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“We definitely owe them this year,” said Alabama fan Scot Nipper, who grew up selling drinks and programs at Birmingham’s Legion Field, the Iron Bowl’s onetime home. “They came into our house last year and pulled that comeback on us. We definitely owe them. I will be there. We owe them.

“We’re going to pay them back.”

The Tide is heavily favored to do just that.

Maybe a title will follow. Bragging certainly will. Things will get heated on the field, too.

“It’s really like World War III,” Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said. “It’s just two teams that dislike each other a lot _ respect each other a lot, but dislike each other lot _ and fans that take it over the top. It really changes their whole life and their whole outlook on the next year, whether you can brag about it or hide the whole year. It’s really something that you can’t describe to someone.”

Alabama’s Hightower gives it a shot.

“It’s a love-hate relationship, I guess, with a little less love,” he said.

Within a state that doesn’t have a major professional sports team, the rivalry has always been practically all-consuming. It’s not terribly unreasonable to tell someone who expresses neutrality or indifference, “Welcome to the state. Where ya from?”

This is a rivalry that once took a 41-year break over where the umpires would come from, how many players each team would get and a whopping 50 cents in per diem.

Nowadays, that’s just enough for a soda at the stadium if, say, the offensive linemen pool their quarters.

The rivalry has definitely redeemed its national reputation in recent years with the programs’ revival under new coaches: Auburn’s Gene Chizik and Alabama’s Nick Saban. The past two years have each brought national titles and Heisman Trophies to the state.

Two games that went down to the wire, too, including 26-21 Alabama in 2009.

Saban has been a part of Michigan-Ohio State, Michigan-Michigan State and other cherished rivalries. He knows fans of all of them prize theirs above all others.

This game, of course, is no exception.

“Everybody knows this is one of the greatest rivalry games in college football and certainly a game that defines everything about the state of Alabama and football in Alabama,” Saban said.

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