Iron Bowl of Basketball: It's always played second fiddle to football and that's not changing anytime soon, but the men's basketball game between Auburn and Alabama has higher stakes these days.
Thanks to the nice work of Bruce Pearl and Nate Oats, this game means more. And, thanks to Pearl and Oats, it's not just because it's a rivalry. Auburn and Alabama have become regular frontrunners for SEC titles.
The past three champions have been either Auburn or Alabama in this league. And once again, the Tide and Tigers are at the top of the SEC standings.
One game separates Bama from Auburn. Alabama is 8-1 in SEC play at the midway point of the conference season. Auburn is tied with upstart South Carolina at 7-2.
Nate Oates is shooting for his third title in four years. That other championship was won by Pearl at AU.
Go back to years prior to each coach's arrival at their respective schools. The programs were struggling to make NCAA Tournaments. Now both are staples in March.
There was a time when both were post-season staples (not the NIT), but you've got to rewind the clock a good ways. We always hark back to the Wimp and Sonny era, but even then we didn't have a stretch of league titles like today.
Alabama had one regular season title in the 1980s. Auburn had none. The Tide did win four SEC Tournament titles under Wimp Sanderson. Auburn got one under Sonny Smith.
Bama is going for consecutive titles for the first time since C.M. Newton won three straight from 1973-76. Auburn has never won back-to-back titles. Pearl has two SEC championships, already more than any other previous coach on the Plains.
During the title run for the Tide and Tigers over the past four seasons (including this season), Auburn is 79-37 overall. Alabama is 92-33.
There is a real atmosphere at both arenas now. Fans in this state can get excited about things other than just football.
We believe we have the best football rivalry around, but it's rare that both teams are national title contenders in the same year.
Only once in the past five years have both teams been ranked in the AP Top 25 entering the Iron Bowl in November. Going back to 2000, that has happened just seven times on the gridrion. Usually one team is ranked but not both.
The two basketball teams enter this week's matchup in Auburn as ranked programs. Auburn is No. 12 in the AP. Alabama is No. 16.
As for supplanting the Iron Bowl played on grass - not happening. This is a football state. Still, the game on the hardwood is getting more attention, and not just from Alabamians.
The question of who has the best rivalry in college football usually comes down to Bama/Auburn or Ohio State/Michigan. Nationally speaking, "The Game," (the one played up north) gets more attention based on the consistency collectively of the programs nationally.
In basketball, there is Duke/North Carolina for the same reason. There are several other matchups listed ahead of our teams in basketball as well.
College Basketball Report recently listed the best rivalries in hoops. It put Duke/UNC in the first position followed by Indiana/Purdue and Kentucky/Louisville. It's basketball country in those parts. Auburn/Alabama was No. 9. In another list by Andy Katz, AU/UA was No. 8.
If the Tide and Tigers continue winning at a high level, they'll continue to rise in that perspective. That means they need to take it to the next level - competing for national championships.
We're still seeking the first for either. Maybe - just maybe - someday.