Auburn's heartbreaking loss to Alabama could be foretelling ... in a good way
Auburn may not be one of the best teams in the nation, but the Tigers sure aren’t boring.
In one of the more entertaining games in the Iron Bowl history, No. 3 Alabama beat Auburn 24-22 in a 4-overtime game dominated almost exclusively by the Tigers. No one gave Auburn a chance and why would they? Auburn was coming off 3 consecutive SEC losses. Alabama had already won the SEC West and was set to play No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Titles were there for the Tide’s taking.
Instead, Auburn decided they’d like a shot at the champs before they even reach a championship level. The Tigers used an attacking defense to hold Alabama to just 3 points before Bama tied the score 10-10 with 24 seconds left in the game. Alabama had never finished a game under coach Nick Saban with just 3 points. As it turned out, there was more opportunity for the Tide after that. The game eventually ended in the 4th overtime when Auburn failed to convert its 2-point try, and the Tide converted theirs.
Auburn knows what it’s like to see a game quickly reverse course. The Tigers know the feeling of giving up a victory when it was well within their grasp. They did both on Saturday.
Auburn did the same earlier this month against Mississippi State, when it blew a 28-3 and lost 43-34. However, this one hurts a bit more. It should. It’s the Iron Bowl. Some will forever question Auburn coach Bryan Harsin’s decision to kick the extra point in the first overtime instead of going for 2 and the victory. Some might suggest that Harsin was caught in the SEC headlines for a moment and fell back on old school coaching maxims. A strong argument could be made for either decision.
At the time, I had no problem with Auburn kicking the extra point. I still don’t. Auburn was winning the game up front on defense. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young was going to be under pressure on the ensuing possession. I understand the philosophy behind the decision to tie the game and move onto the 2nd OT.
Lost in that debate was that the game wasn’t supposed to be in doubt. Alabama, which was a 20.5-point favorite, was supposed to cruise past its struggling archrival and pack up for Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship with visions of the College Football Playoff in their heads. It certainly didn’t look like things were going to shake out that way on Saturday. That’s a credit to Auburn.
Alabama didn’t look like a national championship contender on offense because of the Tigers. Auburn kept constant pressure on Young, who looked uncertain early and often in the game. Auburn was so disruptive against Alabama’s offensive line that it was hard to tell which team was the national championship contender. The Crimson Tide couldn’t even score against Auburn. The Tigers led the entire game before the Crimson Tide could even manage a point. Finally, Alabama kicked a field goal to make the score 10-3 with 8:44 left in the game. That’s called dominant defensive football.
The game was manageable at that point for both teams. Auburn still could have pulled off the upset. Alabama still could keep their national championship hopes alive despite showing up to the game comatose.
Many will pinpoint Tank Bigsby’s decision to try to grind out every yard as a turning point. Instead of going down inbounds and forcing Alabama to spend its final timeout, Bigsby fought until he was eventually forced out of bounds. That stopped the clock. Alabama saved a timeout. As important, they saved 40 seconds. And Alabama needed every one of them to mount its final game-tying drive.
As impossible as it may seem, Auburn fans should forget which team actually won the game Saturday. An Iron Bowl win is great. A coach with a bright future is even better. Auburn coach Bryan Harsin certainly looks like that type of coach, even after a loss as heartbreaking as he had to endure against Alabama.
Harsin and Auburn fell on hard times after a hot start, but they never quit on the season. That was evident against Alabama.
Harsin and his team haven’t been perfect. There was the defensive domination by Texas A&M, the Mississippi State comeback and the no-show at South Carolina. However, even with all of that, Auburn played one of its best games of the season against Alabama.
Other than pride, what did Auburn have to play for? Nothing, yet Harsin embraced what the rivalry meant to the 2 programs despite his west coast roots. His team was ready to play against a team playing for over more national prominence.
Alabama fans will be quick to point out that their team’s mistakes, which included star receiver Jameson Williams being ejected for targeting, and bad officiating were the only reasons the game was even close. That’s not true. The game was close because Auburn is a prideful bunch in every positive connotation of the term. The game was close because Auburn developed a strong defensive front throughout the season that could take advantage of an Alabama offensive line that was surprisingly inept. Although Finley was far from perfect, Harsin did just enough to protect his young, inexperienced quarterback.
Alabama deserves some of the blame for allowing the game to be so close, but can’t deny Auburn some of the credit.