November 19, 2012 9:58:52 AM
AUBURN, Ala. -- The University of Alabama's Barrett Jones summed up the Iron Bowl's significance hours before it got really meaningful nationally.
"It's the West, it's all our hopes and dreams, and also, it's Auburn," the Crimson Tide center said after Saturday's early game.
Then it got even bigger. For the fifth straight year, the Iron Bowl features a team squarely in the national title hunt. No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) almost certainly controls its fate.
A victory against the Tigers (3-8, 0-7) would put the Tide into the Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 3 University of Georgia, with the winner presumably playing in Miami for the Bowl Championship Series title. All the pieces fell into place hours after Alabama's 49-0 victory against Football Championship Subdivision's Western Carolina University.
Saturday night losses by the University of Oregon and Kansas State University ended Alabama's weeklong position on the outside looking in at the BCS chase after a loss to No. 9 Texas A&M University. The twin defeats touched off the kind of celebration in Tuscaloosa normally reserved for big victories, with a YouTube video showing fans lining the Strip near campus.
The result is the Iron Bowl has the highest of stakes again, even if it's an apparent mismatch. Alabama won the national title in 2009 and 2011; Auburn in 2010.
Plus, the Tide was No. 1 going into the 2008 Iron Bowl but wound up losing to Florida in the SEC championship game and Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
Auburn is trying to avoid going winless in the SEC since going 0-6 in Doug Barfield's final season in 1980.
The slide has raised speculation about coach Gene Chizik's job security. Auburn President Jay Gogue has said he'll evaluate the program after the season. The University of Tennessee fired Derek Dooley on Sunday. The University of Kentucky's Joker Phillips won't return for next season.
Chizik continued to decline to discuss his status.
"You've asked me that pretty much every week and as I've said before it's very simple for me, we have a game against Alabama and it's the Iron Bowl and that's my No. 1 focus," he said. "I'm not focused on anything else but that."
There's no dodging his team's standing this week. The Tigers were installed as 34-point underdogs on Sunday.
"I've been in this game several different times," Chizik said. "The circumstances of this game are certainly different than most of the other times I've played against these guys. Obviously that's out there in terms of you having a chance to knock somebody off, but being the rival that it is, being what the game means and has meant for a lot of years. That's really what we're focusing on."
The Tigers beat FCS Alabama A&M 52-7 on Saturday, improving their mood with a romp against a Southwestern Athletic Conference opponent.
Tre Mason ran for 181 yards -- including an 86-yard touchdown -- and Onterio McCalebb added 104, the second time this season both have topped 100 yards in the same game.
Jones and Tide coach Nick Saban both maintain that Alabama expects a test despite the disparate seasons.
"It doesn't matter what Auburn's record is, who Auburn's coach is, they're always going to be ready," Jones said. "Every time I've played against Auburn, it's been a hard-fought game, no matter what the record is. I know they're going to bring their best, and we have a tough week of preparation."
Added Saban: "You throw everything out the window in terms of records when you play rivalry games."
Or maybe not. The Tide won 42-14 last season over an Auburn team that won eight games. That top-ranked Alabama team in 2008 won 36-0 in what proved to be coach Tommy Tuberville's final game, sending the Tigers to a 5-7 finish.
"Everybody understands what's at hand, that those guys, regardless of whatever they're going through down there are going to come and put up a good fight against us," Tide defensive end Damion Square said. "And we're going to come and play Alabama football."