SEC Outsider: The curious story of how a Cup (Apple) became bigger than a Bowl (Iron)

Wait one food coma, tryptophan minute: you’re telling me the Iron Bowl, this year, is less important than the Apple Cup?

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How do you like them rotten apples?

Not the “Iron Skillet,” the series battle between Fort Worth and Dallas won pan-handily this year by Texas Christian over Southern Methodist.

We're talking Auburn vs. Alabama and the most important college football element on the periodic table.

There may be no “i” in team but there is one in “Iron,” and this selfishly sensational game should never be anemically confused with Iron poor blood.

Yet, here we sit, on Nov. 23, one day from Thanksgiving, two days from an Apple Cup everyone is talking about and three days from an Iron Bowl that Alabama can afford to lose and still make the playoff.

It’s one thing not to care about an Iron Bowl on rare occasions neither school is very good. But that’s not the case here. Alabama is 11-0 and ranked No.1 in the latest committee ranking, while Auburn is 8-3 and ranked No. 13.

And that’s just not right.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

The Apple Cup, conversely, is the game with a possible playoff berth at stake. Washington needs to win to keep its playoff hopes percolating.

Mind you, this is the same Apple Cup series that featured, in 2008, a match-up of Washington (0-11) vs. Washington State (1-10).

What's more: Washington State’s only win that year was against 1-AA Portland State. This year, pardon my juxtaposition, Washington State lost to 1-AA Eastern Washington but is playing Washington for the Pac 12 North title.

This truly has been a weird year in the Southeastern Conference. Alabama’s total dominance of nation and league has knocked the stuffing out of the last week of the regular season.

Consider: the Crimson Tide is the only SEC team ranked in the top 10.

No. 15 Florida clinched the SEC East last week and will enter the title game with three losses if it loses to Florida State this weekend.

There is talk in some quarters Alabama Coach Nick Saban should rest some of his best players this week for the playoff run.

That was supposed to be the plan last week, against Chattanooga.

Resting up IN the Iron Bowl is nonsense, of course, because this rivalry means too much to the schools and the state. For most of the last decade, it has supplanted Ohio State-Michigan as the nation’s greatest sporting football rivalry.

Not this year. Michigan and Ohio State is back on top because the loser of Saturday’s game in Columbus is O-U-T of the playoff. Those are some big stakes.

Auburn at Alabama must rely on institutional hatred and muscle memory, which shouldn’t be a problem.

Too much gut-wrenching has happened in this game for it ever to be taken lightly.

The Iron Bowl has produced, of late, some of the greatest drama in college football history.

2009: Greg McElroy threw a four-yard scoring pass to Roy Upchurch with 1:24 left to lift Alabama to a 26-21 win on its way to Nick Saban’s first of four national titles.

2010: Are you kidding? Cam Newton-led Auburn erased a 24-0 deficit to beat Alabama, 28-27, on its way to the national title.

2013: Are you kidding, the sequel: Alabama fought for one second to be put back on the clock, only to have it back fire in the form of Chris Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed field goal for the winning Auburn touchdown. Holy Cow.

There was also the “Punt, Bama, Punt” game of 1972, but most of you kids are too young to remember.

It’s a pity Alabama can lose this year’s game and still earn a spot in the playoff—but that’s just how good Alabama has been.

So what if we have to “cook up” a few angles? Kevin Scarbinsky of Al.com noted this week that Saban, going back to his LSU days, is 0-6 in the Iron Bowl in seasons that Auburn has ended up with nine or more wins.

That is...stunning.

There is still a doomsday scenario, too, that makes winning important. There is only one scenario in which the SEC gets shut out of the playoff. Auburn defeats Alabama, Florida loses to Florida State and Florida defeats Alabama in the SEC title game.

That plan has only a couple of hitches: Alabama probably isn’t going to lose to Auburn---and no way is losing to Florida.

Still, it’s fitting that such a strange year in the SEC will conclude with an Iron Bowl equally as befuddling.

That doesn’t mean the game won’t be great.[/membership]

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