TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) -The Auburn Tigers headed into the 2004 Iron Bowl unbeaten, loaded with NFL-caliber talent and locked in a wide-open national championship race.
They had to rally for a victory against a struggling Alabama team, fell to No. 3 in the polls and were denied a national title shot.
This year it's the top-ranked Crimson Tide's ambitions ratcheting up the intensity for the game between the Alabama schools that doesn't need much help in that regard.
The bitter rivalry hasn't often been played for high stakes in the past 15 years. It's only the second time since 1992 that the Iron Bowl could affect the national championship.
Welcome back, Iron Bowl. The national title picture hasn't been quite the same without you.
Alabama (11-0) doesn't have to impress the judges - or the poll voters - to stay in the hunt, like that '04 Auburn team. The Tigers were tied with Oklahoma for No. 2 behind Southern California and then trailed 6-0 at halftime against a Tide team that wound up 6-6.
ma's national title hopes. It was motivation enough for the Tide four years ago.
``This year, Auburn's trying to play the motto of, 'OK, let's knock them from the national championship,''' said Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, a star of that Auburn team. ``That whole week of practice, you know Alabama was amped up. They forgot about everything else that went on that season and came out and played us like it was the only game, like it was a championship game. That's how Auburn is treating it.''
The Tide already stands atop the polls and can keep itself in strong position going into the Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 3 Florida on Dec. 6.
The current Alabama players are more accustomed to going into this regular-season finale battling to reach .500 after going 13-13 the past two seasons. Auburn has won the past six meetings, the second-longest streak in rivalry history.
Title talk aside, Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson would like to avoid hearing about another Iron Bowl loss for the next year.
``Every time we play them, it's big stakes because it's in-state, our rival,'' Wilson said. ``Whether we're 1 in the country or we both haven't won a game, it's going to be just as good. You've got to live with it all year.
Co. were in elementary school - or, in some cases, diapers.
``It makes the game a little bigger for Alabama,'' said Gene Stallings, who coached the Tide to the 1992 national championship.
That only sounds like a gross understatement. This is a state with no major pro sports teams to spread rooting interests, and folks expect you to choose sides when you're old enough to ``really know about football,'' Auburn safety Zac Etheridge said.
M and Texas-Oklahoma
``The Iron Bowl, even though it has not been a great year at Auburn, that's as big a rivalry as I know of,'' he said.
The rivalry is likely drawing more interest in his neck of the woods with Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma all nursing national title hopes.
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville still sniffs at the pollsters snubbing the Tigers after the '04 game as a ``beauty contest.'' Southern California captured the title with a win over Oklahoma.
Campbell is still a little bothered too. He pointed out USC's 29-24 win over rival UCLA en route to that 2004 national title.
6 and they get a late touchdown and make it 21-13, and they still don't put us in the national championship game, it's crazy.''
Campbell was one of four seniors from that '04 Auburn team who wound up being first-round NFL draft picks.
Tide players insist they aren't spending much time pondering the game's stakes during the open date.
``It really hasn't been talked about,'' safety Rashad Johnson said. ``Everybody knows it without anyone saying anything about it. I think that's why everybody works so hard when we're out there at practice. It definitely feels good to be in the position that we're in to control our own destiny, but we've still got to understand that everything we do from here on out matters.''
Though the stakes for Auburn aren't nearly so high, a win would get the Tigers another year-long all-you-can-brag pass and make the Tigers bowl eligible for the ninth straight season. And torpedoeing the Tides' title hopes would make it all the sweeter.
``This game is 365 days a year,'' former Auburn coach Pat Dye said. ``Alabama has had a great season and has obviously got a lot riding on the game. But a win could make Auburn's season a lot brighter.''
Dye helped the Tigers end their nine-year Iron Bowl losing skid two years after taking over the program in 1981. He endeared himself to Auburn fans the day he took the job.
nded: ``Sixty minutes.''
Now, it's Nick Saban getting his second crack at ending a string of Iron Bowl losses. And Auburn trying to keep it going.
``This is for bragging rights,'' Tuberville said. ``In their situation, obviously, they've got a chance to continue on in the BCS. That's what they have in front of them.
``If we win, we have an outside chance of getting into a bowl game. When it all comes down to it, this is a rivalry. You hear everybody talk about rivalries across the country, but in terms of intensity none of them touch this one.''

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