Auburn has owned its bitter Iron Bowl rivalry with Alabama over the last five years. Nick Saban was hired to help end that dominance.
The 25th-ranked Tigers look to make it six wins in a row over the Crimson Tide on Saturday in Saban’s first game coaching in this long-time, intrastate feud.
Saban, hired in January, was brought to Alabama to win SEC championships and compete for national titles, but perhaps the most pressing matter was the Crimson Tide’s five-game losing streak to hated Auburn (7-4, 4-3).
Alabama (6-5, 4-3), though, appears far from ready to end the slide as it heads into Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Saban’s team has dropped its last three games, including a humiliating 21-14 home loss last Saturday to Louisiana-Monroe, currently the fourth-best team in the Sun Belt Conference and a 24 1/2-point underdog coming in.
“I’m certainly not pleased the way we represented that tradition,” said Saban, whose annual contract pays him $4 million per year. “We did all the things in this football game that get you beat regardless of who you play.”
Four turnovers and a blocked field goal helped give the WarHawks the victory in Tuscaloosa despite Alabama outgaining Louisiana-Monroe 409-282.
But perhaps sending a message before what will be viewed as his biggest game thus far at Alabama, Saban chose not to simply move on from his team’s shocking loss.
“Changes in history usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event,” Saban said during the opening remarks of his weekly news conference. “It may be 9-11, which sort of changed the spirit of America relative to catastrophic events. Pearl Harbor kind of got us ready for World War II, or whatever, and that was a catastrophic event.”
Alabama certainly appears to be regressing in Saban’s first season at the helm. The tailspin began with a loss in his first game against his former team, blowing a fourth-quarter lead in a 41-34 loss to then-No. 3 LSU.
Quarterback John Parker Wilson had three touchdown passes for a second straight game in that defeat, but has been off in his last two starts, throwing four interceptions and only one TD pass.
“I think (the Louisiana-Monroe loss) was pretty embarrassing,” Wilson said. “We let a lot of people down. We shouldn’t have lost. We’re Alabama. We’re supposed to win, and we’re not doing it right now.”
Alabama will be getting five players back for this game - starting offensive linemen Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis and No. 2 rusher Glen Coffee, along with reserve defensive backs Chris Rogers and Marquis Johnson. The players had been suspended four games each for improper receipt of textbooks.
Auburn has had a week off to prepare for the Crimson Tide, and extra time to heal from the 45-20 rout they suffered at the hands of Georgia on Nov. 10.
It’s been an up-and-down season for coach Tommy Tuberville’s team, highlighted by knocking off then-undefeated Florida in Gainesville and nearly toppling LSU in Baton Rouge. But the Tigers also have lost home games to unranked South Florida and Mississippi State, and while those BCS conference teams aren’t as unknown as Louisiana-Monroe, Tuberville can identify with Alabama’s latest loss, particularly after his team’s defeat to Georgia.
“It’s two teams that are not coming off great games and trying to improve,” Tuberville said. “I’ve seen it all in football. You’re going to have a lot of those if you stay in it long enough.”
Tuberville has spent the week silencing rumors he may choose to leave Auburn for Texas A&M, where he once served as defensive coordinator, should current Aggies and former Crimson Tide coach Dennis Franchione resign.
“I love Auburn. I love Auburn people,” said Tuberville, in his ninth year as head coach. “They’ve done a lot for me, and I hope we’ve done a lot for them. We’re going to be at Auburn as long as they want us here. We’re fired up about that.”
While the Tigers lead the SEC in points allowed and rank second in total defense, they have struggled on offense. Auburn is 10th in the conference with 332.0 total yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry.
Quarterback Brandon Cox has been inconsistent as well. The senior appeared to right himself after being benched for throwing six interceptions in the team’s first three games, throwing only one in his next seven contests, but he had four more in the loss to Georgia.
“Just one of those nights,” said Cox, who has not thrown for more than 200 yards in six straight games. “Their defense really got too much pressure on us.”
Alabama leads the all-time series 38-32-1. The rivalry began in 1893 and was suspended from 1907-1948 when the schools couldn’t come to an agreement concerning the game’s expenses or where the officials would come from.