‘Bama seeks end to Iron Bowl losing steak
TUSCALOOSA – It’s the topic Alabama players can’t escape.
The one they encounter when visiting home, strolling around campus or wandering into a restaurant. And it’s not national championship or Southeastern Conference title or even coach Nick Saban.
A game-by-game glance at Auburn’s six-year Iron Bowl winning streak, which is the Tigers’ longest against Alabama and second longest in series history:
—2002: Double-digit underdog Auburn turned to fourth-string tailback Tre Smith with Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams and Chris Butler injured. Smith ran for 126 yards in a 17-7 victory for his only claim to fame. The Tigers won redemption from Alabama’s 31-7 rout a year earlier.
—2003: Two things made this 28-23 win stand out: Carnell Williams’ 80-yard touchdown run on the first play and coach Tommy Tuberville’s job status. Despite the win, Auburn brass tried to replace a defiant Tuberville with Bobby Petrino, even paying him a clandestine visit two days before the game. Williams, by the way, ran for 204 yards.
—2004: Auburn was unbeaten and jockeying for a national title shot, but a 6-0 haltime deficit against a mediocre Tide team helped give Oklahoma the edge despite a 21-13 win. The teams were tied at No. 2 in the rankings going into the weekend. Auburn recovered an onside kick after the Tide rallied with a late touchdown.
—2005: No. 11 Auburn defenders sacked Brodie Croyle a school-record 11 times in a win over No. 8 Alabama in a rare season recently where both teams were excelling. The Tigers led 28-7 by halftime over a team that two weeks earlier was drawing national title buzz. Prompted “Honk if You Sacked Brodie” bumper stickers for Auburn fans.
—2006: David Irons’ interception preserved a 22-15 win, setting off an in-your-face celebration at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. Quentin Groves forced two fumbles that led to Auburn touchdowns. The loss pushed Mike Shula to 0-for-4 in the Iron Bowl, and he was fired more than a week later.
—2007: Nick Saban’s first Iron Bowl turned into a defensive struggle. Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox scored on a 1-yard sneak in the final minutes and the Tigers won 17-10. Auburn gave up a field goal after that but recovered the onside kick and ran the clock out.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide’s fans want to know when Alabama will reclaim the state. Six consecutive losses to Auburn have meant six long years of enduring gleeful jibes around the office and on T-shirts and bumper stickers.
It’s enough to turn them crimson-faced by now.
“Everybody, all they say is, ‘You’ve got to beat Auburn this year,'” Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson said, as if he didn’t already know that. “If you’re an Alabama fan, you have to beat Auburn. If you’re an Auburn fan, they talk about the streak. To me, it’s fun. We’ve got a chance to go out and do something that not anybody has done here in a long time and finish out the season the way we started it.”
Neither Wilson nor any of his Tide teammates have ever beaten Auburn. Nobody on Auburn’s team has lost the game that can affect the moods of much of the state.
Tide fans have already had a season to gloat about with Saban moving his team into national title contention as Auburn and Tommy Tuberville were weathering their worst season since his 5-6 debut in 1999.
Alabama (11-0, 7-0) is more accustomed to being on the other side of this kind of streak. Bear Bryant’s teams won nine in a row from 1973-81 and went 19-6 over a quarter century of domination.
This is the Tigers’ longest winning streak in the series, topping the five-year run ending in 1958. Bryant was in his second year on the Capstone when that streak ended, just like Saban is now.
Another coincidence: The last time Alabama entered the game with a shot at the national title wound up being the last game as Auburn coach for Pat Dye, who had ended the Tide’s nine-year reign. The Tide won that 1992 game 17-0 and went on to win it all.
Now, the poor season has led some to question Tuberville’s job security.
He said there’s no reason to bring up the six-year streak to his players. Chances are, if they keep it going they’ll mention it a time or two in the future.
“Everybody wants to build streaks, but it’s so hard in this business,” said Tuberville, who is 7-2 in the rivalry. “They’ll go back when they’re 50-60 years old and tell their kids and grandkids they played in the Iron Bowl and what happened that week.”
It’s the rivalry that can help make or break coaches. Alabama’s Mike Shula was fired after losing all four Iron Bowls. Tuberville entered the 2003 game on shaky ground after a disappointing season. Two days earlier, Auburn brass had paid a visit to then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino about taking Tuberville’s place.
The Tigers won, and Tuberville stayed put. Now, he has the best winning percentage in the rivalry of any coach at either school with more than three Iron Bowls on his resume.
“This is one game that you’ve got to win,” Tuberville said. “You’ve got to win these games. It’s for bragging rights. You want to give your fans the opportunity to have that ability to walk into a restaurant, go into a Wal-Mart, go into their business or place of work and be able to brag about the game.
“It is a game. It’s not life or death. If there’s anything close to that, it would probably be the emotions of this game in terms of fans.”
The current streak has produced a sack-a-thon, a huge upset and a surprising hero. What it hasn’t included: A blowout. Auburn’s six wins have come by a collective 47 points and two 10-point wins were the most lopsided.
An unranked Auburn team started it all with a 17-7 upset at No. 9 Alabama in 2002, when fourth-string tailback Tre Smith ran for 126 yards to rescue an injury-depleted backfield. He gained just 177 the next two years combined.
Three years ago, the Tigers racked up a school-record 11 sacks of Brodie Croyle, spawning “Honk if You Sacked Brodie” bumper stickers that found their way onto far more than 11 bumpers.
Tuberville also has had some fun with the streak. After win No. 4, he waved four fingers in the air and was photographed wearing a “Fear the Thumb” T-shirt during Auburn’s bowl trip.
He also was captured in a photo making a seven-finger salute — a nod at making it seven in a row — over the summer during a trip to the Middle East while celebrating his team of U.S. military personnel’s win in a flag football game.
Another notable streak for Auburn is that Alabama hasn’t managed a first-quarter touchdown against the Tigers in the past 11 meetings.
“We’ll be looking forward to changing that early in the game Saturday,” Tide center Antoine Caldwell said. “We’re going to have to go out there Saturday and realistically try to change their mind-set. Because they’re going to try to come in and feel like, ‘Same ole Alabama, we can do what we’ve been doing and win this ballgame.’ Definitely, it’s going to be important for us to start fast.”
Alabama has already ended a five-game losing streak against LSU and a two-year skid to Mississippi State.
No squashed streak would mean as much as this one.
“Then it would be like we’ve officially turned the corner and can put some of those seasons we’ve had — those ups and downs — in the past,” Caldwell said. “It’s definitely something we can use for motivation, and hopefully we can get it done on Saturday.”