GAME OF THE WEEK: Week 13
Rece Davis | ESPN.com
In the state of Alabama, life seems to revolve around family, religion and football. Robin Thicke couldn't imagine the blurred lines between those tenets when Alabama and Auburn meet in a game the magnitude of the Iron Bowl.
This rivalry is full of landmark moments and defining games. Many carry significance beyond the playing field and into the culture of the state and fan bases. After decades of opposition to moving the game from Birmingham, Ala., the teams finally agreed to play in Auburn in 1989. Former Auburn coach Pat Dye likened it to the Berlin Wall falling. Former Auburn athletic director David Housel described it using a religious connotation: "Our people came home, came to Mecca."
Hyperbolic religious metaphors that imply the Almighty smiles more favorably on Auburn chafe Alabama fans. The Crimson Tide faithful's reverence for Bear Bryant and Nick Saban as coaching deities similarly irritate Tigers fans. Let's face it. They just don't agree on much.
For all of the memorable games in this series, few have carried the national stakes that this one does. The one that most closely aligns is the 1971 clash. Both teams were undefeated and ranked in the top five and Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan won the Heisman Trophy that year. But Alabama, in its first year running the wishbone, rolled over the Tigers 31-7 and went on to play for the national championship.
There have been countless other games in which one team was playing for a title and the other was trying to be a spoiler. There are a handful of meetings in which one was trying to keep its rival from winning an outright SEC crown or gain a share for itself.
But for the first time since the SEC split into divisions in 1992, Alabama and Auburn play for one spot in the SEC championship game. Winner take all.
Technically, if the Tigers win, the two will be SEC West regular-season co-champs. But make no mistake: This is all or nothing. Considering the national championship implications also in play, the stakes have never been higher in this series.
Auburn is second in the nation and leads the SEC in rushing, averaging 285 yards per game in conference play. Alabama has held the last three Tigers offenses designed by Gus Malzahn to at least 60 yards under their SEC average, never allowing more than 151 total yards. Absent turnovers or special teams play, Auburn will need to run the ball better than that to beat a Crimson Tide defense that has allowed only five touchdowns in the post-Johnny Football part of the season.
Watch where the Auburn running backs first take contact. The Tigers get at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage before taking a hit 31 percent of the time. That leads the conference. Alabama allows runners, on average, to get just 2 yards past the line before getting a hit on them. That also leads the SEC.
Alabama's C.J. Mosley has been brilliant at linebacker, and managing his unit's aggression early will be key.
AJ McCarron ranks 10th in the country in QBR and his importance to the Crimson Tide's offense can't be measured by the most advanced metrics. He orchestrates the running game while using his arm to keep Alabama among the most balanced offenses in the country.
Alabama seems to have used more zone runs this year, and Auburn has been vulnerable at times against the running game. If the Tigers sell out to stop the Bama ground game and dare McCarron to beat them, Alabama will have to take advantage with big plays. The Tide have the weapons to do it. Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones are dynamic threats on the outside.
Keep an eye on freshman tight end O.J. Howard in this game, too. Georgia made big plays with its tight end against Auburn. Howard is a veritable nightmare matchup for anyone.
The strength of the Tigers' defense is its pass rush, led by Dee Ford and the playmaking ability of cornerback Robenson Therezie. Veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson might choose to try to force the Tide to throw it even more than normal in hopes of getting those two guys in position to make game-changing plays.
Alabama is accustomed to playing in gargantuan, hyped games. Will Auburn feel the heat or will playing at home to cap their massive turnaround season make the Tigers feel as if they're playing with house money? The mental approach will be huge.
Bragging rights will still be earned. The consequences of losing will be felt for an entire year, but this Tide-Tigers showdown is unique. The ramifications extend well beyond the borders of the Yellowhammer State and into the national championship picture.
Once upon a time, Ohio State-Michigan was a high-stakes affair for both sides in the national landscape. But the Wolverines' rough season has reduced them to spoiler. The Buckeyes need just one more upset above them to have a shot at playing for the national championship. Michigan could salvage its season by putting an end to that dream.
The Wolverines have lost three of the past four games and are fortunate that the slide isn't worse. Michigan gains only 3.16 yards per rush, ranking 112th in the country, and to say it has a turnover problem is like saying Two Chainz is less than subtle with his lyrics.
Michigan's defense has turned in respectable numbers, but the offense has put the defense in too many bad spots. The Wolverines will have to play at a level we haven't seen from them to have a chance. Throw in some rivalry week magic and there's always a chance. But what does it say about where Michigan is right now that I'm looking forward more to Ohio State-Michigan State than I am the Buckeyes and Wolverines? I doubt I'm alone in that assessment.
Clemson's season will be defined by whether it beats South Carolina.
That's harsh for a 10-win team with one of the ACC's all-time greats at quarterback, but that's the way it is.
The Tigers face-planted in their marquee moment against Florida State. They've wilted against the Gamecocks recently, too, losing four straight in the series. They've had to endure barbs from Steve Spurrier and assertions from Jadeveon Clowney that Tajh Boyd is afraid of him.
Boyd has passed for just 339 yards and has more picks than touchdowns in three games against the Gamecocks. He's also been sacked 14 times. Now is the Tigers' chance to stand up to Cocky or face having a somewhat hollow 10-win season. Beating Georgia when the Dawgs were near full strength was a great win. But that seems like a long time ago.
South Carolina is peaking and hopeful that a Missouri stumble will land them in the SEC championship game. Both South Carolina and Clemson have BCS bowl aspirations. This game will have a tinge of nasty Saturday night, and it will be delicious.
Watch the final score of the Florida State-Florida game. Gators brass continue to insist Will Muschamp will get one more year. How would the Noles hanging a huge number on the Gators impact that thinking? How would the appearance that the Noles were trying to hold the score down affect it?
There are no Pac-12 South implications, but Ed Orgeron could make one final statement to get the USC job by beating UCLA. I would be shocked if Coach O hops aboard Traveler on a permanent basis, but he's already given Trojans AD Pat Haden something to think about. He'd make him think even harder by avenging last year's beatdown at the hands of the Bruins.
On this Thanksgiving weekend, we have a bountiful harvest of football. Overindulge. It's worth every bite.
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