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IRON BOWL SHOULD BE LOW SCORING

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Alabama has the nation's top pass defense and ranks second overall. No team in major college football allows fewer points than No. 2 Auburn.

Welcome to this year's edition of the Iron Bowl -- sure to be a defensive struggle.

Today's game (3:30, Ch. 4) in Bryant-Denny Stadium will feature two of the best defenses around -- units built on speed, sound fundamentals and simply making more big plays than they allow.

"This will probably be one of the best defenses, if not the best defense, we'll see, no matter how many games we have left or who we play," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said.

"I think it's the fastest defense we've seen all year," Alabama offensive coordinator Dave Rader said of the Tigers.

Alabama (6-4, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) is allowing just 230 total yards per game and has given up just eight passing touchdowns.

The Tigers (10-0, 7-0) are allowing just 9.3 points per game, fewest in the nation, and rank fifth in total defense, eighth against the pass and 12th against the run. Plus, they've allowed a single touchdown on the ground heading into a matchup against the league's top rushing offense.

The defenses will face vastly different challenges.

Auburn boasts the league's top scoring offense, a diverse attack built around tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams and quarterback Jason Campbell.

The Tide mostly rides the relentless running of Kenneth Darby, the league's No. 2 rusher. Auburn defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said Alabama is "definitely the best rushing team" the Tigers have faced this year.

The Auburn-Alabama game is among the great rivalries on today's schedule. Other meetings of traditional enemies with national implications include Ohio State-Michigan (1 p.m., Ch. 7) and BYU-Utah (7 p.m., ESPN2).

With a victory, No. 7 Michigan (9-1) will earn a second straight Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State (6-4) is reeling from cheating accusations by former tailback Maurice Clarett and at 3-4 in conference play faces its first losing Big Ten record since 1999.

"It's going to be a tough, physical battle," Michigan offensive lineman David Baas said. "It is every single year, no matter the record or problems schools are having. It is Ohio State versus Michigan, it is 'The Game.' "

Freshmen and first-year starters are the focal points of this year's game.

Michigan has grown and prospered with freshmen Chad Henne at quarterback and Mike Hart at tailback. Henne is the Big Ten's most efficient passer, while Hart is in the top 10 in the nation in rushing with 131.1 yards a game.

Ohio State won three games in a row after an 0-3 start in the Big Ten. The turnaround coincided with redshirt sophomore Troy Smith taking over at quarterback for Justin Zwick, and freshman Ted Ginn Jr. getting a chance to show his blazing speed on punt returns and at a receiver.

Their progress will be measured by how they perform in front of 105,000 fans in the biggest game of the season. Ohio State-Michigan games are an opportunity for players to create a lasting legacy.

The teams have played 100 times, with Michigan leading, 57-37-6.

No. 5 Utah (10-0) is trying to become the first team from a non-BCS conference to earn a BCS bowl bid. A win over in-state rival BYU (5-5) would all but seal a trip to one of the $14 million games. The Cougars are trying to become eligible for any bowl.

Utah quarterback Alex Smith will be making his final pitch to be a Heisman Trophy finalist. Utah is 19-1 since he took over as the starter early in 2003 and he has thrown for 2,440 yards and 27 touchdowns with only two interceptions this season.

Meanwhile, two local high school football stars will be in action today when Michigan State plays at Penn State (noon, ESPN2).

Clymer running back Jehuu Caulcrick, the News' Player of the Year in 2002, has rushed for 575 yards and four touchdowns for Michigan State this season.

Mark Rubin, an All-Western New York first-team tight end from Amherst in 2003, has 15 catches for 169 yards for Penn State.

In other televised games today, No. 19 Boston College at Temple (noon, MSG); Pennsylvania at Cornell (noon, YES); Lehigh at Lafayette (12:30 p.m., Empire); No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 17 Iowa (4:30, ESPN); Western Michigan at Marshall (4:30, Empire); Florida at No. 10 Florida State (7:45, ESPN).
Tennessee's Rick Clausen doesn't throw as well as Erik Ainge or run like Brent Schaeffer.

Clausen makes up for those physical shortcomings with brains, and that's what the No. 15 Volunteers are counting on when he takes over at quarterback today at Vanderbilt.

With freshmen Ainge and Schaeffer injured and unable to play in Tennessee's two remaining regular-season games, third-stringer Clausen is left to help the Vols (7-2, 5-1) clinch a berth in the Southeastern Conference championship game against Auburn.

"The best asset as far as a football player that Rick has is his ability to think and understand what's happening to him and see and recognize coverages very quickly," coach Phillip Fulmer said.

Clausen, a junior from Thousand Oaks, Calif., is the younger brother of former Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen, who finished his career a year ago.

Rick Clausen was thrust onto the field two weeks ago against Notre Dame when Ainge separated his shoulder on the last play of the first half. Schaeffer broke his collarbone the week before.

The Vols finish the season with Vanderbilt and Kentucky, needing to beat only one of those teams to go to the SEC title game. Tennessee hasn't lost to the Commodores (2-8, 1-6) since 1982 or to Kentucky since 1984.

In other games involving teams ranked in the Associated Press' Top 25 poll, No. 2 Oklahoma at Baylor; Stanford at No. 4 California; No. 8 Louisville at Houston; Louisiana Tech at No. 13 Boise State; Mississippi at No. 14 LSU; No. 18 Virginia at Georgia Tech; and SMU at No. 24 UTEP.

Extra point

The Fighting Irish are first at something. Notre Dame is having another rough year on the field but remains the most popular college football team, according to a recent Harris poll. Notre Dame is followed in the survey by Ohio State, Michigan, Texas and Penn State. USC finished seventh. Conspicuously missing in this year's top 10 are all three Sunshine State powers -- Miami, Florida State and Florida -- and Oklahoma.

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