SEC 360: Why does Alabama lose to Auburn so much?
In 2010, Mark Ingram was charging toward the end zone to put Alabama up 28-0 in the Iron Bowl. As Ingram furiously barreled down the sideline, Alabama fans salivated the thought of beating undefeated Auburn, but more important, shutting up Cam Newton.
What they weren’t expecting was Ingram to be chased down by a 250-plus-pound defensive tackle, who promptly poked the pigskin out of Ingram’s snare, the ball rolling ramrod straight through the back of the end zone and the referees declaring, “Auburn football!”
Welcome to the Iron Bowl.
All week long, you’ve had an opportunity to talk to your vent partner about what happened last Saturday on The Plains. You’ve texted, you’ve called, you’ve posted in message boards, you’ve sought psychological advice. So if you are experiencing Iron Bowl fatigue or feeling a bit verklempt, hold on with me a second (no pun intended) because I think this article has merit.
Allow me to say from the outset that I’m not trying to rub anything in Alabama fans’ faces nor beat a dead horse. Conversely, this essay is not an attempt to mitigate what Auburn has done. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
But I really want to know: Why does Alabama lose to Auburn so much?
It’s a phenomenon that’s as intriguing as Uri Geller’s ability to bend spoons. Is it costly mistakes? Does Alabama play tight? Does Auburn just want it more? Does being the year-to-year favorite in this rivalry carry with it a heavy crown?
For these purposes, I’d like to concentrate on analyzing the Iron Bowl in Auburn, where Ol’ St. Nicholas appears to be snakebitten (and Gus Malzahn is the sneaky adder lying in the grass). Remember in Saban’s opening press conference? You know, the day he took the Alabama job, the day he discussed “dominating” the in-state opponent? Overall, he’s 8-5 against Auburn, but 3-4 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Not exactly domination, if you ask me.
But it’s not just that it happens — Auburn beating Nick Saban, that is — it’s how it happens. Watching the 2019 Iron Bowl was like watching one of those reality TV shows where drunk people are screaming and throwing things. Sure, it was entertaining, but you almost needed a shower when it was all said and done. And you can just see Gus Malzahn, the Master of Disaster, laughing at the chaos like Jack Palance in the movie Tango & Cash.
Remember 2013 when Auburn wielded, of all things, a sewing machine on the sideline to stitch up a player’s jersey in the 4th quarter of the Iron Bowl? It’s that kind of craziness you just can’t make up. It’s one thing if bizarre things happen once, but when bizarre things continue to happen and allude back to a previous bizarre thing (the 1-second deal), you have to wonder — Are there supernatural forces in play that we need to know about? Yes, this is a rivalry game and we ought to expect weird, wild stuff, but this weird?
Often, when Bama wins, it’s a blowout. But when the game is close, look out.
Even when Alabama is great, “Auburn Away” still poses a major problem. Case in point: It took a screen pass from Greg McElroy to Roy Upchurch to seal a 26-21 victory for 11-0 Alabama over 4-loss Auburn in 2009. In 2015, Alabama may have Derrick Henryed their way to a 29-13 win over 6-5 Auburn, but the game was tight — 19-13 — heading into the 4th quarter. Alabama subsequently went on to win the national championship, while Auburn took buses to beat Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.
Which makes me wonder: What is it about playing in Auburn that gives Alabama the willies?
The Dye Factor
B.D. and A.D.: Before Dye and After Dye. That’s how the history of the Alabama-Auburn rivalry ought to be divided. Because ever since Patrick Fain Dye set foot on the Auburn campus in 1981, the Iron Bowl has been a completely different ballgame.
Before Pat Dye became Auburn’s coach, Alabama led the overall series 27-17-1. Since Dye, Auburn leads 20-19.
That means that Alabama fans born in 1980 have endured 20 Sunday-afters, wallowing in the misery of having lost to little brother — that “cow college” across the state. That’s despite Alabama’s 6 national titles, 10 conference championships, 83 All-American selections and gobs of players selected in the NFL Draft.
How does this happen? How does Auburn go toe-to-toe with the greatest college football program of all time?
Several years ago, I sat down with coach Dye at his farm, Quail Hollow Gardens and Crooked Oaks Hunting Preserve in Notasulga, Alabama. He told me this about his mind-set as he approached the Auburn job in 1981. Here’s what he said: “I had a feeling when I got here that all people wanted to talk about was Alabama,” Dye said. “I didn’t want to hear that. And I felt that many of the Auburn people were intimidated by Alabama. Being intimidated, that is a terrible thing.”
Even though Auburn had lost 8 straight to the Tide, Dye wasn’t intimidated. And in 1981, when Auburn dropped its 9th straight in the rivalry, he wasn’t a bit deterred. The next year, Auburn shocked the world with a little thing called Bo Over the Top. Then, putting together a little scratch, Auburn won the next year, too. And though Alabama won the next 2 games, Auburn dominated the latter part of the 1980s (if you think about it, Auburn was 2 field goals from winning 8 consecutive in the rivalry). In 1986, there was Lawyer Tillman’s “Reverse to Victory.” In ’87, there was the shutout. In ’88, it was the Tracy Rocker show. And in ’89, it was the Attack of Slack — Reggie Slack, that is. That set the tone for the A.D. era of the Iron Bowl, and the greatest decade in Auburn football history.
Couple that with the fact that Dye had the gall to wrest the Iron Bowl away from a place it had been ensconced since 1904 and you’ll understand a little more why Auburn has had success against the Tide in the post-Bryant era. Auburn had beaten Alabama 3 times in a row at Legion Field and now it was looking at playing at home every other year? Shoot! You had to like Auburn’s chances in this dynamic.
Another factor in Auburn’s success is that it took Alabama so long to pull off a victory in Auburn. After Bama dropped the first 4 games on The Plains, Jordan-Hare Stadium became a spooky place for the Tide. It wasn’t until 10 years after the teams began playing in Auburn that Alabama won its first game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. No other SEC coliseum has presented similar problems. Since 1989, Alabama is 12-4 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, 10-5 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, 12-4 at Davis-Wade Stadium in Starkville and 10-3 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.
One of my Auburn friends laughingly suggested that they get help from a little “Lee County Witchcraft,” while another person suggested the cause of the peculiar is an old Indian burial ground located beneath Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Either way, the home fans usually go home happy after 60 minutes of arch-rival football.
Is it Auburn, or does Alabama stub its own toe?
Besides the Kick-6, the miraculous interceptions, the field goal doinks and a little help from the gods, what can we say about Alabama’s performance that will help us understand why it fails to have success in Auburn? Analyzing data, Alabama’s struggle comes down to these few things:
- Missed field goals (special teams)
- Inability to convert on 3rd down
- Inability to get off the field on 3rd down defensively
- Crucial penalties
Let’s take 2013 as an example. Alabama missed 3 field goals (4 if you include the Kick-6), was 4-for-13 on 3rd down (while Auburn was 8-for-15), and was penalized 6 times for 45 yards. You make the 3 field goals, you win.
But it was Alabama’s inability to capitalize when it mattered most that ultimately spelled doom for the Crimson Tide. If you’ll remember, Alabama was up 28-21 in the 4th quarter when Auburn went for it on 4th-and-1 from its own 35 and didn’t get it.
Game over, right? Wrong.
Bama running back T.J. Yeldon then hustled for a quick first down and another solid run down to the 15, and just about the time you thought the Tide was about to put the game out of reach, the Auburn defense stiffened, stuffing Yeldon on 3rd-and-1 (it was a terrible spot) and again on 4th-and-1. Above the fiasco on the field, announcer Gary Danielson made two salient points. First, he said, “When your kicker makes you worry, you go for it,” then he cogently pointed out the busted blocking assignment on Auburn defensive tackle Carl Lawson, who made the heads-up play on Yeldon.
After taking over on downs, Auburn went backward and was forced to punt from its own 3 with 4:41 left. Returner Christion Jones fielded the punt and ran it all the way back to the Auburn 26, where Alabama had yet another golden opportunity to put the game away. But on 3rd-and-2 from the 17, the Tide were flagged for a holding penalty after Yeldon scampered around right end for a first down. To add further insult to injury, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Alabama’s DeAndrew White offset Jonathon Mincy’s flag of the same caliber. That backed Alabama up to the 27, where it was facing 3rd-and-12. After a McCarron incompletion, Cade Foster lined up for a 44-yard field goal attempt to put Alabama up 10 with 2:41 remaining. But the kick was blocked, and Auburn had another thread of hope. A late hit penalty on backup tight end Brandon Green tacked an altruistic 15 yards onto Auburn’s next series.
Lulling Alabama to sleep with several Tre Mason runs down Broadway, Auburn then went to the air with 43 seconds remaining. Quarterback Nick Marshall tucked it and ran around left end, but then pulled up and hit receiver Sammie Coates for a 39-yard jaw-dropper.
After the extra point to tie the game, Alabama took over at its own 29. A McCarron incomplete pass drank several seconds off the clock, and Alabama was still deep in its own territory with 16 seconds remaining.
Why Saban elected to go for a score instead of kneeling the ball at this point is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the thought of overtime tasted rancid to him at that moment in the game. Perhaps he had confidence in McCarron’s ability to lead the troops down the field. Regardless of his mind-set, the rest is history, and Chris Davis’ runback will be forever etched into the minds of college football fans from Uniontown, Alabama, to Ulan Bator.
Four years later, undefeated Alabama, led by Jalen Hurts, marched into Jordan-Hare Stadium to face 9-2 Auburn. Hurts, who had already accumulated 1,828 yards passing and 686 yards rushing on the season, was conducting an offensive freight train that was averaging north of 41 points per game — the best in the SEC at the time. But the Auburn defense derailed the Hurtsian locomotive, holding Alabama to 314 yards and forcing a 3-for-11 night on 3rd down.
Alabama had opportunities, but miscues — including 2 bad snaps — defined the second half for Saban’s Tide. Defensively, Alabama allowed Auburn to convert on 9-of-18 3rd down attempts, and the Tide was penalized 9 times for 65 yards. Auburn also won the time of possession and the kicking game battle, as the Tigers were 2-for-2 while Alabama did not attempt a field goal.
Same old story, same result.
Now to 2019.
One mistake I penciled in on my Alabama Goofs List, one that went basically unnoticed, was the Crimson Tide’s decision to pooch kick with under 1 minute remaining in the first half. It was a blunder that gave Auburn the ball at the 35-yard line. Say what you will about the controversial 1-second call, Alabama basically handed Auburn a field goal to end the half because of advantageous field position.
At the time, Alabama had all the momentum. Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle had just housed a 58-yard strike from Mac Jones, and the Tide was up 31-24 — and getting the ball back at the start of the second half. With the pooch kick, however, Auburn was 2 passes from being in field goal range. The make with 1 second remaining in the half took KOed all of Alabama’s momentum, and Tide could not capitalize when it received the ball to start the second half.
Secondly, I understand the crushing penalties, the missed field goal, the Pick-6s all affected the game the same way. But Alabama’s inability to stop Auburn’s offense, in my opinion, was the difference. It’s a sickening feeling knowing you can’t stop someone, and to give up 48 total points to the No. 53 offense in the NCAA is absolutely inexcusable.
Alabama forced 3 punts and only 1 3-and-out to a team that had been railed upon all year long for its offensive anemia. But that’s been the Crimson Tide’s defensive year in a nutshell. There have been times when the Alabama defense makes hobo-like offenses look like they’re the bell of the ball. South Carolina, a team averaging 22.4 points per game and ranked 96th in the country in total offense, put up big numbers on the Tide (459 total yards, 23 points) and Texas A&M, ranked 71st overall in total offense, hung 28 on the Tide.
But, but Al … it’s a “new age” of offensive football, people say.
My response is this: Clemson stops people.
Let’s look at a few more alarming statistics from Saturday. It wasn’t that Auburn posted incredible yardage numbers — 354 total yards is modest — it’s that when Auburn had the ball, it scored. The Tigers had the ball for 14 drives and scored on 9 of them. It should be noted that Auburn punted on its first 2 drives, after which it scored on 75 percent of its possessions (9-for-12).
Last week, 247Sports ran an article about Auburn’s offensive woes after it crosses midfield. Either Gus Malzahn self-corrected and is the greatest coach in the world or Alabama’s defense isn’t very good.
The following is a list of statistics from Alabama’s past 3 losses at Jordan-Hare Stadium. As you can see, there’s no real rhyme or reason, and that’s why the aforementioned problems are the real reasons why Alabama doesn’t win at Auburn.
In summary, Alabama fans have to be disgusted at the failure to win these winnable games, and the complete absurdity of losing all three of them.
Should he stay or should he go?
After the game, some Alabama fans took a bit of solace in hoping that Gus Malzahn could hang around Auburn for a few more years. Frankly I don’t understand this line of thinking, nor why any Alabama fan would want Auburn to keep Malzahn. Sure, every year he always loses a game he isn’t supposed to lose and has yet to lead his team to the College Football Playoff. Sure, he’s twitchy and might go 8-4. But he darn sure beats Alabama.
Malzahn has a Dye-esque nature about him, in that he doesn’t seem to be too scared of his in-state rival, nor Saban for that matter. Here’s what he said in the postgame press conference after the Alabama game: “You know, he’s a great coach,” Malzahn said, talking of Saban. “Everybody knows that, but this is Auburn and they’re Alabama. This is the best rivalry in college football. It’s not about me. It’s about our players. Our players believe they can beat them. All the other teams, for the most part, hope.”
Not many coaches would have the guts to say that, and that makes him a dangerous coach in late November.
In the end, Saban’s legacy as one of the greatest football coaches of all time is cemented, without question. Alabama’s five national championships in the Saban years speak loudly, but in the background you will always be able to hear the faint sound of a Tiger’s roar.