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14 for '14: The Race for the West

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The most heated rivalry takes on the greatest importance.

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

For a decade after the advent of the national championship game in 1992, the state of Florida dominated it. In nine of those first ten seasons, at least one team from the Sunshine State appeared in the game.

Since 2009, the state of Alabama has been on a similar run. Four Each of the past five national title games has had someone from the Yellowhammer State in it. If someone told you that streak would continue this year, you'd probably believe it. Given that it has two major programs in the same conference instead of three all in different conferences, Alabama's run doesn't have to go much longer to surpass Florida's in impressiveness.

Having Alabama and Auburn battling it out for West supremacy feels a little stranger than it should, but that's just how recent history has gone. Last season was the first time since 1994 that the Iron Bowl participants finished in the top two slots in the West. Tommy Tuberville's nice run on the Plains coincided with Alabama's head coaching position becoming a revolving door, and until a year ago, the one time in Nick Saban's run that Auburn was great was the year that Bama finished fourth in the West.

Adding to the intrigue is that the programs seem to embody completely different philosophies. Saban's Crimson Tide runs pro-style everything, prizes size, and does things at a deliberate pace. Gus Malzahn's Auburn runs a full-on option scheme that the NFL will never adopt, prizes speed, and is at the forefront of the hurry up trend. Saban has even argued for years against the fast system that Malzahn employs. The contrasts between the schools could scarcely be greater.

As for this year specifically, the contrasts continue. Bama's Death Star has been fully operational for a while, and it is rightly expected to be a top five team. Auburn was in better shape for Malzahn than for most programs are for first-year head coaches given that he was a coordinator on the old staff, but the program isn't fully crafted in his image. And yet, at the most important position on the field, Auburn has more certainty. The Tigers have the preseason first team all-SEC quarterback in Nick Marshall, while Alabama still hasn't named a starter less than two weeks from kickoff.

When Malzahn hasn't had to make do with guys like Chris Todd, Barrett Trotter, and Clint Moseley at quarterback, his offenses have been dynamite. They've all been with first-year starters, too. Thanks to his frequent moves and the way rosters have turned out, this season is the first one on the college level where Malzahn will have the same quarterback starter as he had the previous. All three years at Auburn as coordinator had different starters, and even his two years at Tulsa had different guys. Much of the optimism around the program this year simply comes from a second dose of Marshall in Malzahn's scheme. If he was that good last year without much time, how good will he be this year?

As for Bama, it's feeling a little bit like 2009. Just like 2008, the 2013 season ended with a disappointing loss followed by a largely lifeless bowl flop. If you think Saban hasn't been milking that for all its worth in motivation, well, you must have come here by accident. A fully focused Saban team is a terror to behold, and we'll probably have one this year.

So who will win the West? Beats me, but the Iron Bowl is probably going to decide things again. I don't know how this year's could top last year's, but I'd love to see it try.