Why Tank Bigsby's Iron Bowl play isn't the Auburn sliding door it's being made out to be
I love a good sliding door.
What if Portland picked Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie? What if a Nick Saban-coached Miami Dolphins team signed Drew Brees instead of Daunte Culpepper?
Sliding doors send my brain in a million different directions. You don’t have to pull my arm to get me to play out a sliding door.
But don’t tell me that Tank Bigsby’s “decision” to go out of bounds with 2 minutes left in the Iron Bowl could’ve prevented Auburn from getting to this point with Bryan Harsin (I’ll explain why the word “decision” was in air quotes in a bit).
I get it. If you were one of the millions of people watching at home, you had to listen to Gary Danielson attempt to burn it into your brain that “there should be 40 seconds less right now.” I’ve seen some, including my guy Peter Burns, make this comparison:
Tank Bigsby staying in bounds in the Iron Bowl might create the same butterfly effect as Elijah Moore’s dog pee celebration penalty in the Egg Bowl.
One small play that created a monster ripple effect for their respective schools.
— Peter Burns (@PeterBurnsESPN) February 7, 2022
When you put it in terms like that, yes, your brain goes in a million different directions. Instead of Harsin’s job being in jeopardy, he could’ve gotten an extension had he won the Iron Bowl. That was a nice formula for Gus Malzahn when he did that in 2013 and again in 2017 (the 2019 win against Alabama didn’t net an extension because of how lucrative that 2017 extension was). A first-year coach who beats Alabama and prevents it from reaching the Playoff is more likely to get the raise than the axe. Duh. Nobody is disagreeing with that.
Where this falls apart is that specific play. Like, the one where Bigsby made the “decision” to go out of bounds.
That lacks context. It’s connecting dots for the sake of connecting dots.
Let’s break this down like the Zapruder film.
In case you forgot or blacked out of your memory, Auburn was up 10-3 with 1:54 to play. The Tigers had the ball on 2nd-and-11 from the Alabama 47-yard line. The Tide had just 1 timeout. In other words, a first down essentially ends the game (that’s a key detail). Auburn cannot just kneel the ball. If it chose to do that and gained zero yards, Alabama likely would have gotten the ball with a little more than 1 minute to play.
Everyone and their mother knows that Auburn quarterback TJ Finley was essentially playing on 1 leg. Ergo, the ball is going to Bigsby. Alabama was ready for it. It had 8 guys within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage with a single-high safety and 2 corners in coverage.
Sure enough, it was another run up the middle. Bigsby reached this point and faced a decision: fall, which would essentially just be a repeat of first down, or attempt to bounce it outside and make a positive gain.
If Bigsby doesn’t pick up a first down here, you’re essentially guaranteeing that Alabama is getting the ball back for another drive. Auburn wasn’t about to throw on 3rd-and-12 and even if it did, there would’ve been zero faith that a hobbled Finley could’ve converted in that spot. Plus, kicker Anders Carlson had a torn ACL, so in no world was Auburn attempting some 57-yard field goal with a backup kicker.
That meant Bigsby bounced it to the outside. Thanks to a nice block on All-SEC safety Jordan Battle by Auburn tight end John Samuel Shenker, that was a legitimate option. Keep in mind that Bigsby started from the far-right hash, meaning he’s got a good amount of green grass to work with coming back to his left (his cutback to his left was somewhat similar to that rushing score he had in the Georgia game).
Bigsby was able to turn the corner. Remember, he needed to get to the 36-yard line for a first down. If he does that, the game is over. Bigsby, AKA the dude who ranked No. 5 in FBS in broken tackles per attempt as a true freshman in 2020 (PFF), has to break 1 tackle to get that all-important first down:
You can see that Bigsby has his left foot planted. He’s not fading out of bounds. His shoulders are squared straight ahead to that first down marker. If you think that angle is deceptive, check out from the alternate angle to see what he saw:
I don’t want to get in the mind of Bigsby too much here, but I can’t help but think that in this scenario, he’ll bet on himself to break an arm tackle 100 times out of 100. Battle makes a remarkable adjustment fading to his left after Bigsby fended him off with the stiff arm. The decision to grab Bigsby by the waist completely changed this play.
It’s also where I want to pull my hair out.
If you watch the replay, this is the point where Danielson claims that Bigsby needed to recognize that he wasn’t going to get the first down, and that he needed to find a way to slide in bounds. According to Danielson (and others), Bigsby is supposed to flip that switch and know that an arm tackle is about to bring him down and that he’s not going to get the remaining 4 yards to clinch an Auburn victory.
In no world is a human being named Tank Bigsby sliding in that moment with what’s seemingly within reach.
Bigsby, by the way, came up a yard short of reaching the line to gain as he was pulled out of bounds in atypical fashion by Battle:
Don’t buy the notion that someone in that position can simply fall.
Of course, the next play was a loss of 4 yards on a run by Bigsby, which allowed Alabama to use its final timeout before Auburn punted the ball back to Young and Co.
We would’ve crushed Bigsby if it looked like he had the edge and slid instead of trying to gain a first down because again, Alabama still would’ve gotten the ball back.
What Danielson does by playing the results for the rest of the game is ignore the significance of that first down. Instead of repeatedly saying “there should be 40 seconds less” on the clock, perhaps he should’ve spent more time dissecting how Auburn was 87 seconds from a win against a team without a touchdown that needed to gain 97 yards without any timeouts.
Even in this scenario that Danielson can’t help but envision, let’s say Alabama did have 40 fewer seconds. The Tide still scored the game-tying touchdown with 24 seconds left. Young didn’t need all of that extra 40 seconds, and given the sense of urgency we saw, that also would’ve tweaked some of the play-calling we saw on that final drive.
Would life have been more difficult on Young with 55 seconds left instead of 1:35? Sure, especially without Jameson Williams, who had been ejected for targeting. But Young gained all 97 yards from the 1:27 mark to the 24-second mark (the drive started with 2 incomplete passes). If anybody could’ve worked within the timeframe, it was Young.
There were plenty of other sliding door moments in which you could’ve gotten an extra 40 seconds instead of choosing the instance where the guy trying to win the football game came up a yard short.
What about when Auburn got a 4th-down stop up 10-0 with 11:54 left in the 4th quarter, only to watch Finley throw an interception on the first play of the ensuing drive? Finley overthrew a guy 5 yards away and Alabama’s interception ultimately led to its first scoring drive of the day. Shoot, by Danielson’s logic, that’s at least 2 minutes that Auburn failed to burn.
And let’s also not forget that Auburn was up 10-3 with 4:54 to play, and it had 3rd-and-14 on the Alabama 39-yard line. Instead of running the ball and burning more clock, Finley had an incomplete pass. Shouldn’t Auburn have “known it wasn’t gonna pick up the first down” with an injured Finley in that down and distance?
That’s why this sliding door is so maddening. The Bigsby play is going to be scrutinized because of when it happened and what happened immediately afterward, but the logic applied to it falls flat.
Maybe Mike Bobo keeps his job is Auburn wins that game and that Austin Davis mess never happens. Perhaps fewer than 20 players would’ve entered the transfer portal with an Alabama win. For all we know, the vibes would’ve been good enough for Derek Mason to stick around instead of resigning as defensive coordinator and taking a $400,000 pay cut to take the same job at Oklahoma State.
In theory, yes, an Alabama win could’ve changed life on The Plains. A lot. It was part of a domino effect that nobody could’ve seen coming, even in the midst of what would be an in-season losing streak as long as any at Auburn since the Harry Truman administration. In reality, pinning it on the Bigsby play is failing to grasp what went into that situation.
We can slide those doors all we want with Harsin. Let’s just maybe slam that Bigsby narrative shut.