Either Auburn or Alabama has appeared in each of the last five BCS National Championship Games, and there is no good reason to think—now that the field has been swollen from two to four—that this year's debut of the College Football Playoff will lack both Heart of Dixie juggernauts.
But which has the better team in 2014?
Auburn won the head-to-head matchup and made it farther last season, but Alabama has a five-year sample of success that every school in the country would kill for—the Tigers included.
In fact, according to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, 'Bama was still the better team in 2013—and even in 2010, when Auburn won the national title with Cam Newton:
|Auburn vs. Alabama in F/+ Ratings|
|ALA F/+||ALA Rank||AUB F/+||AUB Rank|
|Source: Football Outsiders|
Auburn returns more starters from last season, but that doesn't mean it returns more talent. It might have a top-three talented team in the country, but this is one of the few cases where it loses out.
The way Alabama recruits—its last four classes have been first, first, first and first in the country on the 247Sports team rankings—it will always have the talent, on paper, to beat whoever lines up across the line. The question is whether it can execute.
To that end, I think it will take time.
If Auburn and its group of seasoned, experienced players drew Alabama in the early part of the schedule, I think it could and would win. The Tide also have some guys who have played in a national title game, but the Tigers have more. And that would make the difference.
However, as the season trudges onward to the Iron Bowl, Alabama will begin to figure who its best players are and where and how often those players should play. Auburn is ahead of Alabama in this respect, but once Nick Saban deciphers the puzzle of his ranks, the Tide should restore their place atop the state of Alabama rankings.
There are two good arguments an Auburn fan—or, really, anyone who disagrees—would make to oppose this. The first has to do with the most important player on the field: the quarterback.
Auburn has Nick Marshall, who led the Tigers to an SEC championship and nearly won a national title last year and is now listed on most preliminary Heisman boards. Alabama, on the other hand, has a four-man competition led primarily by a career backup (Blake Sims) and a transfer who has yet to step on campus (Jacob Coker).
However, Auburn supporters should be wary before offering that as their chief point. Last year, after all, the Tigers entered spring camp with a four-man competition, while Alabama returned AJ McCarron: a three-time national champion who had started in two of those wins.
In that case, the preseason advantage was profoundly in Alabama's favor. But by the end of the season...well, we all saw what happened.
Quarterbacks get better with playing time, and with the aid of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Chris Black and O.J. Howard, whoever wins the Alabama job will be functioning at a high level by the end of next season.
The other argument an Auburn fan might offer is the obvious one: that it beat Alabama last season.
This is also fair—but also flawed. Auburn didn't get "lucky" to beat the Tide in the 2013 Iron Bowl, but it was definitely the luckier team on the field. The broken-play touchdown to Sammie Coates and the field-goal return to end the game were both incredible feats by incredible athletes, and Auburn deserved to win the game because of them.
They just wouldn't be able to be replicated.
I'm not arguing that Alabama was leaps and bounds better than Auburn last season. I'm arguing, like the table above, that it was slightly better than Auburn last season. That if it played the Iron Bowl at Auburn 10 times, it would have won six; and if it played the Tigers on a neutral field 10 times, it would have won seven or eight.
With the personnel losses from last year to this, I am willing to deflate that prediction by one game on each side. If this year's Alabama played Auburn in Jordan-Hare 10 times, I think they would split it; if they played on a neutral field 10 times, I think the Tide would win six.
Because I think so highly of this year's Alabama team—no, I am not a homer, I promise—my saying that is intended as a compliment. The Tide, in my opinion, will come out hungry after losing two games to end last season, which is terrifying to think about.
As Saban himself said, according to Mike Herndon of AL.com:
We lost two games in a row so that's a losing streak that I'm not real proud of. I think a lot of the things that were the principles and values that the program was built on in the very beginning, a lot of the energy and enthusiasm that everybody in our state had for the program, that I think we all got a little entitled in terms of what we needed to do to continue to be successful.
These are two of the five best teams in college football, so picking between them is nitpicky. There's a good chance the Iron Bowl, once again, amounts to something of a de facto SEC semifinal—which fits nicely in the first year of the College Football Playoff.
However, at least at the current moment, the slight edge goes to the team that has proven it over a longer sample. In cases this close, the statistics nerd in me always wins.
I'll still take the Crimson.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
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