Iron Bowl 2017: Why Alabama vs. Auburn game may be biggest in rivalry history

When No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Auburn tee it up Saturday afternoon on The Plains, the Iron Bowl will decide the winner of the SEC West for just the second time in the rivalry's history.

At the end of the last, Auburn defensive back/punt returner Chris Davis ran 109 yards after fielding a missed field goal into the Alabama end zone and into college football immortality. 

It's naive to think that this year's version of the Iron Bowl can match the excitement of the "Kick Six" that propelled Auburn to the SEC Championship Game and eventually the BCS National Championship Game. But the stakes are the same, which automatically puts it into the discussion of the most important Iron Bowls ever.

The difference between this one and the 2013 edition is the fact that Auburn still needed to win the SEC Championship Game and get some help in the form of a Michigan State upset of Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game to earn a berth in the BCS Championship Game.

"The easiest comparison is 2013," Rod Bramblett, radio voice of the Tigers, told CBS Sports. "That's as close in magnitude that I can think of. The biggest difference for Auburn is that, unlike in 2013, the Tigers know if they win the next two weeks ... they are playing in the semis of the College Football Playoff. So in terms of history of this rivalry, I think it would be top two or three all time. Now if there's another 'Kick Six' at the end of this one, all bets are off."

On the Alabama side, it's a chance for coach Nick Saban to not only etch his name further in the Crimson Tide record books but avenge the ghosts of one of the greatest plays in college football history.

"If this game lives up to the hype -- and I think it will -- we could be talking about the most important Iron Bowl in history," said Ryan Fowler, host of the 102.9 "The Game" in Tuscaloosa. "Nick Saban has a chance to beat Auburn for the fourth consecutive time, which has not happened since the Paul "Bear" Bryant years when Alabama reeled off nine straight from 1973-81."

What, specifically, sets this one apart? Everything is on the line between two proven and complete football teams.

In 2013, Alabama was the 900-pound gorilla in college football looking for its third consecutive national title, but Auburn was the upstart with a creative offense and very little defense. The Tigers finished the season ranked 12th in the SEC in total defense (420.7 yards per game), 10th in opponent yards per play (5.96) and ninth in scoring defense (24.7 points per game).

This year's Tigers defense ranks in the top four in the SEC and top 10 nationally in each category. 

This isn't David vs. Goliath. It's Goliath vs. Goliath.

It always gets nasty in the trenches at the Iron Bowl. USATSI

"This game has to be top five in the history of the rivalry based on implications," former Auburn center and current SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic said. "There are scenarios for each or both teams coming out with a chance to play for a national title. I think the potential dominoes of how this game play out could fall past the field of play as well."

One of those dominoes is the status of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who is rumored to be the No. 1 target of Arkansas should it decide to part ways with current coach Bret Bielema. 

This game has more on the line than any of its predecessors. That sets it apart from 2013, 1989, 1971 and all of the rest. 

In 1989, when Alabama traveled to Auburn for the first time after a prolonged behind the scenes struggle, it meant a lot to fans of the Tigers, and their win over No. 2 Alabama knocked the Tide out of a potential shot at a national title while earning the Tigers a third straight SEC title. But that was it for the two-loss Tigers, who went on to beat Ohio State in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

In 1971, when the two teams entered play undefeated and untied for the only time in the series' history, No. 3 Alabama throttled No. 5 Auburn and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Pat Sullivan 31-7. But it was overshadowed by an even bigger game two days earlier on Thanksgiving between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma -- a game that decided the Big Eight title. The Cornhuskers won an instant classic 35-31 and went on to beat Alabama for the national title in the Orange Bowl 38-6.

The stakes in that matchup were similar, but you've never had an era quite like this in the state of Alabama.

The winner of the Iron Bowl has gone on to play in the meaningful college football postseason (BCS National Championship Game or College Football Playoff) every year since 2009. If Alabama wins, it could change the direction of Auburn. If Auburn wins, it'll prove that Malzahn can consistently move the program past simply being relevant during some point in November and elevate into a national power.

When you're discussing the best Iron Bowls of all time, it's like choosing between $50 steaks at a nice steakhouse. You're not going to be wrong whatever you go with. It's just a matter of taste.

The 2017 Iron Bowl has the most flavor. 

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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