SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The shadow stretches far and wide across the state of Alabama.
Nobody knows that better than the folks on the Plains.
We’re talking, of course, about the shadow cast by the University of Alabama’s football team, a shadow that grew to epic proportions last season when the Crimson Tide capped a perfect season with their first national championship in 17 years.
A year later, though, it’s Alabama that has spent the second half of this season in Auburn’s shadow and will again on Monday night when the college football season climaxes with the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.
Consider it the Tigers’ answer to what the Crimson Tide did a year ago.
And what an answer it’s been.
Auburn (13-0) is unbeaten with a Heisman Trophy winner leading the way. Only two of the Tigers’ last seven opponents have come with 17 points of them, and they’re averaging 42.7 points per game for the season.
Alabama’s run had a similar ring to it a year ago, although the Crimson Tide did it with a suffocating defense.
The Tigers’ players insist they saw this coming, and the only thing they’re focused on now is finishing the job against an Oregon team that’s been even more explosive offensively this season.
“We’ve been long overdue for a national championship,” Auburn senior receiver Kodi Burns said. “We felt like this was our year. We had a lot of senior leadership on this team and just getting here has been a blessing. To win it would be great.”
It would also go a long way toward tearing down that “Little Brother” stigma that has dogged Auburn in its own state since the days of Bear Bryant.
“They had their time. This is our time,” Auburn senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said. “What matters now is what we do with it.”
Even before he broke his first tackle in an Auburn uniform or made his first jaw-dropping run, Cam Newton dropped a pretty subtle hint back in August that this was a team that wouldn’t be content with living in anybody’s shadow.
Alabama was receiving all the preseason hype. Alabama was the team everybody was talking about in terms of repeating as national champion, and Alabama was the team everybody was hailing as the most talented in the country.
When the preseason polls were released, Auburn was ranked near the bottom in both the Associated Press and coaches’ polls. Alabama was right at the top.
Newton immediately took offense.
“Any time you turn on the TV or you turn on the sports talk radio show or anywhere, they’re talking about the other team,” Newton said of the Crimson Tide. “Of course, we know they’re an excellent team as well. We feel like we’re not being mentioned as we should be.”
Turns out in addition to being the best football player in the country that Newton was also a prophet.
“We weren’t going to back down from anybody,” Newton said.
Burns said the Auburn players drew confidence from Newton’s words and had already been talking about it among themselves.
“We all were talking about it like, ‘Hey, we can do this. Alabama did it last year. Why not us?’ ” Burns said. “We reversed the tables. We’re here at the national championship now, and hopefully, we can go out and win it.”
Nothing drove home the point that those tables had been reversed any more than Auburn’s stunning comeback from 24 points down to beat Alabama 28-27 in the regular-season finale at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Burns said he’ll never forget that feeling walking off the field that chilly November afternoon in Tuscaloosa.
The shadow had been replaced by the glare of the spotlight.
“The most impressive thing was when we were down 24-7 and went in at halftime,” Burns recalled. “Nobody said a word. Everybody was looking around, and finally we say, ‘Alabama’s done. That’s all they got.’ Then we go out the next half and score at will. It was one of the best feelings I’ve had, an awesome feeling.
“There were times we might have felt inferior (to Alabama). But, now, things have changed. We knew that 8-5 season last year was just a sign of something about to come … and here we are.”