What’s at stake for the Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl?

Nothing is at stake for Alabama, and it’s all at stake in the final week of this wayward regular season.

Yes, it can be both.

And for the Crimson Tide, who find themselves in the unenviable and unexpected position of getting out of the SEC and national championship competition when Iron Bowl week beckons, it’s actually both.

There’s nothing at stake for 9-2 Alabama over Thanksgiving weekend because the tide can’t win another SEC title and can’t win another national title, the two biggest things on Nick Saban’s annual checklist.

Nothing is at stake in Tuscaloosa this fall as the Crimson Tide don’t start fall camp in early August with a goal of a 10-2 win.

Nothing is at stake for Bryce Young, either, as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is no longer struggling to win back-to-back Heismans. He’s had a solid season despite struggling through a sprained throwing shoulder, and he can smell the NFL now.

Of course, nothing is at stake for Will Anderson Jr., either, because Alabama’s all-world linebacker proved a long, long time ago that he’s all-world, and his NFL draft pick (assuming he goes pro) is pretty good place already in there.

Of course, nothing is at stake for Jahmyr Gibbs — who sat with a butt on his ankle in Saturday’s 34-0 sleepwalking against Austin Peay — as the running back has already proven himself for the Crimson Tide offense in his first season in Tuscaloosa .

So did defensemen Dallas Turner, Jordan Battle, Byron Young, Brian Branch and Henry To’oTo’o, along with the rest of defense coordinator Pete Golding’s bone-crushing crew, who scored their second shutout of the season on Saturday, albeit against one FCS enemy.

Gild yourself? Nothing is really at stake for him as Saban said earlier this week that his Year 5 coordinator “did a really, really good job” before heaping more praise on the way Golding teaches, motivates and communicates with his players. Also this week, Golding was nominated for the Broyles Award, presented annually to college football’s top assistant coach. So he’s good to go.

What about offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, you ask? Doesn’t he have a motivation for this meaningless Iron Bowl and what a disappointment of a bowl game Bama is picked for? Well, yeah, but his offense added nearly 50 points in the Tennessee loss, and then she scored in overtime at LSU before defense allowed the game-winning 2-point conversion, so it was more the fault of defense as the Tide lost those 2 games this season.

And don’t even bother us with Saban himself. The guy has won 6 national championships in Alabama since 2009 and with it a lot of Iron Bowls. And to suggest that a game against a 5-6 Auburn team will somehow affect his legacy one iota is just plain silly.

So really is to believe that any of the above is actually true. Yes, Alabama isn’t playing Auburn as usual in the 87th Iron Bowl with a chance to suspend SEC West, and The Tide isn’t hinted at another trip to the College Football Playoff as usual this time of year. These are hard truths for Saban, O’Brien, Golding, the rest of the coaching staff and every single player.

The biggest things that are usually at stake just aren’t there in Iron Bowl week this Thanksgiving. But despite all that, we were just kidding before. Nothing is at stake when it comes to football in Alabama. And most importantly, there’s always something at stake when it comes to playing Auburn — whether it was all the decade-long showdowns in Birmingham, whether the game will take place at Jordan-Hare Stadium, or whether it’ll take place in Tuscaloosa like it’s at will be this Saturday when the old rivals clash again.

First off, from Auburn’s perspective, an Iron Bowl disruption in Tuscaloosa would leave the Tigers 6-6 and bowlable. That alone makes the game extremely useful for an interim head coach like Cadillac Williams trying to become the permanent head coach.

And because an Auburn win would make the Tigers Bowl-eligible, that in turn means Alabama is desperate to win just to make sure Auburn doesn’t become Bowl-eligible. So add the bowl game factor for Auburn to the list of what’s actually at stake for Alabama this Saturday because it would bring joy to Bryce Young and Anderson and any Crimson Tide player, the Tigers from the lower tier Bowl out of which they would sneak if they somehow got a win at Bryant-Denny.

That being said, there are boxes for Saban’s team to tick a regular season finale, which was wayward as we mentioned at the outset, and so many other things: weird, sometimes unfulfilling, sometimes frustrating, head-scratching at still other times. Minding business at home, on national television, against an Auburn team meant to beat and beat it would bring a smooth and satisfying end to a regular season that was anything but.

Another box to tick? Those would be double-digit gains for a program that prides itself on doing just that. Since Saban took over in 2007, the only season The Tide didn’t finish with at least 10 wins (postseason included) was his very first season in 2007 when Bama went 7-6. A Saturday win would round out Tide’s record 10-2 and give Alabama a shot at 11 wins in its bowl game.

What about not losing at Bryant-Denny this season? Because as uneven as this regular season has been for the Tide, they could hang their hats on the win and the big win at home. Alabama is 6-0 at Bryant-Denny in 2022, with the only close game against Texas A&M coming on a night in early October when the Tide were forced to play without the injured Bryce Young.

Then there’s that very important box that Alabama legends Young and Anderson would worry about: They’re both juniors and will most likely drop out of school early to enter next spring’s NFL draft. That would make this Iron Bowl their last Iron Bowl, and that would mean they certainly don’t want to end their distinguished careers with the humiliation of losing at home to an Auburn program in turmoil. Throw in that same sentiment for all Crimson Tide seniors, and you get a Saturday ball game that means a whole lot.

Is there anything else at stake for Alabama? How about honoring the simple but vital thing called rivalry? The Tide has other good SEC rivalries, like those with Tennessee, Ole Miss, Georgia, Florida and LSU. But there is only 1 Iron Bowl, and it is the rivalry to end all rivalries. And no matter what your record or Auburn’s record, you reach the end of the regular season, you play Auburn, and you honor that historic rivalry by kicking your butt off because it means so much to the citizens of your state.

What about guys like Jermaine Burton and Jase McClellan who were kept under wraps for most of the regular season but were both knocked out by Austin Peay? Burton had 7 catches for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns, by far his best day in an Alabama uniform, and McClellan had 17 carries for 156 yards and 2 TDs, which was by far his best game of the season. Burton and McClellan want to finish with a bang, and they want to maintain their momentum so the record will show their uneven seasons ended with punch and precision.

What’s at stake for Alabama in the Iron Bowl? How about not losing the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide are proud to lead the series. On Saturday, the Iron Bowl scoreboard looks like this: Alabama 48 wins, Auburn 37 wins and 1 tie. Part of keeping that all-time lead in the rivalry forever is winning Iron Bowls, which you should definitely win, like this one where Alabama will surely be a big favorite.

The last box Bama wants to check? Very easy. In 2022, disagreements have plagued the Crimson Tide in many areas. For a program that has almost always performed well under Saban for a very long time, this Alabama team hasn’t always played well. It wasn’t just the losses in Tennessee and at LSU. There were periods in victories, like those over Texas and Texas A&M, that the Tide wasn’t herself.

A nice, thorough swipe at their hated in-state rivals from The Plains would be a nice, clean way to end a somewhat rocky regular season — at least in Alabama’s world, where perfection is demanded.

So here we go: It’s officially Iron Bowl Week in Tuscaloosa, in Auburn and in every corner of the state.

There are no SEC or national titles to pursue for Alabama. But don’t be fooled, nothing is on the line at Bryant-Denny Stadium this Saturday.

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