Auburn’s in the middle of a dream season with a Southeastern Conference title game looming and aspirations of a national championship.
Exciting times indeed, but right now _ it’s Iron Bowl time.
“Your whole body changes. Everything,” said Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes. “Your emotions, when you get into this game, because you know for a fact that everybody is watching. From the NFL to high school to Little League to the family, friends. People who don’t watch football, they’ll watch this game, because this is the most important game.”
It’s rivalry week across much of the SEC.
While there’s always plenty of emotion when bitter enemies hit the field, the storylines might be even more interesting than usual this year with intriguing matchups galore. Critical matchups will be played this weekend as teams like LSU, Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi State jockey for bowl position.
But the marquee matchup is the Iron Bowl _ No. 2 Auburn (11-0, 7-0 SEC) at No. 9 Alabama (9-2, 5-2) _ on Friday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Auburn’s trying to continue its perfect season _ even in the midst of the pay-for-play allegations surrounding quarterback Cameron Newton’s recruitment. Despite the distractions, Newton was tremendous in the team’s win over Georgia on Nov. 13 and still appears to be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.
Alabama, the defending national champion, is having a down season by its lofty standards. But beating Auburn and derailing the Tigers’ season would go a long way toward easing that disappointment.
“It really is life and death for a lot of people,” Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said.
McElroy, who is from Texas and was a Rhodes scholar candidate this year, said fans made their feelings clear about the Iron Bowl from the moment he stepped on campus.
“They’d say, ‘Just beat Auburn,’” McElroy said. “That’s all you hear. Especially in the last couple of weeks. I was in Birmingham this week eating with Rhodes scholar candidates … and people would come up to me and say, ‘Just beat Auburn. Don’t worry about the Rhodes scholarship, just beat Auburn.’”
While the Egg Bowl _ the annual clash between Mississippi (4-7, 1-6) and Mississippi State (7-4, 3-4) _ might not have the same national implications, the intensity has been raised dramatically by the continuing feud between MSU coach Dan Mullen and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.
Mullen, who has led No. 25 Mississippi State to a national ranking for the first time since 2001, hasn’t been shy about needling Ole Miss every chance he gets. He has refused to call Ole Miss by its name, simply referring to them as “The School Up North.”
Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said he has no problem with Mullen’s approach.
“I think it’s great,” Stricklin said. “To deny how important this rivalry is would be ridiculous. It’s a big deal for everyone around here and coach Mullen treats it that way. That’s the way it should be. It’s a part of who we are.”
“It just bothered us for 365,” Ole Miss defensive tackle Jerrell Powe said. “It’s rubbed us in the wrong way and we’re looking for some revenge this year.”
The Rebels, though struggling with five losses in the past six games, do possess one key advantage. The home team has won 10 out of the past 11 games in the series.
Other intriguing matchups include:
_ Georgia (5-6) vs. Georgia Tech (6-5). The Bulldogs need a win in The Governor’s Cup to become bowl eligible. Though Mark Richt’s job doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy, losing to the Yellow Jackets could make his seat quite warm going into next year.
_ Florida (7-4) vs. No. 22 Florida State (8-3). For the first time in recent memory, the Gators appear vulnerable as the get read for the showdown in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida coach Urban Meyer has a 5-0 record against the Seminoles during his tenure, but it’s Florida State that’s a 2 1/2-point favorite on Saturday.
_ Tennessee (5-6, 2-5) vs. Kentucky (6-5, 2-5). This hasn’t been much of a rivalry lately, considering the Volunteers have a 25-game winning streak in the series, which is the longest such streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But Tennessee, under first-year coach Derek Dooley, are only 3-point favorites on Saturday at home in Neyland Stadium and need a win to become bowl eligible.
_ South Carolina (8-3) vs. Clemson (6-5). After five years of small gains, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has taken a huge step this season by leading the Gamecocks to the SEC championship game. But before that happens, No. 18 South Carolina (8-3) must face Clemson (6-5), which would love nothing more than to put a damper on what’s been a breakthrough season.
_ No. 12 Arkansas (9-2, 5-2) hosts No. 6 LSU (10-1, 6-1) in Little Rock. If the Tigers win the battle for The Boot, they would be in terrific position to land a spot in a BCS bowl.
Across the Southeast, bragging rights after rivalry week are nearly as important as national titles _ and winning or losing these games can shape careers for both coaches and players.
“When we won, it was the best feeling ever,” Bynes said. “And then when we lost, it was the worst thing ever.”
AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., Paul Newberry in Athens, Ga., Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., and Jeffrey Collins of The Associated Press in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this story.
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