No. 2 Alabama welcomes struggling rival Auburn
By JOHN ZENOR
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) So much has changed since the last time Alabama welcomed Auburn into its immense home stadium.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide, victims of the largest comeback in Iron Bowl history two years ago, is the team with flourishing Southeastern Conference and national title aspirations going into Saturday's game.
The Tigers (3-8, 0-7 SEC) bare scant resemblance to the team that Cam Newton rallied from 24 points down two years ago on their way to a national title.
With everything left to play for, Alabama (10-1, 6-1) is a 31.5 favorite in what might be one of the bigger mismatches the Iron Bowl rivalry has seen. The Tide defensive end Damion Square gives a simple explanation for what's dangerous about this opponent: "It's Auburn."
"It's a rivalry and it's important to them just like it's important to us," Square said. "I know that they're going to come play some bigtime football. Those guys get recruited like we get recruited. They're real talented guys and they can do their job well. So despite what they've got going on down there, they're going to come down here and try to win them a football game."
Auburn hasn't put up much of a fight against top-tier SEC competition the past two seasons, except for a two-point loss to No. 8 LSU early in the season.
Tigers coach Gene Chizik faces a performance evaluation by athletic director Jay Jacobs and President Jay Gogue after the game with his job potentially on the line.
Chizik said it will take "a near-flawless" performance to pull off the upset.
"Our guys understand this is a one-game season," he said. "They're going into it with excitement and passion."
A Tide win at nearly 102,000-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium would lock up a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game against No. 3 Georgia with a shot at playing for a second straight BCS title and third in four years. Alabama climbed into that position when Oregon and Kansas State were upset - the kind of fate the Tide is trying to avoid.
"If your best football game is not good enough to win, then I'm OK with that," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I just want the players to play their best game and have the right disposition about doing that, rather than being caught up in the circumstances of what's at stake."
Auburn has an ever-shuffling starting lineup at several positions including quarterback, where Jonathan Wallace becomes the second freshman passer to start for the Tigers in the Iron Bowl.
"No one's believing that we can go down there and win," Auburn defensive tackle Angelo Blackson said. "Statistically, it's not possible, but as a team we're going to come in there and fight to the end. We're not going to lay down again. We're not happy to just be in the game with them. We're going to go down there and try to win."
The numbers, at least, set the stage for a potentially lopsided game.
The Tigers will put the nation's 112th-rated offense against the No. 2 defense, which allows the fewest points nationally.
"There's not a lot of true what you would be able to say `weakness' on their defense," Chizik said. "You've just got to find ways to get first downs and try to hit a big play here and there, but they're hard to come by."
The Tigers will try to do that with tailbacks Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb - who returned a kick for a touchdown in last season's meeting - and wide receiver Emory Blake, easily Wallace's most reliable target.
Alabama tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon bring the SEC's No. 2 rushing offense against a defense at the bottom of the league in defending the run. Making things even more interesting, Yeldon was a longtime Auburn commitment before signing with the Tide in January.
The freshman has already racked up 809 yards, just 61 behind his backfield mate Lacy.
"I'm happy he's on our side," Tide guard Chance Warmack said.
McCarron, meanwhile, faces a secondary that has had six different starting combinations and only produced one interception.
McCarron was getting Heisman Trophy buzz two weeks ago before a two-interception game against No. 9 Texas A&M.
Wallace was making his first SEC start that day in a 38-0 defeat to Georgia and might be one of several freshmen starting for the Tigers.
Auburn's Blake is hoping to get a chance to test the message he's heard from fans since arriving in the state from Texas.
"Even my freshmen year, I had some fans tell me, `It doesn't matter if you lose every game. As long as you beat Alabama at the end of the year, we'll be happy,'" Blake said. "That's just how much impact this game has on our fans."
Updated November 23, 2012