It’s fun to watch dominance in the beginning — that is to say, the ascension to dominance. Watching LeBron go through his foible-laden paces (sweep via the Spurs, The Decision, the Dallas series) was interesting, and it made the 2012 Finals sweeter to watch, even if you absolutely despise LeBron. Here was a dude finally climbing the mountain he was theoretically put on Earth to climb. Now, two titles later and looking good for a third (depending on how you view the Pacers and the Western Conference), it’s starting to get a little boring.
You can say the same about Alabama football these days. That first run after Saban came back from his NFL experiment — 7-6 in 2007 (adjusted down later), 12-2 in 2008 with a Sugar Bowl loss, and then finally, the title over Texas (with McCoy injured). That run was fun to watch. Now it’s just a little tedious. Since the start of the 2009 season, Alabama has lost five times. They haven’t lost a bowl game in that span. Said another way, they’re 50-5 in their last 55, and have not lost a single post-season affair. Terry Saban is even lobbing shots across the bow at the Alabama fan base now; her and her husband have both referenced leaving early this year. It’s pretty much all they can talk about, because on the field, all they seem to do is win (oh, they could also talk about not going to Austin; she does that in the linked article too).
If you’re a college football fan, then, week-in-and-week-out is still a thrill ride — see that embed at the top of this post — but when it comes down to it, those are just moments. In terms of the true order of things, as in championships, that almost seems like a foregone conclusion these days. A.J. McCarron, who has been the QB for most of the back half of this run of dominance, is gone after this year; no matter, because Alabama’s 2014 class is ranked No. 1 and David Cornwell, plucked right out of Norman, Oklahoma, is a potential answer down the line. (Blake Sims is probably the next guy, though.) Alabama doesn’t rebuild; they reload. It’s all gotten mighty tedious.
So here we go — on Saturday, with the golden tonsils of Verne Lundquist on the mic, we have the next great chance for someone to topple this train: the Auburn Tigers. No. 1 vs. No. 4 in the Iron Bowl. The last time both teams were ranked top-five for the annual clash? 1971. (That one wasn’t close; Alabama rolled.) If Auburn can get a W here, they’ll advance to the SEC Championship Game. With OSU undefeated, FSU undefeated, and Auburn likely favored over the SEC East winner (Missouri or South Carolina), basically an Auburn win on Saturday would force Alabama out of the title picture (in most ways you slice the deck; crazy stuff can always happen).
So, could Auburn win?
And if so, how?
The best bet might be Nick Marshall, Auburn’s QB. This is probably one of the best longer-form reads on him out there, but to summarize: Georgia boy, basketball star, UGA CB for one season (he had five tackles, including one against Auburn!), kicked off the team for undisclosed violations (purportedly theft of money), a stop at Garden City Community College in Kansas, then back to Auburn, not expected to be the starter, probable starter Kiehl Frazier moves to safety and Marshall becomes the man under Gus Malzahn. Now they’re 10-1, marked by a major victory over A&M (embedded just above) and the improbable one over UGA (top embed), and now here comes the Iron Bowl.
To summarize: Georgia boy, once of UGA, now leads Auburn and could shift the power balance of college football by helping knock off Alabama on Saturday. Everyone knows it (here, here and here) and most of all, Nick Saban knows it:
It has been a long, winding road for Marshall — those stories are the best part of college football to me — and it’s been primarily influenced by Mark Ledford (his HS coach in Georgia), Jeff Tatum (his community college coach, who’s now in Mississippi), and Dameyune Craig. Craig was the primary recruiter of Marshall when FSU was trying to get him; this past off-season, Craig jumped to Malzahn’s staff at Auburn, and that’s a major reason Marshall ended up at Auburn coming off his year in Kansas. Craig was a former Auburn star QB himself, so he knows a bit.
The question of whether Auburn can beat Alabama is a tough one, and obviously it relies on a lot more than just Marshall — although Marshall being excellent and mistake-free would go a long way towards a potential victory. It should be noted, though — and this is a major theme of SEC football discussions over the past half-decade — that Nick Saban is not exactly the best against mobile, spread-type QBs. (He’s actually come out against speed-based games.) Consider a deeper reason: remember above, when we talked about his five losses (against, yes, 50 wins) since 2009? Three of those five Ls came in the 2010 season; those three opposing QBs were Stephen Garcia, Jordan Jefferson, and Cam Newton. You can pretty much claim the latter two are mobile, dual-threat; Garcia was second on that South Carolina 2010 team in rushing, although I wouldn’t exactly classify him as “mobile.” Saban’s other losses in the last half-decade? Jarrett Lee, Jefferson again, and Johnny Manziel. All told, you can say that the majority of his losses in the current run of dominance have come against spread-type, dual-threat QBs. In this way, Marshall does pose an issue. He’s actually only about 300 yards behind Tre Mason for the team rushing lead. Alabama is allowing only 9.6 PPG this year, but aside from Texas A&M and LSU (this year using a pocket passer!), they haven’t faced any elite offenses. Gus Malzahn may have a plan.
Regardless of what happens on the field, this is probably going to be the biggest Iron Bowl ever — and that says a lot, since the series dates back to 1893. I wanted to find some context on a top-10 battle in the Iron Bowl (I referenced the ’71 blowout as the only other top five game), and I came across this in my studies — in the ’94 Iron Bowl, both teams were ranked top 10 and it came down to literally — quite literally — a game of inches, so much so that the accepted name for this edition in the South is “The Inch Who Stole Christmas.” Stuff like this is why America loves college football.
Personally, I think Alabama is going to win. I don’t think Saban teams lose games in big spots. But personally, I’d like Auburn to win. We need a changing of the guard in CFB, and whether an Auburn win would lead to them as champs, FSU as champs, OSU as champs, etc … it might be time for something new in our lives as fans of fall Saturdays. To think that Auburn could create that situation led by a kid who once played for arguably their second-biggest rival is an amazing fact of the college football universe, but here’s to a great one on Saturday, and to the culmination of an amazing journey by young Nick Marshall. (And besides Marshall, is the most interesting story in the stadium going to be the broken silence of Gene Chizik?)