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Auburn aims to keep state national title streak alive

When David Cornwell met Nick Saban, Alabama's football coach tried to explain to the four-star quarterback recruit just how much pressure comes with playing at a college in the state. To most residents, Saban said, the four most important people in Alabama are the football coach of the Crimson Tide, the coach at Auburn and the starting quarterbacks for the Crimson Tide and Tigers. Maybe the governor comes in fifth.

"That really put it into perspective for me," said Cornwell, who is from Norman, Okla., and has orally committed to the Tide for 2014.

Florida State will see that intensity Monday when the top-ranked Seminoles face No. 2 Auburn in the BCS Championship Game with a chance to stop a historic string of success for that football-crazed southern state.

Alabama and Auburn have combined to win the past four national championships. Four players from those schools have been finalists for the Heisman Trophy in the past five seasons, and the Tide and Tigers ended this regular season ranked in the top three.

"I think it just shows how dominant (the SEC) is in college football," said Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, a Mobile, Ala., native. "Being a powerhouse, I think it's a good representative of what type of talent we have in this conference."

Although college football reigns supreme all over SEC country, no state matches Alabama's fire.

Birmingham has been the No. 1 market for ESPN's college football telecasts for 13 consecutive seasons. ESPN says its games this season averaged a 9.2 rating in Birmingham — a rating is the estimated percentage of TV households tuned to a program — the highest ever in the market and 88 percent higher than the No. 2 market, Greenville, S.C. (4.9)

Alabama and Auburn finished in the top six nationally in total attendance. The Tigers drew 685,000 fans to Jordan-Hare Stadium; Alabama averaged more than 101,000 for its games in Tuscaloosa.

"There's a difference between being loud and crazy and being electric," said Josh Casher, a four-star offensive lineman from Mobile and a Tide commitment. "(Alabama has) an electric atmosphere."

The state's obsession runs from the cradle to the grave.

In 2011, the year after quarterback Cam Newton led Auburn to the national championship and won the school's first Heisman Trophy in 25 years, Cameron's popularity as a name for baby boys in Alabama peaked at No. 20, with 187 Social Security card applications featuring that name, the Social Security Administration said.

Marcus has been one of the state's top 100 names for boys only once in the past five years, 2010, the year after running back Mark Ingram won the Tide's first Heisman and led Alabama to the national championship.

Auburn drew headlines last month after it discovered cremated remains on the field at Jordan-Hare following the Tigers' 34-28 win over Alabama.

"One thing about playing football at Alabama: They live football," said Casher, a cousin of FSU defensive end and fellow Alabama native Chris Casher. "They live and breathe football, and that's what I do."

Although Alabama is the country's 23rd-largest state, only 14 states have more high school football players. Almost 23,000 high school boys played the sport during 2012, up from 21,590 six years ago.

Alabama had the country's highest percentage of male high school athletes playing football last year, 37 percent, the National Federation of State High School Associations said. Texas was second, 3 percentage points behind.

Alabama produced 51 players on the rosters for FSU and Auburn, including 15 on the two-deep depth charts. The Seminoles' Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Jameis Winston, and standout freshman defensive back Nate Andrews are from Alabama, as are the Auburn-Alabama game hero this season for the Tigers, Chris Davis, and Sammie Coates, the Tigers' leading receiver.

With that much talent in the programs' back yards, Cornwell said, it's easy to figure out why a state school is playing for its fifth consecutive national title.

"One word," Cornwell said, "and that's recruiting."

For proof of that, look no further than Thursday at Tropicana Field. The Under Armour All-America Game featured eight players from Alabama and 16 recruits committed to the Tide and Tigers, including Casher, Cornwell and Rivals' No. 1 overall recruit, defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (Alabama).

Though Alabama's passion for football runs deep, Winston, a Bessemer native, said it has one limit, at least when it comes to the BCS title game.

"I can guarantee you that being from the state of Alabama," Winston said, "ain't no Alabama fan going to be going for Auburn."

Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

Auburn aims to keep state national title streak alive 01/01/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 2, 2014 11:32pm]
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