Which team will rule the state with an iron fist?

The annual Iron Bowl game would be huge even if Auburn and Alabama both entered the contest with 1-10 records. That’s just the mindset of football fans in Alabama, where this rivalry isn’t just about football.

It would not be hyperbole to say this game is on the minds of every citizen in the state around the clock, 365 days a year.

This season, college football fans not only in that great state but across the nation should be treated to one of the more memorable matchups between these bitter rivals, as the Tigers (11-0) look to clear perhaps their biggest hurdle in their quest for a spot in the BCS national championship game while Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide (9-2) look to play the ultimate spoiler — and leave Auburn fans stewing for the next 364 days until the teams clash again.

How important is this matchup for both schools? Well, Bill Curry was the head coach at Alabama in 1989 and finished the regular season 10-1. The one loss? It came at the hands of Auburn. The next season, Gene Stallings was the head coach in Tuscaloosa.

That 1989 season was also the last time an undefeated team came into the Iron Bowl and lost.

Cam NewtonICONCan Alabama's defense contain Auburn QB Cam Newton?

Of course, the big question this year is how can Alabama’s defense slow down Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who is ninth in the nation in rushing yards at 117.9 per game?

Knowing he can’t be entirely stopped is the first step.

The 6-6, 250-pound Newton is going to get his yards on the ground because not only can he run through defenses, but he can dance around them as well. What Marcell Dareus and the Tide will try to do is keep the damage to a minimum and make him go east and west rather than north and south.

However, there is also the problem of trying to make sure running backs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, who have combined for over 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns, don’t get going on the ground, as well.

It’s not often that an SEC team can run off six straight 300-yard rushing efforts in conference play — which is exactly what the Tigers have done heading into this contest.

But during its 20-game home winning streak, Alabama has allowed just one rushing touchdown while scoring 43 of their own on the ground. And in 13 of the 20 wins, the Tide have held their opponents to single digits in points.

But even if the run game fails the Tigers, who are ranked fifth nationally in scoring offense and sixth in total offense, Newton still has the ability to throw. The dual-threat signal caller has passed for 2,038 yards with 21 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions on the year.

That’s a problem for an Alabama secondary that has had some breakdowns in coverage this season because of its youth. The talent is there, but it’s not the veteran unit that it was last season.

Speaking of last year, it was Alabama’s prolific rushing attack that was the envy of everyone across the college football nation. Led by the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, who rushed for 1,658 yards, the Tide’s run game was the bread and butter of the offense. Mix in a little play-action from quarterback Greg McElroy and a few big plays down the field from wide receiver Julio Jones, and it was easy to see why the offensive attack was effective enough to keep the defense off the field and fresh throughout the game.

This season, Ingram and the equally talented Trent Richardson have combined for 1,414 rushing yards — solid for most teams, sure, but devoid of consistent big plays. The duo combined to rush for 2,409 yards in 2009. Why the decline in production this season?

Ingram missed the first two games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in the preseason. And although he re-emerged on the Heisman scene with productive games upon his return, he did suffer from swelling in the knee shortly thereafter. He just refused to use being banged up as an excuse, and he said that he’s felt fine since the team’s bye week.

Richardson also has battled an injury, missing his second straight game with a bum knee last week. Eddie Lacy rushed for 81 yards in his absence, but Richardson is expected to be ready to go against the Tigers.

The offensive line has also been banged up and has dealt with a rotating cast of characters. And right guard Barrett Jones is likely out again this week with an ankle injury.

Mark IngramICONThe reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram hopes to re-establish the Tide's rushing attack.

Alabama ran the ball almost twice as much as it threw last season, but that hasn’t been the case this year. While a lot of that has to do with the fact that defenses are loading the box and leaving single coverage on the receivers, it also speaks to the fact that the rushing attack has been affected by a lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and personnel shuffling.

But because McElroy is such a competent and efficient signal caller, the Tide has been able to compensate by moving the ball through the air. And that can be of great benefit against an Auburn secondary that has struggled throughout the season.

The Tigers rank 100th in the nation in pass defense, giving up an average of 244.1 yards per game, and 74th in pass efficiency defense. They rank 50th nationally in total defense and 60th in scoring defense.

If the ground game isn't prolific, Ingram showed against Mississippi State that he could still be valuable out of the backfield in the passing game. It’s also likely that the reigning Heisman winner will see a decent amount of chances out of the wildcat and pistol, as well. Those unique looks, along with perhaps an end around from Jones and various screens to Marquis Maze, are essential if the Tide want to play keep away from the Auburn offense to limit Newton’s time on the field.

Much has been made as to whether or not Auburn has a championship-caliber defense, as no BCS national champion has ever been ranked lower than 17th nationally at the end of the season in scoring defense. However, the Tigers do seem to make just enough plays in the fourth quarter to hold on for victories. And keep in mind that Ohio State was ranked 95th nationally in pass defense in 2002 and the Buckeyes went 14-0 and won the national title.

They may not have looked pretty defensively during their emotional journey up to this point, but the Tigers have gone unscathed. Will that remain the case after all is said and done late Friday afternoon in Tuscaloosa?

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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