Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson doesn’t have to be a soothsayer to predict what the Iron Bowl will be like.
The sixth-ranked Tigers (9-2, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) host No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0) Saturday in a rivalry game that always captivates the state , but this time it’s all dressed up with national championship implications. The winner faces No. 7 Georgia in the SEC title game and bolsters its playoff chances, though it’s possible the Crimson Tide could still get in even with a loss.
“It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere,” said Johnson, Auburn’s star tailback. “It should be one for the ages, but we’ve got to come out and play because if we don’t we’ll lose. We’ve got to protect the ball. We’ve got to limit our penalties. We’ve got to execute, and I’m confident that we’ll come out on top if we do that.”
The last two times both teams had such high stakes going into this game turned out to be ones “for the ages,” that’s for sure:
—In 2013, No. 4 Auburn beat No. 1 Alabama 34-28 on a last-play, 109-yard return of a missed field goal by Auburn cornerback Chris Davis. The Tigers went on to win an SEC title and lose on a touchdown by Florida State with 13 seconds left in the national championship game.
—In 2010, the ninth-ranked Tide had a great chance to dash No. 2 Auburn’s national title aspirations. Alabama jumped ahead 24-0 only to watch eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton lead the Tigers back for a 28-27 win . It was the biggest deficit any team had overcome against the Tide, and it catapulted Auburn to its first national title since 1957.
Alabama has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 entering the last six Iron Bowls and eight of nine. Auburn has only been ranked in the Top 10 going into the regular season finale once since 2010, and that was in 2013.
‘Bama linebacker Rashaan Evans, who attended Auburn High School and was heavily recruited by both schools, was at that 2013 game.
“Things like that are going to happen in the game of football,” Evans said. “Something crazy is always happening. For us, all we can do is just look forward and not really think about those things but understand that we have a lot of control over our outcome in the game and if we do all the right things, good things will happen.”
Both teams took care of business in mismatches Saturday. Alabama beat FCS Mercer 56-0 while Auburn topped Louisiana-Monroe 42-14 in a game that was competitive in the first half.
The Tigers were coming off a 40-17 win over Georgia, another team that came in at No. 1 in the playoff rankings. Alabama was No. 1 in the playoff ratings and Auburn was sixth.
This might turn out to not be an absolute must-win for Alabama, though coach Nick Saban isn’t one to leave anything to chance. It definitely is for the Tigers, the highest-ranked two-loss team while No. 5 Wisconsin is unbeaten.
“It’s really important,” Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “We know what’s at stake, they know what’s at stake. We expect our best to be played, and they expect to have their best to be played so we’ll see who comes out on top.”
Alabama has won the last three Iron Bowl meetings by an average of 19 points. The Tide brings in a scoring streak of 49 consecutive quarters, the longest stretch in FBS since 2005.
Auburn has won four straight games since a loss to LSU with a resurgent offense led by Johnson and quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Tigers have scored 176 points in those four games, an average of 44 per game.
This is the first Iron Bowl for Stidham, a Baylor transfer.
“It is a very big deal, and it is a very big deal to us, but at the same time you cannot get too caught up in the moment,” he said. “You have to really just hunker down, lock in and focus on your job going play to play and not looking too far ahead. Obviously there is a lot of legacy within this rivalry, but we are going to try to play for our teammates and everyone else that has worn the jersey before us.”
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum contributed to this report in Auburn, Alabama.