on the Plains in 1951. Auburn won it;s first SEC title and only national title in 1957. Alabama itself won a conference title in 1953.
1960-1969: Alabama, 8-2. Alabama, under Bryant, used this decade to establish themselves as one of the dominant programs in CFB. They outscored Auburn by an average 22-10. Auburn won no conference titles in the 1960s, but Alabama won four SEC crowns and three legitimate national titles during this time, the first half of a two-decade long stretch of dominance by the Tide.
1970-1979: Alabama, 8-2. Alabama continued to roll under Bryant, who saw Shug retire after the '75 season. Bama outscored the Tigers 30-13 during the decade, which started out 2-1 for the Tigers, but ended with seven straight losses. Probably the 'dark' years for Auburn during the series, the Tigers won no conference titles. Alabama won or shared eight, along with three more national titles for Bryant. Definitely the most dominating decade by the Tide over their arch rival.
1980-1989: Auburn, 6-4. The decade that saw the final vestiges of the Bear and a new era ushered in for Auburn. After losing the first two games in the 80s to bring the streak to nine, the Tigers finally gave Bryant a retirement gift, a loss in his final Iron Bowl. The series went back and forth with two games apiece before Auburn finally won the last four of the decade. The average score was tied, 19-19. Auburn won or shared four SEC titles during this time while Alabama had two.
1990-1999: Alabama, 7-3. Bama rebounded in 1990, under the steady hand of Gene Stallings, who gave the Tide coaching stability for a brief interval. Dye was gone after 1992, and a new conference championship system was brought in with divisional play, ensuring no more split titles. Alabama was dominant in the early part of the 90s, while Auburn had some success under Terry Bowden's brief span. Alabama won two outright SEC crowns and won their 7th legitimate national title in 1992. Alabama outscored Auburn on average 21-16.
2000-2008: Auburn, 7-2. Under Tommy Tuberville, Auburn had success early and often, building a six game streak against Alabama for the first time ever. Alabama suffered it's worst coaching upheaval ever during this period, but felt they righted the ship under Nick Saban. The average score was again dead even, 17-17. In 2004, Auburn won it's first SEC title since conference realignment, but Alabama has yet to win an SEC crown, which could mark the first decade in 80 years that they have failed to do so. They'll get a chance to do that in Atlanta on December 5th.
There's no disputing Alabama's conference and national championships. They certainly outclass us in that department and there is no dispute, However, to hear their average fan tell it, they should dominate us in every aspect. But they don't. Not on the field, when we play one on one. For all their historic accomplishments, they only bat 54% when it comes to playing us. That equals a losing percentage of 46%. There's no other bitter, contested intrastate rivalry in CFB that's this close. That's why they loathe us so much--because they can't shake us. For all that the Bear did for them , they still had a losing record against us before he showed up and a losing record since he left. What does that mean in relation to the rest of their accolades? That's something that only Alabama can answer. But the day when we finally pass them again in the all-time series record will be a day of reckoning: How can you be the best team in all of CFB if you're only the second best team in your state?