By John Zenor
AP Sports Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama seniors go into their final home game sporting a gaudy record with a shot at another Southeastern Conference title and maybe a second straight national championship awaiting.
Nothing offers a lifetime supply of bragging rights at Auburn or Alabama quite like Iron Bowl success, though.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide (11-0, 7-0 SEC, No. 1 CFP) hosts No. 16 Auburn (7-2, 5-2, No. 13) Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a game that captivates much of the state for 365 days, not just 3-plus hours.
“I think this is one of the greatest rivalry games in the country,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I know it means a lot to a lot of people in this state as well as nationally and the competitors in the game probably enjoy this kind of competition, this kind of rivalry as much as any game that they play.”
‘Bama seniors carry a 48-5 record and a 23-game winning streak into this boiling cauldron of a game. They’ve also won two straight over their in-state rivals, and will face no. 13 Florida in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.
The Tigers and their fans don’t have a title shot awaiting, but crashing Bama’s party would be the next best thing.
It’s the first Iron Bowl for the Tide’s seemingly unflappable freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. Auburn has kept its starting quarterback a mystery while Sean White tries to return from a shoulder injury, but gets a huge boost with the return of tailback Kamryn Pettway.
The game features two top-10 scoring defenses, as well.
Those Alabama seniors still remember their first Iron Bowl, in 2013. That’s when Auburn won on a 109-yard return of a missed field goal on the final play, ultimately winning the SEC title and playing for a national championship.
“I think about it every time we play Auburn,” Tide defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “Kinda sucked. I feel like they took a national championship away from me. So that’s something I definitely remember and still think about every now and then.”
Some other things to look for in the Iron Bowl:
PETTWAY’S BACK: Auburn’s leading rusher, Pettway is expected to play after missing the last two games with a left leg injury. If he’s close to fully healthy, the 240-pounder gives the Tigers a bigtime physical running threat against the nation’s top run defense. “You can’t let him go north and south,” Tide safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “You’ve got to make him go east and west. When you do that, you can stop him.”
WHO’S THE QB: If White’s throwing shoulder isn’t healed enough to go, the Tigers could start Jeremy Johnson for the second straight game. Johnson is the team’s most experienced quarterback while John Franklin III is likely to play a role as well, and is a significant running threat.
OH THE PRESSURE: This game features some of the SEC’s top pass rushers, on both sides of the ball. Auburn’s Carl Lawson is tied for third in the league with nine sacks. Just behind him are Alabama’s Tim Williams (8.0), Jonathan Allen (7.0) and Ryan Anderson (6.5).
OFFENSIVE CHANGE: Alabama has adopted some quarterback runs to take advantage of freshman Jalen Hurts’ abilities and does bear more resemblance than ever to Auburn’s style. “It’s getting more and more similar each year,” Malzahn said. “Each offense is a little bit different. There’s a lot of teams in our league that doing more of spread it out, the lightning motions, the QB runs and the things off of it. Regardless, you’ve got to stop it and every offense is a little bit different.”
JUST FOR KICKS: If this game defies the oddsmakers and comes down to a field goal, Auburn’s Daniel Carlson has the edge on most teams. Carlson has made 22 of 25 field goals and is a finalist for the Lou Groza Award given to the nation’s top placekicker for the second straight year. Alabama’s Adam Griffith has been less consistent, making 14 of 20.