Get ready for a close, hard-edged Iron Bowl

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For all the annoying mismatches college football slaps on us (from Notre Dame’s opener with Temple to Florida State hosting Bethune-Cookman and Nick Saban griping about fans leaving early from Alabama-Georgia State), once or twice a year we get a matchup from heaven.

Auburn, Ala., of all places, is presenting just such a celestial treasure this Saturday (3:30 Eastern), in something called, of all things, the Iron Bowl.

This is the first time this season that any of the top four teams in the country get to play each other.  It hugely adds to the appeal that they’re the fiercest of intrastate rivals:  No. 1 Alabama, 11-0, visits No. 4 Auburn, 10-1.

Tickets are running $300-$600 and upwards for a seat in Jordan-Hare Stadium, located in a town of 59,000 that bills itself, a bit hyperbolically, as “the loveliest city on the Plains.”

It may not seem important any other time, but right now it’s the epicenter of the college football universe.  There will be 87,000 people, many of them well fueled, to indulge in one of college football’s oldest rivalries.  The Tigers have been facing the Crimson Tide almost every year since 1893.

The annual event used to be in Birmingham, a major producer of  iron and steel.  Which is why Auburn coach Shug Jordan in the 1970s began calling it the Iron Bowl.  The name stays even though the game left Birmingham and undersized Legion Field, barely half of Jordan-Hare.

Alabama, being the larger of the state’s two largest universities, leads the series, but the margin is surprisingly close, 42-34-1.  And Auburn fans, whose mascot, curiously, is not a tiger but a war eagle, have to go back only to 2010 to cite their greatest triumph.  That year the Tigers, with Cam Newton quarterbacking an offense designed by Gus Malzahn, beat the defending national champions to set up their own national championship.

Many see this happening again, in an Iron Bowl with similar ingredients.  For one,    Malzahn, 48, now the head coach.  And while Newton stars in the NFL, the current Tigers quarterback, Nick Marshall, can do most of what his Heisman-winning predecessor could do.

Like Newton, Marshall has a strong arm and exceptionally fast legs.  He’s a dual quarterback of the highest order, throwing 185 times, running 123, averaging 8.3 yards per pass, 6.7 per run.   Although not a thread-the-needle passer like Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Marshall is at least as good a deep thrower, and he’s a breakaway running threat off the edge.

Mahlzan’s offence is one of the most multifaceted in the sport, horizontally and vertically, and is even more physically dominating than Alabama’s.  In total yardage, Auburn averages 499.9 yards per game to Bama’s 448.8.   Never before – not even in the national championship year – has Mahlzan had so many explosive weapons to fire at a defense. 

While Marshall smoothly executes the zone read to make big plays on the edge, the core of the offense is the inside running of Tre Mason.  He and Alabama’s T.Y. Yeldon are having equally fine seasons:  1,153 yards, 5.5 average, 17 TDs for Mason, to 1,022 yards, 6.2 per rush and 12 TDs for Yeldon.

Gary Danielson, who will be in the CBS booth, said on the Tim Brando Show that Auburn can match up to Alabama physically, which could be an unsettling shock to the Tide.

“Alabama gets frustrated when teams move the ball on them,” said Danielson, a former NFL quarterback.   “If Auburn can make first downs running the ball, they have a chance to win this football game.”

If Auburn, No. 2 in the nation in rushing (320.3 yards per game), can pound the ball – as Mississippi State and LSU were sometimes able to do against the Tide – Marshall can beat a secondary that is considered Alabama’s weakness.

Although Bama’s Amari Cooper was a preseason All-America, Auburn’s Sammie Coates is more productive, catching 30 balls for 687 yards and 5 touchdowns.   At 6-2, Coates is tall as well as fast and all but impossible to cover.

Almost as dangerous a weapon – and one of the most versatile wide receivers in the sport — is the 215-pound Ricardo Louis.  He blocks hard when he’s not carrying the ball on one of Mahlzan’s trademark plays – the “speed sweep.”

Louis, who caught a Hail Mary deflection to beat Georgia in his last game, has gained 161 yards with his 13 speed sweeps.  He’s also caught 23 passes for 291 yards and 2 TDs.

Las Vegas has Alabama favored by 10 points, but that might be a stretch.   Public perception has not caught up to Auburn, which was 3-9 last year and was expected to struggle for .500 this year.

Indeed, the Tigers’ season has its Cinderella quality, considering how far the program skidded two years ago.  Following the 2010 national title, Mahlzan left, along with several other Auburn assistants who clashed with head coach Gene Chizik.

While Mahlzan was coaching at Arkansas State in 2011, Marshall was a freshman at Georgia, which recruited him in both football and basketball.  The Bulldogs, who had Aaron Murray and other top-rated quarterback prospects, wanted Marshall to play cornerback.  “He’d be an all-conference type,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

But last year Marshall was kicked off the team for stealing from a teammate, so he transferred to Auburn, which this year brought Mahlzan in to replace the fired Chizik.

No one could have predicted that in his first year on the job, Mahlzan would take his young and rebuilding team to the brink of a national title.

Mahlzan acknowledges that Alabama is “the best team in the country.”   But he sees his own closing the gap on its Southeastern Conference rival.  “We’ve improved each week,” he said.  “We’re playing at home, and if it’s a close game I like our chances.”

Saban, who can sound cocky at times, is deferential about Auburn:  “They create a lot of issues and a lot of problems.  They have good receivers that can make plays down the field when you try to load up on them.”

As always, Saban will want to control the game on the ground.  But he may not be able to do that.  Danielson said “it’s going to be hard to wear down Auburn’s defense, because they play so many different players, and their front is underrated.”

To win, Saban may have to do what he seldom does:  call on McCarron, his 69% passer, to pick at a less than stout secondary.  Although the humble McCarron never mentions the Heisman Trophy, this is his opportunity to show he deserves it.

Chances are that McCarron, who draws comparison to Tom Brady for his size, arm, sound mechanics, intelligence and confidence, will be up to a challenge that so rarely comes his way

In college football, where emotions are much more a factor than in pro ball, the winning team is usually the one that plays with fearless abandon while maintaining focus on each split second of every play.  The winners stay poised and hang onto the ball.

“Early in the game,” Danielson said, “the pressure will all be with Alabama.  Auburn will be the loose team.  But if it gets to the fourth quarter, just like against Georgia, Auburn will start to realize what the win could mean if they’re in the game.  And the pressure will shift dramatically over to Auburn.  And they did not handle it well the last time, against Georgia.”

With its big-time experience and superior linebacking, Alabama should win.  But this figures to be a dramatic, well played, brilliantly coached game, offenses slightly outplaying defenses, closer than 10 points.

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