Iron Bowl gets extra fuel from trees, comeback
AUBURN, Ala.—The red-hot Iron Bowl didn't need any more fuel.
The tree poisoning that pains Auburn fans and the comeback that riles the Alabama faithful were hardly necessary to raise the mercury on this year-round, statewide feud.
They might have collectively done just that for Saturday's game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Even those who weren't raised in the rivalry's midst have quickly gotten into the spirit.
"I'm not from Alabama," said Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier, "but being here for one year, I just hate Alabama."
"Hate is a strong word," said Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, "but I strongly dislike Auburn."
Lemonier's a Floridian, Hightower from Tennessee. They fit right in, though.
Nationally, the significance of the game relates to No. 2 Alabama's quest to sandwich a second BCS title around Auburn's crown and keep the state's three-year run of college football supremacy going.
In this state, that particular celebration can wait, at least until dinnertime Saturday evening. Alabama must earn bragging rights before committing wholesale to the title aspirations. Four years running, one of the teams has been ranked first or second coming into the Iron Bowl.
To Byron Hopkins, that's almost beside the point.
"It's just a football game," said Hopkins, an Alabama fan and graduate who lives in Birmingham. "We don't believe it is, but it is. The thing that bothers me the most is it's gotten way too much -- as successful as Alabama's been -- it's become about who's No. 1, who's No. 2 and who's No. 3. Let's try to enjoy a football game and not be so much concerned about rankings."
There's plenty of fodder to go around beyond the rankings, or even the normal rancor.
--The trees. Longtime Alabama fan Harvey Updyke Jr. faces felony charges for allegedly poisoning the two famed oak trees at Auburn's Toomer's Corner. Auburn officials haven't publicly given up on them yet, but the once-stately trees now look sickly, even decorated with toilet paper after the fans' traditional celebratory rolling.
Auburn resident and fan Michael Moore took his toddler out to see the snowy mess Sunday morning after a homecoming win over Samford.
"It's really sad," said Moore, while workers laboriously plucked the tissue from the trees by hands. "They're slowly dying. They don't look very good. And also the fact that it's a slow fade, it sticks with you at times."
--The comeback. The proud Tide has never had a meltdown quite like last year's Iron Bowl, going up 24-0 and going down 28-27. It was the biggest deficit Alabama had ever blown.
"We definitely owe them this year," said Alabama fan Scot Nipper, who grew up selling drinks and programs at Birmingham's Legion Field, the Iron Bowl's onetime home. "They came into our house last year and pulled that comeback on us. We definitely owe them. I will be there. We owe them.
"We're going to pay them back."
The Tide is heavily favored to do just that.
Maybe a title will follow. Bragging certainly will. Things will get heated on the field, too.
"It's really like World War III," Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said. "It's just two teams that dislike each other a lot -- respect each other a lot, but dislike each other lot -- and fans that take it over the top. It really changes their whole life and their whole outlook on the next year, whether you can brag about it or hide the whole year. It's really something that you can't describe to someone."
Alabama's Hightower gives it a shot.
"It's a love-hate relationship, I guess, with a little less love," he said.
Within a state that doesn't have a major professional sports team, the rivalry has always been practically all-consuming. It's not terribly unreasonable to tell someone who expresses neutrality or indifference, "Welcome to the state. Where ya from?"
This is a rivalry that once took a 41-year break over where the umpires would come from, how many players each team would get and a whopping 50 cents in per diem.
Nowadays, that's just enough for a soda at the stadium if, say, the offensive linemen pool their quarters.
The rivalry has definitely redeemed its national reputation in recent years with the programs' revival under new coaches: Auburn's Gene Chizik and Alabama's Nick Saban. The past two years have each brought national titles and Heisman Trophies to the state.
Two games that went down to the wire, too, including 26-21 Alabama in 2009.
Saban has been a part of Michigan-Ohio State, Michigan-Michigan State and other cherished rivalries. He knows fans of all of them prize theirs above all others.
This game, of course, is no exception.
"Everybody knows this is one of the greatest rivalry games in college football and certainly a game that defines everything about the state of Alabama and football in Alabama," Saban said.
Trees, comebacks and all.