TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The Alabama-Auburn game is stocked with a Heisman Trophy candidate, a national title contender and the unrelenting passion of feuding neighbors.
In other words, it's a pretty typical Iron Bowl.
No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) is still standing in the championship scrum going into Saturday night's rivalry showdown, and can clinch the Western Division with a victory.
Onetime contender and defending SEC champion Auburn (8-3, 4-3) has been reduced to the spoiler role after two straight stumbles in league games. The Tide is a 9-1/2-point favorite but a game that suddenly seems like a potential mismatch still has the same hold on the state.
"You just know there's a special level of intensity that goes with playing in a game like this and both sides are going to have it and that's what makes it a great football game," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Led by Heisman candidate Amari Cooper and a smothering defense, Saban's team is No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings and like the rest of the state vividly remembers how last year's game ended. The Tigers won on a rare runback of a missed field goal on the final play.
"Been around a lot of crazy stuff in Iron Bowls," Tide right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "Always great energy. I know the stadium is going to be rocking for sure. "
The state champion has been the national champ, too, four of the last five seasons. The only exception was Auburn's runner-up finish to Florida State last season.
The Tide is riding a six-game winning streak and might already be assured of a spot in the SEC championship before kickoff if No. 4 Mississippi State loses at No. 18 Mississippi.
Auburn has dropped its last two SEC games to Texas A&M and Georgia. A team that was once third in the playoff rankings has revised its goal to shooting for back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1988-89.
"We're trying to be as good as we can be, and finish this thing as strong as we can," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "Our guys are committed to that, and I know our coaches are, too."
Here are some things to watch in the 79th Iron Bowl:
BAMA'S OFFENSE: If there's a big mismatch in this game, it might surprisingly be Auburn's defense against Alabama's offense. Under first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Tide has been especially potent in passing with the Blake Sims-to-Cooper connection. Pass defense has been Auburn's biggest weakness. But the Tigers have struggled all around defensively in the past five SEC games, giving up an average of 472 yards and 35.8 points to league offenses during that stretch.
YELDON VS. ARTIS-PAYNE: Cameron Artis-Payne came into the season with modest fanfare and is the SEC's leading rusher. Preseason All-SEC pick T.J. Yeldon has had a down season compared to his first two. Both are physical runners who, along with their backfield mates, can wear down opposing defenses. Yeldon has dealt with nagging injuries, but rested a sore ankle against Western Carolina. He gained 141 yards in last season's meeting. "He's smiling a lot so when T.J.'s smiling, I think a good game is going to come out of him," Sims said.
TIDE'S TURF: The Tigers are 7-2 in Tuscaloosa, including the largest comeback in school history in 2010. But Bryant-Denny Stadium was a house of horrors two years ago when Alabama roared to 42 first-half points and won 49-0. The Tide has won 15 in a row at home and dominated opponents by an average of 33.5 points (268-67) this season.
PERIMETER RUNS: While Artis-Payne is more of a between-the-tackles runner, Auburn often mixes it up with perimeter runs by receiver Ricardo Louis or speedy tailback Corey Grant, whose role has diminished as the season has progressed. Teams haven't had much success running into the heart of Alabama's defense, which has allowed only two rushing touchdowns. "Last year, they hurt us with plays on the perimeter like they hurt a lot of people," Saban said.
KEEP IT CLEAN: Alabama has had turnover problems at times this season but the Tigers have really shot themselves in the foot. They've committed 10 turnovers and been penalized 199 yards in their three losses, coughing it up on the first two plays at Mississippi State.