The scene played out in Jordan-Hare Stadium like an improbable dream or a horrific nightmare, depending on whether you say “War Eagle” or “Roll Tide.” Auburn’s Chris Davis fielded Alabama’s missed field goal opportunity with no time on the clock of a tie game and kept running and running and running.
When Davis finally stopped, it was Auburn — not two-time defending national champion Alabama — in position to reach the final BCS National Championship Game. Gus Malzahn had fired the opening shot at Nick Saban in their first meeting as head coaches. After that, Malzahn won — at least for now — the intense offseason debate over hurry-up offenses in college football that drew battle lines in Alabama as if the debate paired Democrats vs. Republicans.
Bubbling at the surface of Auburn’s surprising 2013 season and Malzahn’s unique offense is one very important question: Can Alabama and Auburn consistently be elite at the same time in a relatively small state with 4.8 million people?
History suggests no. Something usually happens to quickly swing the balance of one of the teams — coaching changes, NCAA violations, or lack of enough players in a state the size of Alabama.
But a funny thing happened as the Iron Bowl produced five straight BCS Championship Game participants, including four national champions. The majority of players on both Alabama and Auburn that make up this intensely local grudge match are no longer from Alabama. And the respective teams’ national recruiting efforts will only continue when the SEC Network debuts this season.
The 78th Iron Bowl last year produced arguably the highest-stakes game in series history. Not only did Alabama and Auburn meet in a winner-take-all game for the SEC West title for the first time, but both were also in the national championship race.
From 1975-2009, the two bitter rivals met as top-10 opponents only once. That’s now happened twice in the past four years, including last season’s first top-4 matchup ever in Iron Bowl history.
Did we just witness the reinvention of the Iron Bowl into a high-stakes national game on a consistent basis? Or was 2013 the culmination of the state of Alabama’s dominance on the national scene? Recruiting, as it usually does, plays a significant role in answering those questions.
Last season, 34 percent of Crimson Tide players came from the state of Alabama. That was down from 55 percent in 2008 and 66 percent in 2003. Saban, who has built a recruiting juggernaut, can pick and choose while competing for the best players in different states. Alabama had players from 19 different states last season, compared to 12 five years ago. Seventeen percent of Alabama’s 2013 roster grew up west of the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, only 35 percent of Auburn’s 2013 roster hailed from Alabama, down from 45 percent in 2008. The Tigers came from 19 different states, up from 11 five years ago in Tommy Tuberville’s final season. Thirteen percent of last year’s Auburn players came from west of the Mississippi.
The trend continued for Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class in which only 30 percent of the signees were in-state recruits. Saban signed a five-star defensive back from Texas, a five-star defensive end from Virginia and a five-star offensive lineman from Louisiana, in addition to three five-star recruits from Alabama. Saban journeyed to faraway places such as Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado and California in compiling the nation’s No. 1 class.
Auburn had only 35 percent of its 2014 class come from Alabama. The class was ranked ninth nationally by Rivals, yet only seventh in the SEC — a sign of how competitive recruiting is in the nation’s strongest football conference. Auburn signed more players from nearby Georgia than from Alabama.
There is only so much talent to go around in less-populated states, even a football-crazy state such as Alabama, which is fourth in the nation per capita in producing NFL players. Alabama ranked 11th last season in NFL players with 48, well behind states such as California (225), Florida (186), Texas (184) and Georgia (95).
Forty-five percent of Auburn’s roster last year came from California, Florida, Texas and Georgia, up from 42 percent in 2008. At Alabama, 37 percent of its players were from California, Florida, Texas and Georgia, compared to 26 percent five years ago.
As the SEC won seven straight national titles and negotiated more lucrative television deals, Alabama and Auburn took advantage. More money and exposure equals more opportunities to recruit nationally. Only three schools produced Rivals top-10 recruiting classes in each of the past five years: Florida State, Alabama and Auburn. Those were your national champions in the past five years.
Alabama and Auburn care so much about winning in football that it’s simply unacceptable whenever they drop off. Also, when one team does well or goes on NCAA probation, the other side attempts to bring them down.
Over the past 22 years, Alabama and Auburn have never gone more than five years without one of them getting hit with major violations in one sport or another. Some of college football’s great rivalries have never had that occur over any 20-year period: Florida-Florida State, Miami-Florida State, USC-Notre Dame, Texas-Texas A&M, Nebraska-Oklahoma and Oklahoma-Texas.
But what happens when both Alabama and Auburn are on top? How long can it last in the ultra-competitive SEC?
Gene Chizik won a national title with Cam Newton in 2010. Two years later, amid a program with major discipline issues, Chizik was fired after going winless in the SEC. A year after being fired, Chizik told USA Today that the coach of Auburn must “get up every day trying to figure out how to beat Alabama in everything, and if you don’t get up every day and strategize on how you’re going to beat them on the field and in recruiting, it’s going to be hard to do it.”
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In Malzahn, does Auburn have the coach who can both recruit and coach up players to consistently compete with Saban? That question loomed over a proposed rule by the NCAA Football Rules Committee that would have prevented offenses from snapping the ball until 10 seconds had passed on the play clock.
The proposal was justified for safety reasons, but up-tempo coaches such as Malzahn doubted that was the reason. Up-tempo offenses, if they don’t substitute, pin defenses at the line of scrimmage and prevent them from making substitutions based on down and distance.
Situational subbing has been a major part of Saban’s defenses at Alabama. Saban has publicly questioned whether football should be a “continuous game,” and along with another traditional-offense proponent, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, met with the rules committee prior to the proposal being passed.
After the outcry, the rules committee tabled the idea. But the debate isn’t going away. And although it impacts the entire sport, the argument is squarely centered in Alabama between Malzahn and Saban.
The questions are fast and furious within Alabama, where football is debated 365 days a year.
Auburn fan: Does Saban need a rule change to compete with Malzahn?
Alabama fan: Does Malzahn need a gimmick offense to beat Saban?
Auburn fans will forever have the 2013 Iron Bowl memory. What remains to be seen is if that was a seminal moment that changed the rivalry moving forward.
Written by Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.