Mark Edwards: Predictable series finally gives us unpredictable game
by Mark Edwards
medwards@annistonstar.com
Nov 27, 2013 | 2758 views |  0 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and his Alabama team got a huge challenge from underdog Auburn in 2009 -- but the Tide still won, reaffirming the idea at the best team usually wins the Iron Bowl. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/File
Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and his Alabama team got a huge challenge from underdog Auburn in 2009 -- but the Tide still won, reaffirming the idea at the best team usually wins the Iron Bowl. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/File
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In 1997, Alabama was suffering through its first losing season in 13 years. A program that had played for the SEC championship the previous year had just about hit rock bottom under first-year coach Mike DuBose.

Limping into the Iron Bowl, Alabama was 4-6, having lost five of its previous six, including an embarrassing home loss to Louisiana Tech. Meanwhile, Auburn was 8-2, just won at Georgia and was headed to the SEC Championship Game.

Rather than push his tired and nearly broken team harder in preparation for Auburn, DuBose ran lighter practices than he had most of the year. As a former player and assistant coach in the series, he figured he didn’t need to motivate his players for the Iron Bowl – the game itself would take care of that.

And it did. Down-and-out Alabama put together one of its best performances of the year, and despite being an 11.5-point underdog, the Tide nearly pulled off a win. A fumble off an ill-advised late pass by Alabama allowed Auburn to kick a field goal and escape with an 18-17 win.

On the face of it, it appears that game shows just how unpredictable this series is. In a year when it looked as if Auburn was going to blow out Alabama, the Tide played the Tigers tough.

So, we should throw out the record books when these two storied rivals meet, right?

Actually, no, we shouldn’t. If you threw out the record books, go outside, dig through the trash and retrieve them. Now. We’ll wait on you.

Although that 1997 game certainly was exciting and marked itself as one of the best in the series, the result ended up the same as most every other Iron Bowl – the better team won.

In looking through the history of the game, it’s interesting how often that happens. For such a hard-fought rivalry, the annual football game usually is awfully predictable.

Since the modern series began in 1948, there are only three games in which we truly can say without a whole lot of reservation the better team didn’t win.

It happened in 1949 when Auburn entered at 1-4-3 and Alabama was 6-2-1. The Tigers won 14-13, with a missed extra point accounting for the final margin.

It happened in 1984 when Alabama had its first losing season in 27 years but managed to win 17-15 over Auburn, which failed in the closing minutes on fourth-and-goal run and on a mid-range field goal attempt.

It happened in 2002. Alabama was an 11-point favorite but gave a lackluster performance in a 17-7 loss.

You may wish to add to that list, and that’s fine if you do. Auburn fans might point to the 1972 and 1989 games. But for the sake of this conversation, we’re talking about which team was better, not which team was the betting favorite, as Alabama was in 1972 before losing 17-16. Also, as for the 1989 game, in which some Auburn fans seem firm in their belief that Alabama was a much better team and that Tiger Walk won the game, the point of who was better is at least debatable. According to Covers.com, the line that day was “Pick ’em,” and considering Alabama and Auburn ended up tied with Tennessee for the SEC crown that year, it’s not unreasonable to say Auburn was at least as good as Alabama, if not better.

According to Covers.com, the betting underdog has won the Iron Bowl six times since 1985 – Alabama won as slight underdogs in 1985, 1994 and 2001, and Auburn won as a slight underdog in 1986 and 2010 and as a big underdog in 2002. It’s my belief that except for 2002, the better team won in those years – it’s just that the wrong team was favored beforehand.

Again, we’re talking about looking at both teams, deciding which team was better at the end of the year and then looking to see if that team also won the Iron Bowl.

In some cases -- such as 1985, 1986, 1994 and 2001 -- the team that was better in those particular years was better needed to prove it by winning on the field against its rival.

So, what does all this mean in regards to this year’s game? Alabama is the clear favorite as a 10.5-point favorite. So, if the Tigers win, will it mean this is one of those rare true upsets?

But while undefeated Alabama is ranked No. 1, Auburn has lost only once and is No. 4. Would it be fair to say that if Auburn wins, it still couldn’t be regarded as the best team?

This is one of those years in which it needs to play out before we can say which team is better. That’s what makes this year’s game so interesting.

Let’s resume this discussion after the season when we can examine this game through the lens of whole season to figure out whether the best team won.

Contact Anniston Star Sports Editor Mark Edwards at medwards@annistonstar.com. Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.
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