The Nov. 30 Iron Bowl showdown between No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0) and No. 4 Auburn (10-1, 6-1) at Jordan-Hare Stadium is a big deal for every player on each team. For most, this will be the biggest stage of their careers at any level. For players native to the state of Alabama, the season finale is an even bigger deal.
In addition to bragging rights, there’s an SEC West title and a potential shot at a national championship on the line for the Tigers and Crimson Tide Saturday. Oh, and one more thing – pride.
That couldn’t be truer for any player than Auburn’s sophomore running back Corey Grant. When the Tide and Tigers meet for a chance to play in the conference championship game, Grant will get his first shot at proving himself against his former teammates. He played only a handful of snaps on special teams in Auburn’s 49-0 loss last season in Tuscaloosa, where Grant began his college career with the Crimson Tide.
“Since I was there for a year and then transferred here, it’s a big thing,” Grant told reporters last week after practice. “Last year didn’t go so well. To finally get a chance to actually be on the field and contribute is a very big deal to me.”
Grant was a star running back at Opelika High School, just a few miles from the Auburn campus. His blazing speed attracted attention from big time programs across the country, and it was widely assumed he would sign with Auburn. But when Tommy Tuberville left after 10 years as the Tigers’ head coach, Gene Chizik was hired and Grant ended up signing with none other than Alabama in February 2010.
After redshirting and being moved to a defensive position, Grant immediately began to question his decision. It wasn’t long before he realized he’d made a mistake, and he wanted to play running back for the Auburn Tigers. When Alabama coach Nick Saban refused to grant him a release he left anyway. That meant Grant had to pay his own way for his first year at Auburn.
“It was a tough decision,” Grant said. “I loved coach (Gus) Malzahn and his offense. After talking to coach Saban and how they wanted to utilize me and wanting to get away from home, I kind of did that. I realized that wasn’t for me. Coming back here, I feel like, was the right choice.”
After sitting out the 2011 season as required by NCAA rules, Grant emerged as a playmaker the following spring and seemed poised for a big year in 2012. But Grant never factored into the plan much. He had just nine carries during Auburn’s dismal 3-9 season, which ended up costing Chizik his job.
Then Gus Malzahn returned last December as Auburn’s head coach, and everything changed.
It didn’t take long for Grant to score his first touchdown as a Tiger, a 75-yard sprint that helped the Tigers to a season-opening 31-24 victory over Washington State. He racked up 146 yards on just nine carries in that game and has been a big-play threat ever since.
For the season Grant has rushed 56 times for 557 yards. That’s a whopping average of 9.9 yards per carry. He has scored five rushing touchdowns and also returned a kickoff 90 yards for a score at Tennessee.
Now Grant is poised to take the field against his former team for the first time. “It’s a personal game,” he said. “It’s a big game, but I’m going to treat it like any other game.”
Grant said he still keeps in touch with linebacker C.J. Mosley, tight end Brian Vogler and safety Jarrick Williams from Alabama. But they haven’t been in touch this week, not with all that’s at stake in the Iron Bowl.
Auburn enters the game with the nation’s second-best rushing attack, which averages 320.3 yards per game. Alabama’s top-rated defense will easily be the Tigers’ toughest test of the season, but it’s one Grant and his teammates are looking forward to.