Don't call Auburn a lucky football team. The Tigers are 10-1 and fourth in the BCS standings thanks to a tipped Hail Mary touchdown pass against Georgia, but Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't about to say his SEC West rivals are anything other than good and deserving of their lofty ranking.
"I don't think they were lucky to win," Saban said of the Georgia game. "I'm not saying that at all.
"They really probably deserved to win the game, based on how they played in the game, and they got rewarded for it in the end by making a big play."
Call Auburn whatever you want. Call what's happening on The Plains a miracle season, if you must, and point to the last-second win over Georgia or the utter lack of passing game as serious flaws in Auburn's championship resume. But recognize that none of what you're saying takes anything away from what the Tigers have accomplished and what they're capable of accomplishing come Saturday afternoon when they take on the top-ranked Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Iron Bowl is alive and well because Auburn is a good football team once again. This isn't 2011 or 2012 where Alabama won both games by a combined score of 91-14, failing to surrender a single offensive touchdown in the process. Gus Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator for one of those games and absent at Northern Illinois during the other. Since returning as Auburn's head coach this season, he's completely turned around what was a dysfunctional program.
Nick Marshall has developed into one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC, Tre Mason is the league's leading rusher and the defense, while porous at times, has been good at creating takeaways. Sound familiar? It should because you could describe the 2010 Tigers that beat Alabama and won the national championship with Cam Newton and Michael Dyer in the same way.
They were called lucky then, if you remember. Alabama was even favored to beat Auburn in that year's Iron Bowl. The Tigers are a two-touchdown underdog this go around.
"We don't feel lucky, of course," said Auburn defensive end and sack leader Dee Ford. "But we feel like it would definitely close a lot of the mouths [beating Alabama] with the things that we've been hearing. At the end of the day, that's not one of our goals. We're not really worried about the outside world because the outside world didn't even believe in us last year.
"We know it will close mouths [talking] about this being a fluke season."
Teammate C.J. Uzomah said they've been aware of Alabama's success this season. It's been hard to miss the constant media coverage, he explained, and on Saturday, he and his teammates will get to show they're deserving of the same type of respect by playing them heads-up at home.
"I think that's just fuel for us," Uzomah said of the uneven attention paid to the two programs, "just knowing there's so much hype and talk about them that we're going to prove ourselves, and we feel like we will.
"We feel like we've had a great season thus far, but we aren't satisfied. We want to win this game, and I think this will be a measuring stick of how we've grown as a team, where we are and where we want to head."
Malzahn, who called Alabama the best defense his team will see this season, said he's not letting he or his players get too caught up in the national picture. Improving every day is the goal, he said, not worrying about who's saying what. As he told his team a few weeks back: "We'll worry about all that patting ourselves on the back stuff after the season."
"Anytime you win 10 games, your team has done some right things," Malzahn said of proving his team is good and not lucky. "We're playing the No. 1 team in the country for the right to go to Atlanta. That's big enough in its own right."
Taking a cue from their head coach, Alabama's players aren't about to call Auburn lucky either. If anything, they agreed that having their rival playing good football makes the Iron Bowl better.
"They're a great team," UA receiver Christion Jones said, adding that he wasn't surprised by their success. "Auburn's a good unit."
But how good? Just ask Saban, who had no trouble heaping praise on those lucky Auburn Tigers.
"They're one of the leading offensive teams in the country ... Nick Marshall has almost 1,000 yards rushing himself," he explained. "They create a lot of issues and a lot of problems. They have good receivers that can make plays down the field when you try to load up on them.
"Defensively, they've played really, really well. They're hard to score on. ... Very, very good in the kicking game. Most of the time the guy kicks the ball out of the end zone. ... All the way around, this is a very, very good team, and I think their record sort of reflects that."