What Makes a Real Rivalry? Look at the Iron Bowl

Lyn Scarbrough

November 21, 2017 at 2:05 pm.

Can Jarrett Stidham lead Auburn to an upset of top-ranked Alabama? Photo Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Can Jarrett Stidham lead Auburn to an upset of top-ranked Alabama? Photo Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Legend has it that things got heated between them near the end of the Civil War. The Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky just didn’t like each other.

Things erupted on Election Day 1882 when three young McCoys killed a Hatfield, stabbed him 26 times, then shot him. The next day while the accused were being transported for arraignment, the Hatfield clan intercepted them and returned the favor.

The feud was on and it lasted a long, long time. (Wonder if a renegade on either side ever poisoned trees?)

About 10 years later another feud started and over the following decades it evolved into the Hatfields and the McCoys of college football. At a field in Birmingham in February 1893, the football team from Agricultural and Mechanical College from Auburn defeated the boys from the University of Alabama from Tuscaloosa, 32-22 … and that feud was on.

Now, after 125 years, the football game between those two teams – Alabama versus Auburn … the Iron Bowl – is accepted as the best, fiercest, most hotly contested rivalry in all of college sports.

But, is it really? Fans of other teams in other parts of the country might disagree. They give special names to what they see as their special games.

There’s the game for Paul Bunyan’s Axe played between Minnesota and Wisconsin. And, there’s the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale, this time with the Golden Gophers slugging it out with Iowa. (In case you don’t know, that one is for a trophy of a pig named after the governor of Minnesota.)

You have The Game (between Harvard and Yale) and The Game (between Ohio State and Michigan, which sometimes actually has been the game). The Rivalry (between Lehigh and Lafayette, the longest uninterrupted matchup in college football), The Backyard Brawl (West Virginia against Pittsburgh, even though it’s about 75 miles between their yards in different states), and the Civil War (Oregon and Oregon State in the game of loud, gaudy uniforms).

Interesting, but are any of those really rivalries in the national sense. Does any game qualify as much as the Iron Bowl?

It takes many things to make a real rivalry:

** It needs to be competitive. Alabama leads the series with Auburn, 45-35-1, a comfortable margin for the Crimson Tide. But it is the closest of any regular Alabama opponent. Bama leads Georgia by 13 games and LSU and Tennessee by 17 games. The Tide wins 55 percent of its games against Auburn, the lowest percentage of any rivalry. By comparison, Texas leads Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout by 15 games and leads Texas A&M by 39 games. Alabama won nine consecutive times during the heyday of Coach Bryant’s dynasty in the 1970s. Otherwise, this series is virtually dead even with both teams having winning streaks.

** It needs to be significant nationally. The two state of Alabama teams are almost always nationally ranked and competing for championships. In the last eight seasons, Alabama has been in the national title playoffs six times, winning four. Auburn has won one and played in two, one of only five teams to be in the national title playoffs twice during that time. Over the past 60 seasons, Alabama has been the fifth winningest team in the country, Auburn 12th winningest – two of the college football’s elite programs over six decades.

** It needs to be significant every season. Do the teams play in the same conference? Not Florida-Florida State. Not Georgia-Georgia Tech. South Carolina-Clemson, Penn State-Pittsburgh, Kentucky-Louisville – none of those. USC-Notre Dame … the Irish aren’t even in a conference. But, Alabama and Auburn – Not only are they in the same conference, they are in the same division, the SEC West, the nation’s most difficult side of any league.

** It needs to have great players. It certainly qualifies. Heisman Trophy – Auburn has three; Alabama has two. Rimington, Lombardi, Outland, Thorpe, the other top national awards – Both teams have players who have won those, too. Offensive, defensive, skill positions, linemen, special teams. Among the best in college football every season.

** It needs to have rabid fans. No concern there. While a lot of teams have problems selling tickets or filling seats, Bryant-Denny and Jordan-Hare are full for every significant game and are sellouts for every game. The large fan bases, often too rabid, are that way year-round. It never stops.

** It needs close proximity. Notre Dame and USC – Those places are 1,800 miles apart. Texas and Oklahoma – 370 miles away. Michigan and Ohio State – make it 200 miles. All are in different states. Those people see other once a year at the most, win or lose. But, Auburn and Alabama – Those rabid fans live next door, sit in your Sunday School class, work in the next cubicle, shop at the same market. They’re there every day and don’t ever forget it.

Look at any others … Army/Navy (unmatched pageantry, but not relevant in six decades) … Bedlam (Oklahoma leads the series over the Cowboys, 87-18) … USC/UCLA (how long since that meant anything, but at least they’re near each other).

Are there any other teams, any other rivalry, that qualifies in every category? Not even close. Only the Iron Bowl. It stands alone.

So, here comes another Alabama-Auburn game. Playing with the SEC championship and a potential national championship berth on the line … again.

Hopefully, fans in the state of Alabama realize just how good they’ve got it, year-in and year-out.

As Ben Kercheival, lead college football writer for Bleacher Report, said in a column a couple of years ago:

“College football without the Iron Bowl might as well not even exist.”