Of the great rivalries in sport, Alabama-Auburn tops them all

/ National Columnist

In the state of Alabama, the Auburn-Alabama game is in your face 365 days a year. (USATSI)

In the state of Alabama, the Auburn-Alabama game is in your face 365 days a year. (USATSI)

Mike Krzyzewski has thought about a Duke-North Carolina national championship game, and what the Duke coach decided is this: He wants no part of it. He's not scared of the Tar Heels, but he knows human nature -- and he knows somebody has to lose.

"I can live with losing to any school," Krzyzewski once said, "but what would happen in this area, people-wise, if one of us beat the other in the championship game ... I wouldn't wish [that] on anybody, it would be so horrible."

Yet it happens every year. Every November a game with the intensity, the local importance, the bragging rights of a Duke-Carolina national championship matchup happens. It happens in college football, and an entire state convulses. Somebody wins, but somebody loses. And for them it's so horrible, I wouldn't wish it on anybody.

It's Alabama-Auburn.

This is the biggest rivalry in college sports, and it's not particularly close, and not because the stakes this year are so incredibly high. It's the biggest rivalry in college sports because that's what it is year in, year out. The only thing that compares is in basketball -- and no, not Duke-Carolina, because Duke and Carolina have never met in the Final Four.

Kentucky and Louisville have. They met in the Final Four just 18 months ago, their coaches throw gas on the fire by taking shots at each other, and given that there's no professional sports in the state -- and no other Division I program of national relevance -- Kentucky-Louisville is a game that plays out 365 days a year.

And even that isn't as intense as Alabama-Auburn.

It's the late-season timing of the game, the us-or-them makeup of the state and the force of football, which for whatever reason is the most viscerally followed sport in America. Other countries convulse over their version of football. Here, we go nuts over ours in a way that trumps how we treat all other sports.

And nobody goes nuts for football like people in Alabama.

For one thing, they don't have anything else to distract them. No major professional franchises in the state, or even within 200 miles of Tuscaloosa, and no college basketball tradition to speak of. It's football year 'round there, whether it's spring practice or recruiting or the real thing, those four months in the fall when Alabama and Auburn do what they do with one eye on the task at hand and the other eye on that school 160 miles up the road.

Michigan and Ohio State have a big rivalry, don't get me wrong, but it's not the same thing. The fans get fired up, the teams are usually great and the coaches can act like children -- Brady Hoke won't call Ohio State by its real name, referring to it as "Ohio"; Urban Meyer asks NFL scouts visiting practice to cover up their franchise's blue because that's a Michigan color -- but it's not Alabama-Auburn.

Lose to Michigan and it sucks for Ohio State fans for a little while -- but unless they live in the border town of Toledo, they're not in much danger of running into a gloating Michigan fan.

Lose to Alabama, and its sucks for an Auburn fan for 365 days. The next-door neighbors have a Crimson Tide flag on their porch. The family down the street has a dog named Bear. And forget about the grocery store. Alabama fans are everywhere, and they're gloating because their school won the biggest game of the year, a game so big that folks in that state would pause if given this either/or choice: winning a national championship -- or winning the Iron Bowl.

Oregon-Oregon State is big -- but the state has an NBA franchise and no national football titles. Meanwhile, the last four national titles have been won by Alabama or Auburn (three by the Tide).

Texas-Oklahoma? Huge game -- even with both programs in a relative downturn -- but they're not in the same state, Oklahoma has its hands full with Oklahoma State, and Texas' affection for football is divided among a handful of college programs and two NFL franchises.

Look, we could do this all day. Florida-Florida State? Big game, but not the same. USC-UCLA? Ditto. Fans of those rivalries and the others in this story -- and probably some that were never mentioned -- are going to get bent out of shape that  their special rivalry isn't the one billed here as the biggest.

Cry me a river. Honestly. Look at it like this: Every year the Miss America Pageant has one winner, but 50 beautiful women. The 2013 Mr. Olympia competition had one champion -- but 20 ridiculously ripped men.

Florida-Georgia? You're beautiful. Clemson-South Carolina? You're ripped.

But there can be only one rivalry that is prettier, more muscular than all others, and that's Alabama-Auburn -- a series so wonderful, it's sort of horrible.

Biggest Stories