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Stakes are rare as 'Bama-Auburn rivalry sizzles again

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I often get asked about the best rivalries in college football. And when someone asks I'll rattle off the usual suspects: Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma, Georgia-Florida. On purpose, I never mention Auburn-Alabama.

"What about Auburn-Alabama?" they will eventually ask.

My answer is simple: You asked about football rivalries. Auburn-Alabama is much, much more than a football rivalry. It is a cultural war. The two sides simply use football to fight it.

"There is nothing like it -- nothing even close," said Bill Curry, who was the head coach at Alabama from 1987-89.

Former Alabama coach Gene Stallings (1990-97), who won a national championship with the Crimson Tide in 1992, summed it up perfectly:

"They talk about the Alabama-Auburn game on Thanksgiving. They talk about it on Christmas. They talk about it on New Year's Day. They talk about it on the Fourth of July. The people of Alabama talk about it 365 days a year. And unless you have lived in the state you could not possibly understand."

The late Jim Fyffe was a native of Kentucky who became a part of the rivalry when he started as Auburn's radio voice in 1981.

"If you are born in the state there is no middle ground. You have to be for Auburn or for Alabama," said Fyffe, who died unexpectedly in 2003. "If you move in, like I did, you have to declare."

That cultural war unlike any other will be played out again in all its glory on Friday, when No. 2 Auburn (11-0) goes to No. 11 Alabama (9-2). This cannot be overstated: For Auburn everything -- simply everything -- is on the line. If the Tigers win they will be one step away from playing for the BCS national championship. Granted, that's a big step as Auburn will still have to beat Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in next week's SEC Championship Game in Atlanta in order to go to Glendale.

Alabama will enter the game knowing that it can't defend its SEC championship or its national championship. But it can put a serious dent in what has been a dream season for its bitter in-state rival, the school they refer to as "little brother." In short, if Alabama can't win the national championship, denying Auburn a shot at it is the next best thing if you wear Crimson.

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And you'll just have to trust me when I tell you this: If Auburn wins the SEC championship next week but loses to Alabama on Friday, there will be real a sense of emptiness. The Tigers might be conference champions but Alabama will be able to say for the next 365 days that it beat them -- again. My goodness, that is so big in that state.

If that wasn't enough drama to make this game huge, it will also be played against the backdrop of an ongoing NCAA investigation into the recruiting of Cameron Newton, Auburn's star quarterback. There have been allegations that Newton's father, Cecil, was at the very least trying to determine the market value of his son, who transferred from Blinn College in Texas in order to play for Auburn this season.

Since the story broke in early November, the speculation has run hot that rules were broken by someone, somewhere. Auburn maintains that absent any firm evidence (and right now none has been made public) that Newton or Auburn did anything wrong, the quarterback will continue to play. That fact certainly hasn't kept fans of opposing schools from filling up the air waves and chat rooms with charges that something ain't quite right.

So when it comes to drama, Friday's game at Bryant-Denny Stadium may be one for the ages.

"I've been watching this rivalry for a long time and I'm not sure we've ever had anything quite like this," said Paul Finebaum, the host of an incredibly popular sports talk show that is syndicated throughout the state. "Alabama can't win the national championship but could keep Auburn from winning it. It's going to be something."

If Trent Richardson and Alabama can't win the national title, then the next best thing is denying Auburn a shot. (US Presswire)  
If Trent Richardson and Alabama can't win the national title, then the next best thing is denying Auburn a shot. (US Presswire)  
I've been asked by more than one person if this has a chance to be the most dramatic Auburn-Alabama game ever. I could feel differently come late Friday night, but right now I don't think so.

That distinction belongs to the Auburn-Alabama game on Dec. 2, 1989. On that day Alabama was 10-0 and ranked No. 2. One more win and Alabama would go to the Sugar Bowl and have a chance to win a national championship. Auburn was 8-2 with only one loss in the SEC but could share the conference championship with a win over Alabama.

What made that game special was that it was the first time in the history of the series that Alabama had ever played at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. From 1908 to 1947 the game was not played. The reasons why are in dispute, as you might imagine. But when the rivalry was renewed in 1948 it was anchored in Birmingham, a supposedly "neutral" site.

Alabama's Bear Bryant ruled the state with an iron fist and swore that his team would never, ever play at Auburn as long as he was alive.

Bryant died in January of 1983 and was replaced by Ray Perkins, who drew the same line in the sand.

But after a showdown with Auburn coach Pat Dye, who was also the school's athletic director, Alabama relented and finally agreed to come to Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1989. Auburn beat Alabama 30-20 and denied Alabama a shot at the national championship.

That day I saw grown men wearing Auburn colors cry before and after the game. It was simply the most emotional afternoon I have ever seen in my time covering college football.

How big was that loss for Alabama? Bill Curry was the coach in 1989 and I was told before the season that if Curry was 10-1 and the one loss was to Auburn, that Alabama would have a new coach in 1990. The following season Curry was the head coach at Kentucky and Gene Stallings was the head coach at Alabama.

I got a call the other day from an Alabama fan reminding me that Friday in Tuscaloosa the Crimson Tide will be looking for payback for that loss 21 years ago.

"We have long memories," he said.

Yes they do. That is why there is no other game like Auburn-Alabama.

Watch the Tony Barnhart Show each Tuesday at 9 p.m. on the CBS College Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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