- Associated Press - Friday, November 26, 2010

TUSCALOOSA, ALA. (AP) - They start early in this part of the country.

Not long after one learns to stand upright and babble a few coherent words, it’s time to pick a side.

Alabama or Auburn.

“You got to declare when you’re a youngster,” said Gene Stallings, the former Alabama coach. “Certainly by the time you get to first grade, you’re for one of ‘em.”

Roll Tide!

War Eagle!

There’s no other rivalry quite like it in college football.

“I’m prejudiced,” said Pat Dye, who coached at Auburn for a dozen years, “but I don’t think there’s any other game in the country that’s talked about on a daily basis as much as this one is by the folks in the state of Alabama.”

Oh sure, there’s plenty of passion stirred up in every nook and cranny of this vast, pigskin-obsessed nation, whether it’s the Civil War, Backyard Brawl, Bedlam or simply The Game.

But the series known as the Iron Bowl has a couple of things going for it that the others don’t:

_ Dueling programs in the same state that are, for all the inevitable ebbs and flows, evenly matched and traditionally among the best in the country. Alabama won the national title a year ago. Auburn is ranked second this season and could wind up playing for a championship of its own, but first it must get by the No. 9 Crimson Tide on Friday.

_ No big league teams to steal away the spotlight, leaving everyone to devote his or her full attention to the Tigers or the Tide. With a population estimated at 4.7 million, Alabama is the largest state other than Virginia that’s never had a Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA or NHL franchise.

“It’s not like we have the Falcons or the Braves,” said Dye, looking eastward to the big city of Atlanta. “The people over here, this is their culture and mentality. You know there’s one day out of the year when the poorest people in Alabama and the richest people in Alabama are on the same team.”

This year, that falls one day after Thanksgiving. More than 101,000 people will cram into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Friday and, over the course of some three-plus hours, become the fifth-largest city in the state. Never doubt for a second just how much this game means to every last one of them.

Auburn (11-0) is trying to stay on track for a shot at the title, even while star quarterback Cam Newton is under fire over allegations that illegal payments were sought during his recruitment. Alabama (9-2) would like nothing more than to knock off Newton and the Tigers in a game that, for the first time since 1994, features both teams in the Top 10.

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