Auburn's rise revives Iron Bowl rivalry

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The morning traffic in Birmingham on Saturday was unbearable. One side of the interstate was littered with cars, trucks and campers sporting some combination of crimson and white. Rows and rows of drivers were "On my way to see Bama play," according to the stickers on their vehicles. The caravan inched slowly toward Tuscaloosa, weaving on and off exits and around construction.

The Crimson Tide, the state's pride with back-to-back national championships, would demolish rival Tennessee 45-10 that afternoon to remain undefeated and firmly atop the BCS standings at No. 1 overall.

About the same time Alabama's supporters headed west toward Tuscaloosa, another group of cars marched south toward Auburn University, their vehicles sporting the school's traditional orange and blue colors and paw print stickers. Tiger-striped tails whipped in the wind, dangling from antennas and trunks. Almost prideful, their flow of traffic moved quicker than their counterparts on the opposite side of the interstate.

The Tigers, mired in mediocrity since winning the national championship in 2010 but recently resurgent under their new coach Gus Malzahn, would dispatch Florida Atlantic with ease later than night. The 45-10 win would boost Auburn to 7-1 and a No. 11 ranking in the BCS standings.

The wins and the rankings of both schools are one thing. Seeing the line of cars siphoning through the state's largest city, though, was a visual representation of where the rivalry is today. The Iron Bowl, after two years of being so incredibly one-sided in favor of Alabama, is relevant again. The Tide and the Tigers are squarely in the title hunt and only weeks away from a matchup that will determine both programs' postseason hopes.

Alabama's success is taken for granted these days, and for good reason. Coach Nick Saban has built the program into the model of success with only five losses and a staggering .907 winning percentage since 2009. The Tide has won three of the last four BCS National Championships and is well positioned to compete for an unprecedented third straight should it reach Christmas undefeated.

Auburn's rise to national relevance is much more surprising. The fact that Malzahn could resurrect a program left for dead by Gene Chizik is a shock. Auburn finished 8-5 in 2011 and fell further in 2012, ending the year 3-9 and winless in the SEC. To make matters worse, the Tigers were dominated in the Iron Bowl, losing the past two contests with Alabama by a combined 77 points. Off-field problems rotted out the program and Chizik was fired two years after he and Cam Newton led it to a national championship.

"It’s very exciting," said safety Jermaine Whitehead, who signed with Auburn in 2011. "It’s the most live I’ve seen the fan base since I’ve been here. I think everyone has bought in, everyone believes. It kind of looks like the championship year -- the reason that I came here -- and I think we’re going to have a great story to tell when it’s all done."

Their story is already interesting. Two weeks ago Auburn went on the road to then-No. 7 Texas A&M and upset the Aggies in dramatic fashion. Quarterback Nick Marshall, a transfer, led Auburn to the come-from-behind win with a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

Corey Grant, who redshirted the 2010 season at Alabama before transferring to Auburn in 2011, said that there wasn't a time last year where he would have believed this season's turnaround could have happened. Beating Johnny Manziel, the defending Heisman Trophy winner, and the Aggies would have been unthinkable. But when Malzahn arrived he said the players were desperate for change and "we always just kept a new mindset and it turned out good for us."

"At the beginning of the season, things started off slow, but as the season got going, and Coach Malzahn kept preaching on what he wanted, and also this coaching staff, and everybody, all the players buying in, it's going good," he added.

As they say at Auburn, it's a new day. How long it will last, though, remains to be seen.

The Iron Bowl will be the ultimate litmus test for both programs.

Alabama has a major hurdle in No. 13-ranked LSU in two weeks, but neither Mississippi State nor Chattanooga in the following two weeks should prove an obstacle on the way to the Iron Bowl.

Auburn, meanwhile, should be favored in its remaining three games against Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, as the Georgia-Auburn game is affectionately known, will be played at Auburn.

With LSU and Texas A&M currently sporting two losses, the West is either Alabama or Auburn's to steal.

Should both schools reach Nov. 30 without another loss, their matchup in the Iron Bowl would be huge, the biggest in years. It would be the first time the rivalry game comes with a trip to the SEC Championship Game on the line for both schools. The 1994 game did decide the SEC West champion, however Auburn was ineligible to play in the title game in Atlanta at the time.

Imagine the traffic in Birmingham if that happened. Post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping and an Iron Bowl? The roads were bad enough this weekend. Who knows if the state can handle both its teams being in the title hunt a month from now.