Auburn and Alabama have a lot in common: They were both charter members of the Southeastern Conference, they both call the state of Alabama their home, and they both missed out on the 2022 SEC championship football game. But if you suggest that these two teams are one and the same to any of their respective fans, you’re in for a wild ride. This is because every Thanksgiving weekend, these two schools come together in what is one of college sports’ largest and most intense rivalry games—the Iron Bowl. However, football isn’t the only sport they’re competitive in, and people are starting to take notice. This year’s gymnastics Iron Bowl’ takes place on February 3, and if ticket sales are anything to judge by, it’s going to be a big deal. So how have we gotten to this point, and what exactly makes this matchup so special?
The Rivalry Is Closer Than Ever
2022 was the season of the Cinderella story, and no team is a bigger example of that than Auburn. The 2021 season met an unfortunate end when COVID procedures kept Auburn from competing in the postseason—relegating the Tigers to a meager 35th place finish in the national rankings. In basically every way, the finish of the 2022 season was the exact opposite of that year, with Auburn securing its first-ever team final spot since the format cut the meet down from six to four, and finishing in a program record fourth place.
Auburn head coach Jeff Graba has witnessed his program becoming the cream of the crop, noting that, “In our sport, there’s not really a whole lot of stories of dark horses who came out of nowhere and won everything. Priority No. 1 was to get noticed.” After the 2022 national final, Graba realized that his Auburn squad might actually be a serious threat, not a one hit wonder. He isn’t just hyping up his team either. Auburn left Fort Worth after nationals with eight top-five placements across the four events and the all-around, including a national title for Sunisa Lee on beam. Better yet, all five of the gymnasts who brought in these accolades returned for the 2022 season, setting the Tigers up for another year of success.
While some viewed Alabama missing out on the national final as a disappointment after a highly successful season—one that culminated in a second-place finish at the SEC championship ahead of Auburn—many fail to remember that the Crimson Tide finished the regular season finished fifth in the national rankings.
While Alabama may not be the perennial championship title threat it was a decade ago, the Crimson Tide has still brought in a host of accolades over the past several seasons. It won the 2021 SEC championship over favorites like Florida and LSU and carried the success into the postseason, culminating in a national beam title of its own, won by Luisa Blanco.
While the series currently sits at 3-22 in favor of Alabama, if Auburn proved anything in the 2022 season, it’s that it should never be underestimated. For one particular Auburn gymnast, this meet will serve as the culmination of an undefeated streak against Alabama at home, dating all the way back to the 2020 season.
“That’s not something that I thought of going into those meets. I was just having so much fun with my teammates, and we just ended up doing something special. Being able to leave that legacy behind is amazing, and I want to start something new next week with a win in Tuscaloosa,” fifth-year Derrian Gobourne said.
Gobourne has been a top competitor for the Tigers since she stepped foot on the Plains back in 2019, making history as Auburn’s first national champion after taking home a share of the vault title in her freshman season. Since then, Gobourne has been a vital contributor on vault, bars, and especially floor, where she has notched a Perfect 10 twice in her career.
On the other hand, and as Gobourne alluded to, Auburn has never beaten Alabama in Tuscaloosa, making this matchup potentially even more historic if Auburn is able to pull off the win. The last time these two teams met in the Crimson Tide’s Coleman Coliseum was 2021, a matchup that ended in a handed Alabama victory.
For head coach Ashley Johnston, though, the strategy for the meet is the same no matter where it’s held.
“We have to stay in the process, and we have to focus on just doing the things that we can control. We’re gonna approach this meet just like we approach every other meet, which is staying in that zone,” the first-year head coach and former Auburn assistant said. “To have such a great state rivalry is something that our fans are really invested in, whether the matchup is in Auburn Arena or it’s in Coleman Coliseum, you can always expect there to be a lot of energy, a lot of noise, a lot of genuine care for seeing it play out.”
The Coaching Carousel
If there’s anyone who knows these two teams well, it’s Johnston. After coaching on the Auburn staff for four seasons, she returned to her alma mater, becoming head coach of the Crimson Tide. Johnston may have helped Auburn reach new heights, but when asked about her priorities now, she noted, “While I loved my journey at Auburn, my commitment now is with Alabama gymnastics, and I’m really looking forward to a great matchup.”
If there’s anyone who knows first hand how good Alabama can be, it’s certainly Johnston herself, who played a critical role in clenching the Crimson Tide’s latest national title back in 2012. In fact, her first meet representing Alabama was against Auburn, a contest that the Crimson Tide ended up winning by only a quarter tenth. Johnson, however, knows that this matchup is a whole lot different than that 2009 dual.
“It wasn’t anything like it is now. It always was a great matchup competing with Auburn—everybody always brought their best game that day—but the Auburn team has continued to get better and better.”
Simply put, Johnston, better than anyone, knows what both of these teams are capable of.
The Sunisa Lee Factor
While Olympians taking on NCAA gymnastics is by no means a new phenomenon—Tigers’ associate head coach Sara Carver-Milne coached 2008 Olympic silver medalist Alicia Sacramone at Brown where she served as head coach—the dawn of the age of NIL has created a whole new ball game for Olympians looking to experience a different side of the sport.
Lee has already cemented herself as an NCAA legend in just one season at Auburn, and after announcing that this season would be her last with the Tigers, this meet serves as her final chance to help clinch Auburn’s first win against the Crimson Tide on its home turf.
Lee has taken no time returning to top form, going into this matchup ranked No. 2 in the all-around nationally and in the top 20 across all four events.
This isn’t to say that Alabama doesn’t have any stars of its own, though. Senior Makarri Doggette made her long-awaited debut to the all-around Week 1 before a minor injury relegated her only to vault and bars. Doggette made the most of this opportunity, though, bringing in a perfect 10 on bars—the second of her career—against Kentucky Week 4. Luisa Blanco has also resumed her role as the Crimson Tide’s top all-arounder after being held back with various injuries during the 2022 campaign. Blanco and sophomore Lilly Hudson have both gone as high as 39.575 in the all-around this season and will be right there in case of any mistakes from Lee.
No matter what the outcome of this meet ends up being, Lee’s very presence will make it popular among both seasoned fans of the sport and those who only tune in to see the big names from the Olympics.
Fill the Stands
With days still to go before meet day, Alabama was well on its way to sell out the Coleman Coliseum for the first time since a dual against Arkansas in 2014. This upward trajectory of Alabama’s home attendance has piqued the interest of Johnston as well. “Our last meeting against Florida, we were a little over 11,000 people and our student section was at max capacity. So we’re actually going to open up some more seating for our students for this meet.” These fans have the right idea with this one. The gymnastics Iron Bowl is shaping up to be one for the record books, and one of the closest iterations of the rivalry that the sport has ever seen.
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Article by Ian LeWarn
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