Iron Bowls are many things. Epochal, harrowing, anticlimactic, all-encompassing, blood simple. What they are not, for your humble Auburn Blogger at least, is fun.
Not usually, anyway. Usually either Auburn is a favorite and the risk of embarrassment feels so overwhelming that victory is accompanied by relief rather than joy; or Auburn is the underdog, and they lose. (Exceptions to every rule, of course–our wonderful site is doing a wonderful job of reminding you about maybe the best exception to this rule there’s ever been–but this isn’t the kind of rivalry where you throw the records out. Far more often than not, the records tell you who’s going to win the game; they have every year since 2002 and all but three or four times since that glorious day in ’89. During Tubby’s streak this was a reassurance. Now, not so much.)
Sure, every now and then we’ll get a year like 2005, when the predicted outcome is something of a toss-up and Auburn fulfills every daydream we’ve had during the week and watching the game is like waking up the day after Christmas to find out it’s Christmas again. That’s fun. And years like ’89 or ’02 are, somehow, even better. But years like those are few and far between.
Which is why I’m so damn psyched for 2009. This is a kind of Iron Bowl I’ve never experienced before, and that I don’t think many other Auburn fans have, either. It doesn’t fit the standard favorite/underdog label. Yes, Alabama is No. 2 in the country and heavily, heavily favored to win the game. Yes, they have the better team and the odds are that they are going to beat Auburn in Jordan-Hare this Friday. Yes, if Auburn had anything to lose from this game, this would be a dire situation indeed.
But Auburn has nothing to lose. I know that sounds like blasphemy of the highest order, but aside from the all-time tally (not an insignificant consideration, of course, but let’s face it, not the sort of thing to bring us to tears) a loss means nothing … while a win means everything. Auburn has the world to gain and pennies to lose.
Let me explain, because I know how strange that sounds. Consider the supposed consequences of Alabama beating Auburn:
1. Alabama proves they are the better team. Yeah. They’re 11-0 and we’re* 7-4. If this game was played 100 times, they’d win like 75 times or something. We know that. (Note here, please, that the game will be played once. Once, as in the number of times Auburn has to get it right. Not 100.)
2. Alabama gets a leg up in recruiting. They have a leg up already. Recruits who want to play for them don’t care if they finish 11-1 or 12-0. Recruits who want to play for Auburn know that 7-5 this year is just the beginning.
3. Alabama fans (of a certain stripe) run their mouths. They do this anyway. They won’t have anything new to say they haven’t already said after last year, after the Chizik hire, ad nauseum throughout this season.
Anything else? With one exception, which we’ll get to in a moment, nothing substantial. In the event of an Auburn loss, this season is still an unqualified success. In the event of a loss, Gene Chizik will still have proven himself something very different from the disaster so many said he would be. In the event of a loss, this Auburn team will still walk into the locker room as one of the most likable and memorable I can remember. And in the event of an Auburn win …
… well, I don’t even have to discuss that side of things, right? It would be the biggest, best win for Auburn since 2004. Hands-down. No argument. End of discussion. The positives are too overwhelming to describe, too numerous to count. It would be delirium.
That’s what’s on the scales for this game: On one side, nothing, or next-to-nothing. On the other, delirium. It’s not quite the proverbial win-win situation, but it’s as close as any Iron Bowl will ever get. For once, we can watch this game not chewing our fingernails and feeling the holes grow in our stomachs but simply cheering our team on with everything we’ve got, and if it doesn’t work out, we applaud their effort like crazy and get ready for 2010.
Speaking of 2010, that’s why this is the only Iron Bowl like this**. This is the only season where the future is more important than the present. Next year everything will be different: there will be streaks to end, expectations to deal with, wins that must be won before the offensive line and linebacking corps must be overhauled en masse. But this year? This year it’s about showing how far Auburn has come since 36-0, and everything else is gravy. Potentially gravy with bits of bacon-wrapped filet, bacon-wrapped crack, and gold, but gravy.
At least, that’s the case from the fan’s perspective, or the wide-view program perspective. That’s not the case–and I wouldn’t dare suggest it is–for the seniors playing their final game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It’s not the case for the juniors, who won’t get another shot at ‘Bama in front of their own fans. It’s not even the case for the underclassmen, who get four or five Iron Bowls and that’s it, forever. For the players, especially the seniors, there’s no such thing as the future.
Which is why, win or lose, there won’t be a better time than Friday to show those players how much we appreciate that the present is something we can be proud of, too. Celebrating’s not usually something that can be done when it feels like one’s insides have been carved out with an ice cream scoop, but barring another dispiriting blowout (a lie that wouldn’t reflect how much better Auburn has been this season), Friday ought to be a celebration of what players like Antonio Coleman, Tommy Trott, Walt McFadden, Chris Todd, etc. have meant to this program and how thankful we are they’ve been here to turn this listing ship around after the doldrums of 2008. Even in defeat, those players should walk off the field to cheers.
So enjoy this, Auburn fans. Enjoy watching A.C. and Walt and big Jake Ricks one last time. Enjoy the next-to-last chance you’ll ever have to cheer for this particular team. Enjoy Auburn loading up the slingshot and going after an undefeated Alabama team with everything they’ve got. Enjoy how much reward Auburn can earn with victory and how little punishment they’ll suffer in defeat. Enjoy this Iron Bowl: there won’t be another one like it for a long, long time, and even if that’s a good thing, that this one is this unique can be a good thing, too.
*If you’ve never noticed, I don’t use “we” to mean “Auburn” on this blog, or at least I try my best not to. This week, though, screw it.
**The ’99 version could have been like this, but of course after the Ben Leard game down in Athens it suddenly felt like Auburn would have a fighting chance in a game–and they did, damn third-quarter safety–they needed to go bowling.