Unless you’re a resident of one particular state, you’re going to resent this. I know you are. I can already tell.
Probably because you’ve heard it before from various radio pundits and televised talking heads. But what’s one more time among friends?
The Alabama-Auburn football rivalry is the greatest in college football. There, I said it. The question is, do you believe it?
Well, allow me to convince you, with a technique we in the sports-writing game like to refer to as a “list.” Below are five reasons the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry is the greatest in college sports.
(If you’re from the state of Alabama, you probably don’t need convincing. I invite you to read this article anyway, all the while nodding along knowingly):
1. There are no major professional sports team in Alabama
The old joke that there are three seasons in Alabama — football season, spring football season and recruiting season — isn’t really that far from the truth.
Think of the other great rivalries in college sports: Ohio State vs. Michigan, Georgia vs. Florida, Texas vs. Oklahoma, even North Carolina vs. Duke basketball — all those states have professional sports teams within their borders. The college rivalries might or might not be the biggest thing going in their particular city or region, but they still have to compete for spectators, media attention and television eyeballs with the professional sports teams.
It’s even different from many states in the South. Fans in Alabama don’t have the Saints to salve their wounds on Sunday if their college team loses on Saturday, the way their counterparts in Louisiana do. They don’t have the Braves to keep their minds occupied during the summer, as is the case with their brethren in Georgia. They don’t have the NBA as a winter distraction the way they do in Orlando, or the NHL to re-channel their sports fan energy like in Nashville.
Alabama does have a handful of minor-league baseball teams, and Birmingham has a lower-level soccer club team that is growing in popularity. But those are merely nice off-season diversions, a good way to enjoy some cheap entertainment in the outdoors, not anything to be taken all that seriously.
No, in Alabama it’s college football — and specifically Alabama vs. Auburn — 12 months and 365 days a year. The Iron Bowl rivalry is often compared to a religion, only many people in the state take it much more seriously than that.
And that’s because it’s usually the only game in town. Sure, the other colleges in the state — South Alabama, Troy and UAB among them — have their following, but most of them also have an allegiance to either Auburn or Alabama.
The football coach at the University of Alabama is the most-recognized person in the state, whether that’s Bear Bryant, Nick Saban or Mike Shula. He’s typically more powerful than the governor, more influential than any civic or religious leader.
Auburn’s coach is a distant second, but he’s still second. And on occasion, as in the case of Pat Dye or Tommy Tuberville, he’s able to flip that dynamic for a while.
2. The rivalry is contained entirely within one state
We listed three great college football rivalries in addition to the Iron Bowl above — Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma and Florida-Georgia. Each of them is heated, competitive and relevant in its own way, but what they don’t have is proximity.
Sure, those states share borders and sometimes media markets (including Dallas for Texas-Oklahoma and Jacksonville for Florida-Georgia). But the fans don’t generally live and work with each other 365 days a year.
If you’re an Ohio State fan living in Cleveland, you probably don’t hear much about Michigan throughout the year. And you certainly don’t have to hear from their fans if your team is unfortunate enough to lose to the Wolverines during football season.
A Georgia fan in Atlanta doesn’t have to think about Florida in March; she’s not bombarded with orange and blue or the Gator chomp everywhere she goes. She doesn’t have to read about Florida in local news coverage or hear about the Gators from the gal in the next cubicle.
That’s not the case with Alabama-Auburn. Crimson Tide and Tiger fans are right on top of each other all year long. They share workplaces, churches and even the same home on occasion (though such so-called “mixed marriages” are an ill-advised concept).
Yes, there are other great intrastate rivalries — Florida-Florida State, Mississippi State-Ole Miss, Kentucky-Louisville among them — but they simply don’t hold up to the Iron Bowl. Florida State isn’t even Florida’s most-hated rival; that’s Georgia.
Mississippi State-Ole Miss is an all-consuming rivalry, there is little doubt, but those teams are rarely competitive at the same time. Kentucky-Louisville … well, that’s mainly about basketball. Does that even count?
3. The game usually has national relevance
Every season since 2008 — a streak that has reached 11 years and counting — either Alabama or Auburn has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 nationally on the day of the Iron Bowl. That means the winner of the game stands a good chance of remaining in the national championship race, or vaulting into it.
Three times in that same span, both teams have been ranked in the Top 10 nationally. On those occasions, the Iron Bowl has acted as a de facto elimination game, with the winner headed to the SEC championship game to play what amounts to a College Football Playoff play-in game.
In 10 of the last 11 years, the winner of the Iron Bowl has won the SEC West championship (LSU in 2011 is the only team to break that streak, though Alabama won the national championship that season). The Iron Bowl winner also won the national championship in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2017, and played for it in 2013 and 2018.
And it’s not as if it’s only Alabama that has parlayed the Iron Bowl into a championship run. Auburn won the game in 2010, 2013 and 2017, winning the national title in the first year, playing for it in the second and falling in the SEC championship game in the third.
The game’s championship relevance is a big reason why the Iron Bowl has been on national television in the CBS mid-afternoon or ESPN primetime slot every year since 1994, which is a span of a quarter-century. Television executives know that casual fans care about the Iron Bowl too.
4. There have been so many fantastic finishes
Though the better team nearly always wins the Iron Bowl, it has been an incredibly even series in the last three-plus decades. Since Bryant retired following the 1982 season, Alabama and Auburn have each won the Iron Bowl exactly 18 times.
There have been streaks — Auburn won four straight from 1986 to 1989 and six in a row from 2002 to 2007, while Alabama has won four of the last five. But to Auburn’s credit, every time it seems like Alabama is going to run away with the rivalry, the Tigers pull off an incredible, heart-stopping victory.
In 1972, Auburn’s David Langner scored two touchdowns in the final minutes — both on blocked punts by Bill Newton — to knock off heavily favored Alabama 17-16. It would be the Crimson Tide’s only SEC loss in a five-year span from 1971 to 1975.
In 1984, four-win Alabama scored a 17-15 upset when blocking back Bo Jackson ran the wrong way, leaving teammate Brent Fullwood exposed for a game-saving tackle by the Crimson Tide’s Rory Turner. The following year, Alabama won 25-23 on Van Tiffin’s last-second, 52-yard field goal in a game that featured four lead changes in the fourth quarter.
Alabama won 26-21 in 2009 on a final-minute touchdown pass from Greg McElroy to Roy Upchurch, keeping the team’s national title hopes alive. Auburn won 28-27 in 2010 behind Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton after trailing 24-3 at halftime, keeping Auburn’s national title hopes alive.
And then there was 2013, which might be the most fantastic finish in college football history. After Saban successfully argued to have one second put back on the clock at the end of regulation, Auburn’s Chris Davis returned a missed 57-yard field goal by Adam Griffith 109 yards for the winning touchdown in a 34-28 Tigers victory forever immortalized as the “Kick Six.”
Big wins in the Iron Bowl get their own nickname — “Punt Bama Punt,” “Wrong Way Bo,” “The Kick,” “The Camback” and the “Kick Six.” Say those words around an Alabama or Auburn fan and there will be little confusion as to which game you are talking about.
5. The fans are crazy, even for college football
Fanaticism is not necessarily the most admirable quality for one to possess, but it does speak to the intensity of the Iron Bowl rivalry.
In addition to routine verbal altercations, sporadic post-game fistfights and occasional acts of homicide, Alabama and Auburn supporters have engaged in various forms of creative retribution over the years. When the rivalry resumed in 1948 after a four-decade dormancy, the two sides made a big show of burying the hatchet — burying an actual hatchet at a park in Birmingham.
It didn’t take.
In the early 1990s, Auburn was hit with major NCAA sanctions — including the aforementioned television ban — stemming from payments to players. At the center of this was defensive back Eric Ramsey, who caught an Auburn assistant coach and a booster on tape offering him gifts of cash and merchandise.
Corky Frost — the Auburn booster who was caught up in the scandal — was so angered by the NCAA ruling that he made up his mind to drag Alabama down with the Tigers. He allegedly convinced former Alabama player Gene Jelks, who was disgruntled over being moved from running back to cornerback late in his college career, to help him.
Jelks recorded a phone call with former Alabama assistant Jerry Pullen, in which he claimed to have been paid cash while still in high school. Pullen later sued Jelks, who recanted.
It was too late. Jelks’ allegations resulted in an NCAA investigation that eventually saw Alabama stripped of a number of victories in 1993 and banned from a bowl in 1995, largely for other offenses.
But that incident pales in comparison to the saga of Harvey Updyke.
Updyke, a lifelong Alabama fan, was so incensed at Auburn’s 28-27 victory in the 2010 Iron Bowl — along with some misconceptions he had about Tiger fan behavior over the years — that he committed an act so egregious that he’s become a pariah on both sides of the rivalry. In the middle of the night that December, Updyke poisoned Auburn’s treasured Toomer’s Corner oak trees with an industrial strength pesticide, then went on Paul Finebaum’s radio show — which was broadcast to a statewide and regional audience — to brag about it.
It was a story that shocked and disgusted the college football world, landed Updyke in jail and apparently ruined him financially. It’s a cautionary tale of fanaticism, but also one that speaks to the intensity — and borderline insanity — of the Iron Bowl rivalry.
Sorry we got a little sober there at the end. I’d like to be able to tell you that we all learned a lesson from Harvey Updyke, that we in Alabama no longer take football as seriously as we once did.
But that wouldn’t be the truth. There’s simply too much day-to-day relevance, too much history, too much proximity, too many great games and legendary names for us to quit the Iron Bowl rivalry now.
We’re fans after all, a term that is short for “fanatic.” And that will continue to be true as long as there is a University of Alabama Crimson Tide, as long as there are Auburn Tigers and as long as there is college football.
It’s what we’re known for throughout the country at this point. It’s our brand — for (mostly) better or for (every once in a while) worse.
Creg Stephenson has covered football for more than 25 years for a variety of publications in the Southeast. He lives in Theodore, Alabama (very near a Rouses Market, as a matter of fact), and writes for AL.com.