AUBURN, Ala. – Nick Saban is notorious for downplaying the big picture, demanding his football team focus on the task at hand.
Which is why with national championship hopes a couple wins away, Saban and Alabama (10-1, 6-1 SEC) is spending all its attention on the Iron Bowl against Auburn, even though very few are giving the visiting Tigers (3-8, 0-7) much of a chance in Tuscaloosa Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT.
The rivalry’s intensity alone serves as the primary talking point.
“We have some pretty passionate fans on both sides, and I think because it’s a state rivalry game, they have this special edge to them,” Saban said on Wednesday’s SEC conference call. “There’s traditionally been good programs with a lot of legendary games in this series that people remember for years and years and years. There’s no pro sports in Alabama, so you’re either an Alabama or Auburn fan, so that probably adds to it as well.”
Alabama leads the series 41-34-1, but Auburn has claimed seven of the past 10, including a 24-point comeback in the previous showdown at 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium. That sprang Auburn to the 2010 national title, which has been sandwiched by a couple of Alabama championships.
“This is a legendary game for the people of our state, our fans and our supporters,” Saban said. “It’s certainly something that’s exciting to be a part of. They’re playing better now the last few weeks of the season. It’s going to take our best effort to get it done. We need to be focused on what’s happening right now. This is an important game for us and we want our players to go play their best for our seniors here in their last game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.”
Auburn has at least righted itself in the win-loss column in November, smoking underlings New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. True freshman Jonathan Wallace (Central-Phenix City) has added some stability to a disappointing Tigers offense.
“I think Jonathan Wallace has really played well and gotten better in each game that he’s played here in the last three games,” Saban said. “He’s athletic and he can run some of their QB runs, and I think he’s been a very efficient passer, completing over 60 percent of his passes. I think offensively, they have played better these last few games. Some of it has to be due to his play and his contributions as quarterback.”
Auburn coach Gene Chizik commended Saban Tuesday for fostering a professional relationship, sentiments which the three-time national champion echoed.
“We don’t have any kind of an adversarial relationship,” Saban said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for the job that he has done. Their program, how they play, how they’re coached, I have a mutual respect for the way they go about professionally.
“There’s no personal animosity here from my standpoint, (and) I’ve never felt any from his.”
Saban was asked about his outgoing fifth-year seniors, who were part of Saban’s first complete recruiting class in 2008 – one of the highest-rated commitment groups ever. Most of the group has moved on to the NFL, but four are still key starters this year – center Barrett Jones, safety Robert Lester, defensive end Damion Square and tight end Michael Williams.
“I was still allowed to go out on the road, so I got to see most of those guys practice,” Saban said. “Probably the best recruiting class I’ve ever been associated with or been a part of assembling. The evaluation was good and the development of the players was really good. Lot of good people in that class, and obviously the amount of success they’ve had certainly indicates the competitive character they have, the kind of people they have as well as their ability.”
That class followed Alabama’s 7-6 season in 2007, which later saw five wins vacated due to in-season NCAA infractions.
“I think a lot of the players probably saw opportunity for themselves,” Saban said. “It was a new program, new start, they could see themselves playing. That whole class making the kind of commitments they made to the university at the time when we weren’t successful probably was the key to getting things turned around.”