Saturdays in Athens
Saturday 28th november 2020
Welcome to our weekly round up of life in the Southeastern Conference.
This week’s column is going to be different from others as this week is….RIVALRY WEEK
……`and not only is there an Iron Bowl but also an Egg Bowl which is about as much excitement as I can handle to be honest. So Saturdays In Athens will take you through this week’s build up to the big games, getting you up to speed with what is happening in each camp ahead of this blockbuster week.
Let’s get started y’all!
The Iron Bowl
The Cotton State
In the beginning…
So where did it all start?
Well, believe it or not the rivalry dates back to the Civil War where a bitter dispute arose over land allocated under the Land Grant Act of 1862.
The bitter divide erupted as parts of the State missed out on both land and compensation paid out post the Civil War. As you can guess, one area (University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa) prospered on the back of these funds and the other (Auburn University at Auburn) missed out.
This dispute over land and money was to last four years and created a huge divide between the then Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (later to be called Auburn University) and the University of Alabama which would continue until today.
The first football game between the two is recorded on February 22 1893. It was played at Lakeview Park in Birmingham, Alabama in front of 5,000 fans who saw Auburn defeat Alabama 32-22.
The intense rivalry between the two Universities mirrored the political divide which raged across the South and the games between the two were often subject to cancellation and postponements, particularly during the early part of the 20th century where the game was not played for several years.
In 1948, the game was moved to Legion Field in Birmingham – mostly as Alabama refused to travel the “poor” roads to Auburn to play. Although both Tennessee and Georgia Tech also refused to travel to Auburn.
With the improvements made to Jordan Hare in the 80’s and much lobbying by Auburn, it was eventually agreed that Auburn games would be played at Jordan Hare although Alabama decided to continue to play their Iron Bowl game at Legion Field. It wasn’t until 2000 that the Crimson Tide moved the Iron Bowl home games to Bryant Denny.
Why the Iron Bowl?
The Birmingham area of Alabama was synonymous with the steel industry. Prior to the rivalry game in 1964, Auburn Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan was asked by reporters how he would deal with not leading his team to a bowl game that season. Shug responded,
“We’ve got our Bowl game. We have it every year. It’s the Iron Bowl in Birmingham”
Roll Tide Roll...
With Kentucky out of the way and a focus on the Tigers this Saturday, Coach Saban faced the press at the start of the week. This was of course prior to his positive test for Covid-19 which happened mid week.
Head Coach Saban was asked what lessons he had learned from last years defeat to Auburn, Saban reacted by saying,
“Well we didn’t play very well in that game. We made a lot of mental errors in the game. I’m taking nothing away from them, they played really well in the game and they deserved to win. We couldn’t make plays when we needed to make them. You know, we gave them a couple of pick sixes for touchdowns. So there’s a lot things to be learned and in every game that you play. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned in that game for us. We’re going to have to execute a whole lot better for us to have success in this game”.
The mood was light in the camp on Tuesday as Najee Harris met the press. Najee was in good mood ahead of the biggest game of the season.
Najee was asked what improvements he had seen in Mack Jones from the last Auburn game until now. Najee had this to say about his Quarterback,
“He’s grown in a lot of ways….from making the right reads, to being a leader, learning more of the game and understanding the plays. Him playing more of that captain role and voicing his opinions and stuff like that. Just being the vocal point of the offense. But from last year, from the Auburn game until now? He’s made a huge step, a huge improvement. Its for sure not the same Mac Jones that they saw at the Auburn game last year.”
Najee was asked about growing up in California, did this game mean anything to him and what has he told his folks back home about the game. Najee responded this way,
“What do I tell my folks about the Auburn game? I mean …..nothing (Najee smiles…). I don’t even tell them who I’m playing. They’ll find out soon enough I guess….(Najee smiles again)”.
“Since my freshman year, I didn’t really know anything about any of the rivalries in college to be honest with you – I come from California – especially in the South.
The only thing I know about is USC and UCLA.
But experiencing my first Iron Bowl in my freshman year, the environment was crazy. It’s just a huge game that folks out here take very seriously. So since they take it seriously, we have to take it seriously. I take it seriously.
The first game, I lost my first Iron Bowl – they stormed the field. Second Iron Bowl we won and this last one we lost so I’m 2-1…..hey, wait 2-2?”
Reporter…”no, 1 and 2″
Najee “oh, 1-2, oh shoot, I’m 1-2? so, we’re all looking forward to playing in this Iron Bowl. Let’s see how it plays out……man, I didn’t know we were 1-2……. It is what it is”.
By mid-week it felt all a little bit Groundhog Day. Except this time the false positive was a positive positive. Yes, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban tested positive for the virus. And sadly he was suffering from mild symptoms and will now miss all practice leading up to and the Iron Bowl itself.
However, the virus was not going to stop Coach Saban from preparing his team for what is arguably the biggest game of the Crimson Tide’s season.
Saban’s false positive ahead of the Georgia game effectively gave the Tide some live preparation in the event that their head coach would not be available. So, Alabama were in fact able to practice even this eventuality.
So, of course Wednesday Nick Saban spoke to the press via zoom.
“it’s not about me, it’s really about the players. I want to be there for the players to help them to be able to play the best and to inspire them anyway that you can as a coach and a teacher to get the best out of them so the they have the best opportunity to be successful. I know how important it is for a lot of them and I know how difficult it is sometimes when you have disruptions to overcome them. But we have a lot of very capable coaches……but the biggest thing I am going to miss is being with our players and being a part of our team and helping those players to have the best opportunity to be successful.
“We can actually pipe the game in – you can’t see much on TV, so I’ll have the same feed that we take of the game, which is the film we watch on Sunday. So I’ll be able to see a bit more of what’s happening. Kind of like if you were in the press box….”
Auburn Head Coach, Gus Malzahn spoke to the media ahead of the Iron Bowl game on Tuesday.
Malzahn was open about the game and playing against the #1 seed in the country, fielding a number of questions about what he thought about players from the opposing side. But he was also asked about his defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele and what he brings to the Tigers defensive side of the ball, Malzahn said this of Steele,
“Well first of all he does a great job in preparation with our players. He tries to take away what the offence does best. The thing about Kevin is that we’ve really been good at tackling and just the basic fundamentals of playing defense that a lot of times gets overlooked in this day and time. Because people worry more about scheme. I think he does a great job in all those areas”.
Malzahn was asked just how different this game (the Iron Bowl) is to others on the schedule. Malzahn replied,
“This isn’t a normal game. This is the Iron Bowl. I first coached in this game in 2009 as a co-ordinator and people would tell me what it was like. But you’ve got to experience it to fully understand it and to get a grasp of it. And it changes you. And I know after that first year it changed me. And this is something here at Auburn, for me personally, I think about it 365 days a year”.
And finally asked about his Auburn Tigers defense and the ability to disrupt the Alabama offense, Malzahn was glowing in his praise of his D-line,
“I think we’re one of the better red zone defences in the country. And you just said it, we’ve had three interceptions in the end zone. Of course two of those were taken back 100 yards for touchdowns. One of those was brought back but we’ve been very opportunistic down there. Our defense… has done a super job so we got to continue that”
On Wednesday, Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, met with the press. Being from Alabama, Nix was naturally asked about what it means playing in this game. Nix replied,
“You probably play as hard as you’ve ever played in a game in your entire life. Just because of how much it means. And obviously there’s a lot of kids going to school on Monday who are going to have to put up with a lot of crap, whichever way it goes.
There’s a lot of people from out of state that come into Auburn and Alabama just to play football in the program and then when they get tossed into the rivalry their eyes are open and they see what its all about. It’s definitely a huge rivalry, the biggest in college football. One of the biggest in sports, so obviously you have to play extremely hard and refuse to lose”
The Egg Bowl
The Magnolia State
When Mike Leach was announced as the Head Coach of Mississippi State back in January, the College Football world immediately circled the Egg Bowl in the calendar.
The bringing together of Leach and his in state compatriot Lane Kiffin is as box office as it gets and eagerly anticipated not just in the SEC but across the country. And if you include me, the world.
And remember this fun fact. Neither Coach has actually coached in an Egg Bowl so far. Both are rookies going into Saturdays’ games…..
In the beginning….
The first time that the two Universities played was in 1901 when the then Mississippi A&M College (later to be renamed Mississippi State University) beat Ole Miss, (then nicknamed the Red & Blue) by 17-0. Both teams have met annually ever since with the exceptions of 1911-1915 and then again in 1943 as a result of both World Wars.
To date the rivalry is the tenth longest uninterrupted series in the United States.
The game isn’t always played on Thanksgiving but has been played on Turkey day 23 times before this weekend.
But why the Egg Bowl?
In the early part of the series, the Aggies dominated, however in 1926 the Red & Blue brought to an end an especially long dry spell beating the Aggies 7-6 in Starkville. Upon the final whistle, the travelling fans from Oxford rushed the field attempting to remove the goalposts. Unsurprisingly the Aggie fans responded angrily and a melee ensued.
Once the post mortem had been carried out, students from both schools created the “Golden Egg” trophy to present to the winners of each contest. The general belief is that the trophy was designed to look like a football, however the shape of footballs in 1927 was far less regimented than today, so perhaps resembles more of an egg than a football
“It’s a big deal”
“I’d known about it (the Egg Bowl) from watching it, it used to be on Thanksgiving a lot. You know my brother was here for a lot of years so I knew it was always really competitive and kind of a big deal around here. So, it’s a big deal”.
At the start of the week, Kiffin seemed in serious mood however by midweek Kiffin was in more upbeat mood, arriving at the press conference with a bobble head of himself. When asked if he had to fill his car up with gas to get the bobble head, Kiffin responded,
“I didn’t know this but from what you said I’m assuming you can get one if you fill up with gas somewhere. They actually gave me one for free so I got a deal on it. I’ve come a long ways in this world that you get a bobble head of me if you fill up with gas. I feel like I’ve made it now….”
Kiffin went on to talk about the mood on the practice field,
“The players are really excited for this match up. Records don’t matter when you play these games. There was a crazy game a year ago that I got to watch and you can see the emotions of the players, we’ve got to be really careful not to make mistakes by letting our emotions get too high”.
“Only Gus Malzahn has a a Clipboard!”
On the Paul Finebaum show on Monday, Lane Kiffin wasn’t letting the slight on his character about owning a clipboard go. When asked about the T-shirt he was wearing, which reflected his previous week’s “clipboard” antics, Kiffin said,
“It’s the clipboard as they call it – even tho’ its a call sheet, not a clipboard. Coach Malzahn is the only one that still has a clipboard”.
The Redemption of Elijah Moore
One of the real success stories of the Lane Kiffin era, as short as it has been, is the performances of the Oxford dynamic duo, Corral and Moore. And for Elijah Moore this is truly redemption from exactly a year ago.
You may recall that a penalty on Moore, for fake peeing like a dog in the endzone effectively cost the Rebels the game and the Egg Bowl.
It also cost Ole Miss Head Coach, Matt Luke his job.
And for Moore, the ignonimity of being known as the guy who fake peed like a dog.
But the one thing we know in football, is that people get second chances. Lane Kiffin gave Moore the chance. And Elijah Moore grabbed it.
At this point in the season Elijah Moore has set a record for the most receiving yards in SEC history through 7 games (1,054 yards). He’s also surpassed a 1,000 yard season in fewer games than any other player in Ole Miss history. If that wasn’t enough, Moore is the only player in SEC history to rush +225 yards in consecutive games.
Moore faced the assembled press this week of the lessons he has learned. Moore said this,
“I feel like I learned a lot. I’m human, I make mistakes. You know you’ve got to learn from them and don’t let it happen again. I let my team down and I won’t let it happen again”.
All kudos to the young man for facing up to the media in this of all weeks.
It didn’t take Mike Leach to get into the spirit of the Apple Cup. Wait, what? Yup, Leach rarely disappoints and whether his slip of the tongue was error or perfectly timed humour it remained the highlight of the Monday press conferences.
You can see the faux pas in full in the videoclip above but in summary Leach confused the Apple Cup (Washington v Washington State) with the Egg Bowl. Whether that was designed to lighten the mood or deflect attention away from his players, only the great man will know.
On the game itself Leach said,
“It’s exciting to be a part of it and to get the chance to play in one”.
And Per Nate Gabler of Sports Illustrated, Leach responded to the question about his relationship with the Rebels, Lane Kiffin,
“I guess we both know Monte [Kiffin]. Lane knew Monte Kiffin first and then I met Monte. Monte introduced me [to his son] Lane, so, I guess we’re both mutual friends with Monte. That kind of brought us together. Just over the years seeing him around coaching and spending time with him. I mean he’s an enjoyable guy. The worst thing, especially in this day in age, and then coaching for life or anytime that you’re doing something as repetitious as football, you try to avoid as many boring people as you can. Lane’s not boring, so I’ve always been excited to spend time with him. If you’re stuck at one of these coaches meeting things that everybody pretends are so important, Lane lightens it up a little bit. I for one am happy that he’s [at the coaches meetings].”
On his experience of coaching in rivalry games, Leach said,
“Well we were a lot more successful in our rivalry with Texas A&M when we were at Texas Tech, so I’m going to try to draw as much as I can from the Tech/ A&M rivalry as opposed to the Washington/ Washington State one”
“The biggest thing is to keep your players alert and focused. Try to prepare as well as you can. Because everyone will already be engaged. You guys know, you all hear about it all year round. We’ve got everybody engaged. We’ve got everybody’s attention. That’s not really the issue. To keep everybody focused and prepared well is the biggest issue”.
And finally as I finish this column off late on Friday night, reports suggest that Mississippi State will travel 47 players to Oxford, which is an improvement on the 43 players that they took to Athens to play Georgia.
And finally, finally. A last Leach’ism to leave you with. When Mike Leach asked where Thanksgiving ranks among the best holidays Coach Leach said this.
“It’s behind Christmas, Halloween and Fourth of July. New Year’s Eve is in there, too. Thanksgiving is either fourth or fifth”.
A GLASWEGIAN LIVING IN LONDON, GEORGE IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL FAN WHO FOLLOWS THE ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE. HE PROVIDES CFB CONTENT FOR THE TOUCHDOWN AND IS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.