Nick Saban vs. Gus Malzahn Keeps Iron Bowl as College Football's Best Rivalry

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterApril 15, 2014

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnButch Dill

The best rivalry in college football lived up to the hype last season.

Auburn topped Alabama 34-28 when Chris Davis returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown as time expired to win the Iron Bowl and the SEC West and propel the Tigers to the SEC Championship Game.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Alabama head coach Nick SabanDave Martin

It was the first time since the divisional split in 1992 that the game served as the de facto SEC West title game. Judging from the coaches and the depth on each roster, that was the start of a trend rather than an aberration.

Alabama's Nick Saban successfully built and maintained a dynasty in Tuscaloosa as the BCS era wound down, winning national titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and quickly erased the memories of the Mike Shula era. His old-school, defensive-minded approach has proven that it not only can be successful in the age of innovative offenses, but that it can win consistently at an elite level.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnUSA TODAY Sports

Auburn's Gus Malzahn is the opposite.

His hurry-up, no-huddle power attack out of the spread has ushered in a new-school approach to old-school power football. Malzahn already has a national title ring from his days as Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2010 and nearly put another one on his finger following the 2013 season, but his Tigers fell 34-31 to Florida State.

Alabama AD Bill Battle
Alabama AD Bill BattleUSA TODAY Sports

"If you're going to win a national championship, you better have good players on both sides of the ball," Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said. "The different backgrounds adds to the chess match between offensive and defensive geniuses, but football is a game of a lot of people, all of whom are going to have influence." 

It's no accident that the two heated rivals from the same state have vastly different styles. Instead of following in Alabama's footsteps in terms of style and scheme, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs stepped out on his own to further establish Auburn's unique identity.

"That hurry-up, no-huddle is what high school kids really enjoy these days," Jay Jacobs said. "Even though we're both recruiting the best athletes and go head-to-head on a lot of recruits, our style is totally different. It's what Gus has always run since he was a high school coach, and has made the games really fun. It's a totally different style than the pro style, and it gives the prospects a choice."

While the two coaches boast different offenses, even the defensive schemes offer variety to high school prospects looking to make a splash in the SEC.

"All of the sudden, the playing field has been leveled even on defense," said Cole Cubelic, a former Auburn center from 1997-2000 and current Sun Belt football analyst. "Auburn's not trying to sign a 330-pound nose guard who's going to eat up space in the middle. You look at the defensive ends, I think [Auburn defensive coordinator] Ellis [Johnson] likes to use lighter guys who can rush the passer. The 3-4 defensive ends [at Alabama] are much different players."

The distinctive styles have helped propel each program to college football's peak in essentially the same era. One of the two programs has played for the BCS National Championship in each of the past five seasons and both will likely enter the 2014 campaign in the Top Five, according to Phil Steele's preseason AP poll projection.

That success has transformed the football-crazed state of Alabama to the capital of the college football world. 

For Brandon Gibson, a former wide receiver for the Alabama Crimson Tide from 2007-11 and current sales rep inside the state for Magnolia Specialty Pharmacy, that means he not only is talking to the fans, but that the fans want to know his perspective as a former Tide player.

"I hear a little bit of everything," Gibson said. "I always hear the 'Gus Bus' thing, which is kind of funny. Being a former player at Alabama, everybody wants to talk about it. It's very exciting to have such a big stage of football in one state. I don't think anybody can argue that college football is at its best in the state of Alabama."

Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Alabama head coach Nick SabanUSA TODAY Sports

Battle was in the same boat. 

Before he moved back to Tuscaloosa last March to become Alabama's athletic director, he founded the Collegiate Licensing Company in Atlanta, Ga. Even when he was one state over, the former Alabama end (1960-62) couldn't escape Iron Bowl talk.

"I had a place on Lake Weis in Centre, Ala., which is between Gadsden, Ala., and Rome, Ga.," he said. "I'd go out to play golf, and whatever time of year it was, all the conversation was about Alabama and Auburn football year-round. I said, 'Dang, that's all you guys talk about.' They'd say, 'Yeah, if it wasn't for Alabama and Auburn football, there probably wouldn't be much conversation around the state.'"

The success has brought the eyeballs of the nation to a rivalry that is rich in tradition. From Bear Bryant to Shug Jordan to Pat Dye and Gene Stallings, this rivalry has been heated before, but nothing like this.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn (left) and Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn (left) and Alabama head coach Nick SabanKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"It's as intense as it has ever been," said Jacobs, who was an offensive lineman for the Tigers from 1980-83 before becoming AD. "With media access, particularly in regards to social media, a lot of people who typically wouldn't hear about it do hear about it. It's as intense today as it was when I was playing, when it was Dye against Bryant."

It's not just a game that resonates within two fanbases or between the borders of one state. It's a game that resonates nationally.

"When I was in school (from 1997-00), getting to the BCS title game was almost not even realistic," Cubelic said. "That was really from either school's perspective. Alabama won a title in '92 and played in some SEC title games, and we played in two SEC Championship Games. But the national title wasn't realistic."

Even when Auburn was sputtering to its first 0-8 conference record in program history in 2012, the game served as the final chapter of the Gene Chizik era.

That mattered on the national scene, because it opened the door to the new era.

"It's not just David versus Goliath anymore," Cubelic said. "It's old-school versus new-school college football, which is right where it should be."

With Malzahn and Saban at the helm of Auburn and Alabama, respectively, it's going to stay where it should be for quite some time.


* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.