Sometime midway through his 25-year coaching career at Alabama, Paul Bryant admitted that he had placed too much importance on the Tennessee Game, a rivalry game that stemmed from his days as a Crimson Tide player in the 1930s, an assistant coach at Vanderbilt before World War II and his eight years as head coach of Kentucky (1946-53). Even his last game as Texas A&M coach at the end of the 1957 season ended in a 3-0 loss to the Volunteers at the Gator Bowl.
In Alabama, his practice the week of the Tennessee game was to wear all orange, even going so far as the scout team wore orange jerseys and helmets embellished with an athletic ribbon “T.”
“I had them ready to play on Thursday, but the game wasn’t until Saturday,” he reflected.
He turned that around and started treating it as another game, and in the last half of his career as Bama coach he went on to record 11 straight wins against the Vols.
It’s a lesson that rivalry games are accepted as bigger than others, but successful preparation doesn’t necessarily require changes.
There’s a reasonable perception that Auburn is playing his game against Nick Saban’s Alabama with more enthusiasm than Bama, the notion that beating the Crimson Tide is like a Super Bowl for the Tigers. Often with a bigger purpose, Alabama seem to view the Auburn game as just another game.
Last year, a team from Alabama heading for another Southeastern Conference championship and a spot in the national championship game fought mightily against a team from Auburn that would finish 6-7. It took a handful of miracles for The Tide to level the game in the dying seconds with a pass from Bryce Young to JáCorey Brooks and then win it with a pass from Young to John Metchie for the two-point conversion in overtime.
On the Monday before Saturday’s game between Alabama and Auburn (2:30 p.m. CST at Bryant-Denny Stadium, CBS broadcast), players from Saban and Bama discussed the extent of the rivalry.
Saban, who has a 10-5 record against Auburn and has lost to the Tigers more than any other team in his Bama career, said, “This is one of the greatest rivalry games in college football. For almost every team in Rivalry, how they fared in Rivalry is part of their legacy. And this is one of the biggest, and it means a lot to a lot of people in our state. It means a lot to us, our players and our fans and we will do our best to prepare for this game.
“We’ve been trying all year to get our players to focus on being motivated from within, what they want to achieve and what they want to do, how good they want to be. Rather than relying on external factors to create that motivation for them. But I think in games like this there will be some external factors that could be positive for some of the guys. I can’t rule that out.”
Young, whose heroics in last year’s game were almost certainly important in his selection as the Heisman Trophy winner, said, “It’s always tough at the Iron Bowl. We have great respect for them as a program and we know it will take everything.
“I’m definitely not ignoring it. This is a huge, huge game, it means a lot to us, it means a lot to all the former players, to all the alumni; it means a lot in the state. So it’s a big game for us and me individually. I understand and I’m not afraid; it’s a huge game, a big rivalry game; that means a lot. I understand that.
“But with that I also understand my responsibility to do what I have to do during the game, before the game, to put myself in the best situation that I can, to put our team in the best situation, to put us in the best situation as a team to be successful. So for me it’s just a matter of finding your head clear, to understand the seriousness of the situation, the moment, to be centered, to do my best to play and perform, so that’s where mine head before the game is.
Linebacker Will Anderson said, “It’s one of the biggest games. It means something.
“Coach Saban says what you do in this game will make you remembered.
“It’s one of the biggest games in the country. It means a lot to many people. I know it means a lot to the people at this facility and to the players.
“Auburn has a really good team, a really good coaching staff.
“It’s going to be a good challenge for us, but we’re ready to take the challenge and play by the Alabama standard.”