Here's what the college football equivalent of this Duke-UNC matchup would be
When Mike Krzyzewski takes the floor on Saturday night in the Final Four, it’ll mark the first time that Duke and UNC have ever met in the NCAA Tournament.
You know. In case you’ve been living under a rock the last week. A large rock.
The 258th meeting between the storied rivals figures to be the most epic yet with it being Krzyzewski’s final season as Duke’s head coach.
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You know. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 months.
We haven’t seen a game in recent memory, maybe at any level, with storylines this juicy (the 2012 Kentucky-Louisville game in the Final Four lacked an all-time great coach in his final season). Is it too early to dub it the “Game of the Century?” Shoot, in college football, there’s a “Game of the Century” every other year.
Speaking of college football, is there any matchup that could be the equivalent of the Tobacco Road showdown in the Final Four? Absolutely.
In fact, it’s not really that far-fetched. It would be Nick Saban facing Auburn in a Playoff matchup in his farewell season.
There’s a little more that would go into it, of course. For starters, we’d have to know that it was Saban’s last season. He’d have to go on a retirement tour with pageantry of Krzyzewski levels. Gifts at every road venue? Sure. A head coach in waiting? Absolutely.
This couldn’t be a situation like Steve Spurrier at Florida. If you recall, Florida fans had no idea when the Gators lost to Tennessee in that wild 2001 regular season finale that it would be the HBC’s last game at The Swamp. Well, at least as Florida’s coach. Had we known that he was stepping down and leaving for the NFL, you can bet an already epic game with national title implications amidst atypical circumstances — it was moved to the final week of the regular season after the schedule was shuffled because of 9/11 — would’ve been cranked up to another level.
But back to this hypothetical Playoff Iron Bowl.
Like Krzyzewski against UNC in the regular season, maybe we’d also need the buildup of an Alabama loss to Auburn in Tuscaloosa to close the regular season. At the time, it was assumed that Krzyzewski’s last UNC game was a devastating loss at home. Perhaps an undefeated Alabama team could lose to a 1-loss Auburn team to clinch the SEC West. In that regard, it would be shades of 2017. But this time, instead of Auburn losing in the SEC Championship to Georgia, it would take care of business in Atlanta.
Here’s the other key factor — Auburn would probably need the 1-seed and in convincing fashion. Like, several top-10 wins with a dominant showing in the SEC Championship combined with no other unbeaten Power 5 conference champs would need to happen. I’m assuming Alabama’s only hope to make the field would be as a 4-seed after missing out on a division crown. There would be uproar because not only would the SEC get 2 teams in the field (again), but the anti-SEC crowd will have already poured dirt on Saban’s farewell season and would cry about a rigged system for ratings.
But can you picture what those tickets would go for if that game was played in a place like Atlanta or New Orleans where both fan bases could drive? It’d be more expensive than any national championship on record. Riley Green would pull an Eric Church and cancel a sold-out concert right after the matchup was announced.
Instead of 6 days of buildup, we’d get 3 weeks of it. Every storyline imaginable would be dissected. There’d be countless lists of the top Iron Bowl moments. We’d have a collective eye roll from plenty in the Midwest, but it wouldn’t take away from the magnitude of that showdown.
The biggest difference is that Saban has only been at Alabama since 2007 while Krzyzewski has been at Duke since 1980. Coach K is Duke. There’s no world in which Saban is trying to walk off a winner after 4 decades at Alabama because he’d be 96 years old.
Besides, college football doesn’t really have the elder statesmen like college basketball does. Kirk Ferentz is the longest tenured Power 5 head coach and he’s only been at Iowa since 1999. The next-closest at the Power 5 ranks is Kyle Whittingham, who has been at Utah since 2005.
Meanwhile, 3 of the 4 coaches in the Final Four have been with their respective programs since at least 2003. That dynamic will always be different.
And hey, maybe it’s worth pointing out that a typical Iron Bowl has far greater stakes than a typical UNC-Duke game. That’s just regular season basketball vs. regular season football.
Since 2009, the winner of the Iron Bowl played in the national championship 10 times, which doesn’t even include 2017 when Auburn won the Iron Bowl but Alabama went on to win a national title:
- 2009 — Alabama (won national championship)
- 2010 — Auburn (won national championship)
- 2011 — Alabama (won national championship)
- 2012 — Alabama (won national championship)
- 2013 — Auburn (lost national championship)
- 2014 — Alabama (lost Playoff semifinal)
- 2015 — Alabama (won national championship)
- 2016 — Alabama (lost national championship)
- 2017 — Auburn (lost SEC Championship)
- 2018 — Alabama (lost national championship)
- 2019 — Auburn (lost Outback Bowl)
- 2020 — Alabama (won national championship)
- 2021 — Alabama (lost in national championship)
Yeah, obviously Alabama is a big part of that. If there’s an argument against why Alabama-Auburn in a Playoff semifinal of Saban’s final season wouldn’t be like this Duke-UNC matchup, it’s that we’ve seen much more balance with the hoops rivalry.
Since Krzyzewski took over at Duke in 1980, the Tar Heels have a slight 14-13 advantage with total Final Four appearances and they both have exactly 5 national titles in that stretch. It’s perhaps the purest form of a rivalry from a competitive and geographical standpoint as one can possibly have. It also doesn’t have geographical barriers. It garners a national audience in a way that the Iron Bowl doesn’t quite reach.
But that doesn’t mean an Iron Bowl semifinal matchup in Saban’s farewell tour would have some regional audience. It would be the G.O.A.T. looking for that one last ring. “The Paul Finebaum Show” ratings would be through the roof. This here website would probably crash. It would perhaps give Auburn fans a flex rivaling the Kick 6, or it would give Alabama fans one last laugh at little brother.
(Their words, not mine.)
There’s nothing else in college football that could compare to that. Maybe if Ryan Day is still coaching Ohio State in 2050 and Michigan could actually hold its own for the next 3 decades, a matchup like that would be comparable.
For now, though, Saban is the only one who could set a stage similar to the one we’ll see on Saturday night in New Orleans.
On second thought, who are we kidding? Saban will be coaching until the end of time.
I guess sign me up for Saban coaching against Auburn in the last Playoff of human civilization.