They call Alabama the "Heart of Dixie," but really it's the heart of college football.
But how did the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers both rise to the pinnacle of the sport while sharing a state with a population less than 5 million?
The Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama this season was the best game of the entire year and is one of the most heated rivalries in any sport. When the Tigers won, they went on to win the Southeastern Conference and earn a spot to play for the national title.
But leading up to that contest, 'Bama quarterback AJ McCarron wasn't rooting for his rival to lose. Instead, he wanted the Tigers to win one for the Yellowhammer State, per John Zenor, ABC3340.com:
I know there's some crazy fans in the South, Auburn and Alabama, that will go to their grave hating one another, which is absurd to me. The players don't think like that, so I don't understand why the fans think like that. But it's what makes it a good rivalry. But I'll be rooting for them (Auburn). I know that. I want them to win.
I think it's awesome. I think it shows how much talent we have in the state between two great schools and it would be awesome to keep it (the BCS trophy) in the state of Alabama, definitely.
Despite McCarron's wishes, Auburn didn't bring the crystal football back home, falling just a few points short in a 34-31 defeat to Florida State.
It would've been the fifth straight national championship won by either Auburn or Alabama. The Tide started the streak in 2009 and won two in a row in 2011 and 2012. The Tigers bridged that gap with a 2010 NCG win over Oregon.
However, FSU stopped them from doing it again.
Even in the close defeat, it secured the fifth straight season that a team from Alabama finished either first or second in the AP Top 25. Ironically, the team that finished first and prevented Auburn from sealing the state's fifth national title was led by an Alabama native.
|Alabama and Auburn in Final AP Top 25|
The best player for the Seminoles was undoubtedly their quarterback, Jameis Winston—a Bessemer, Ala. native. Winston finished the season with more than 4,000 passing yards with 44 total touchdowns. In the national title game against the Tigers, he threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns, leading the game-winning drive in the final minute to give FSU the win.
Even when the state lost the national title, one of its best products won.
The outstanding season was enough for Winston to claim the Heisman trophy, the third in the last five years to go to an Alabama native or a player from Auburn or Alabama.
Cam Newton took the trophy for Auburn in 2010, while Mark Ingram claimed it for 'Bama in 2009.
Winston's departure from the state was rare—it isn't often that AU and UA allow top talent to go beyond the border. Auburn and Alabama pulled in at least 10 of the top 12 players from the state from 2009-2011, a major fuel source behind their title runs.
However, in 2012, Winston's class, the two slipped up, combining for just six of the 12 best players in the state, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. That includes the No. 1 prospect, Winston.
|Auburn and Alabama's Final Recruiting Rankings|
|* = Pre signing day rank|
|247Sports Composite Ratings|
Even in 2012, Auburn and Alabama pulled in remarkable classes. 'Bama has finished with a top five class in each of the last seven years, while Auburn has finished 13th or better in each of the last five.
While much of that success comes from inside the state, both programs also have the ability to snatch top prospects from other states, right out from under SEC rivals.
Each year, several top prospects from neighboring hotbeds Louisiana, Florida and Georgia spur in-state programs to go to Auburn or Alabama. This simultaneously builds up football in Alabama while breaking down programs like UGA, LSU and UF.
|Out-of-State 4- and 5-Star Recruits for AU and AU|
|* = Pre signing day|
|247Sports Composite Ratings|
The Crimson Tide have a 5-star recruit from Florida in each of their last four classes, while Auburn claims a 4-star from Florida in each class. Dating back to 2008, either Alabama or Auburn has drawn in at least one 4-star from Louisiana.
Georgia has been perhaps the biggest draw. A total of 26 4- and 5-star recruits from the Peach State have gone to Alabama and Auburn in the last five recruiting classes.
Thanks to success in and out of their state, the two look like they'll pull top 10 classes once again.
There are many reasons behind the dominance by the two programs on the recruiting trail. They are both led by excellent coaches.
Alabama's Nick Saban, with four national titles on his resume, is regarded as the best coach in college football. Auburn's Gus Malzahn is one of the best new coaches in the sport and one of its best offensive minds.
Both programs also boast a wealth of tradition. Both have more than 700 all-time wins and multiple national titles.
That tradition has been present and growing for decades. The enormous fan bases are football-minded and children grow up in the state loving the Tide, the Tigers and football in general.
Then those children grow up watching and playing the sport, vying to be the next Winston or McCarron. Then there are players like Ingram who head down from places like Flint, Mich., to play in college football's premier state.
So as the College Football Playoff era begins, the sport's blood will continue to pump through the Heart of Dixie.