After seeing the rows of RVs already setting up shop on prime tailgating real estate midday Saturday — a full week before kickoff — Gus Malzahn was ready to go.
For junior tight end C.J. Uzomah, the urge came after watching a pair of top-five teams fall later that evening as he realized what it meant for then-No. 6 Auburn.
But, with four days and the Thanksgiving holiday between gameday, the anticipation for what is being billed as one of the biggest Iron Bowls in the 78-year history of the series is already affecting several of those involved.
“It’s very tough. I’m going to have to take some sleeping pills to try to go to sleep,” Auburn senior defensive end Dee Ford said Tuesday. “I sit up at night thinking about the game, thinking about big moments.”
No. 4 Auburn (10-1, 6-1 SEC) hosts top-ranked Alabama (11-0, 7-0) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the first-ever showdown between the in-state rivals when both are ranked among the top four in the nation.
“We’re ready. We’re excited. We’re just looking forward to getting to Saturday,” Auburn junior tailback Tre Mason said. “Everybody’s anxious and ready to play. We can’t wait.”
The stakes have never been higher as the Crimson Tide is vying for a dynasty-making third straight BCS National Championship as well as a second consecutive trip to the SEC Championship Game, while the Tigers are riding high in the midst of a miraculous turnaround season in the first season under Malzahn and seeking to keep secure their first Western Division crown since winning it all in 2010.
“We worked hard for this,” Mason said. “We feel like we’ve earned everything we have now, so we’re just ready to step on a stage like this and execute what we have to do.”
The challenge for the Auburn players, many of whom weren’t part of the 2010 team and haven’t played in a game of this magnitude, is not allowing that elevated stage to overwhelm them.
“We’re going to try not to have that outside pressure feed in and all the media and hype that the outside people are going to bring in affect us,” Uzomah said. “But at the same time, we’re going to bring that intensity ourselves. We’re amped up as ever. We know that a lot’s at stake with this game.”
For many of the seniors, like Ford, there’s also the battle of emotions associated with capping their collegiate careers in style. And nothing is more stylish for the Odenville native than an Iron Bowl win over the rival Crimson Tide.
“I’m really trying not to focus on it being my last (home game). I don’t want it to be too emotional, I still want to be focused,” Ford said. “It’s Senior Day and I have a lot of family coming in. It’s definitely something I really have to control during week, really try to get that sleep and get rest. You can get caught up at night just thinking about everything you have to do and what’s at stake. It will be alright.”
Of course, some players are doing their best to block out any and all possible distractions, especially with CBS and ESPN’s College GameDay in town this week.
“I haven’t really put on ESPN too much this week because trying to focus and they’re going to hype this game up a lot, as they should,” Auburn senior center Reese Dismukes said Tuesday.
ESPN’s premier college football pregame show has become a spectacle in and of itself Saturday mornings, with humorous signs from fans, celebrity guests and a crazy prediction from commentator Lee Corso that usually involves the 78-year-old former college coach donning the mascot headgear of either the host team or its rival that game.
On Saturday, Corso will either be picking up and putting on an Auburn helmet or that of Big Al, the Tide’s costumed elephant.
“Personally, I think it’s awesome with GameDay coming,” Uzomah said. “Again, we’re not going to let it affect us, per se, but I think having all eyes on us in Jordan-Hare and watching that game is going to be awesome.”
Despite allowing himself a brief moment of excitement last Saturday, Malzahn is doing his best to keep his team in check and not allowing them to become satisfied with how far they’ve already come.
“No, there’s not time. Like I told our players, we’ve got a job to do,” Malzahn said. “We will pat ourselves on the back at the end of the year and we will see what happens, but we can’t let anything distract us (now).”