"It was a better game than you thought it would be, wadn't it?"
Actually, um, no. It was almost exactly the game I thought it would be. No one believed me beforehand, not even my own mother (part of the Auburn family since birth). I explained to her all the same things I explained to the guys at warblogle.com last week: in addition to two full weeks of preparation, Auburn had every intangible in its favor (a ferocious home crowd, the symmetry of the '89 team, nothing to lose).
Further, as the boys at RBR noted last week, the character of this series — even if it rarely sees a lot of colossal upsets — is one of tight, nip-and-tuck football games. Neither Auburn nor Alabama ever lets the other blow it off the field (at least, not usually).
And so Friday came to pass almost exactly as I predicted: Auburn struck early with a big play, completely emptied its bag of trick plays (with the surprise onsides coming in as my favorite, and only because I predicted that too from my seat in Section 39) and Alabama weathering the early storm to assert itself once the adrenaline wore off.
One thing I didn't count on: Auburn playing its best game of the year, particularly on defense. Not sure if it was the extra week of rest or the adrenaline shot from 87,000 screaming devotees, but Auburn's defense didn't wilt down the stretch (a la Kentucky and Georgia) and never allowed any big plays (the way it did vs. LSU and Arkansas). After Chris Todd found Darvin Adams for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter — the first time in 2009 this defense has surrendered three offensive touchdowns, by the way — the challenge was clear: we're not giving you anything; you're going to have to come and get it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Alabama fans have every right to be proud of what their team did Friday at Auburn. In what is probably the most hostile environment in the SEC (and among the most hostile in the nation), with a national title on the line and against a ton of adversity, this team came through. Any attempts by anyone to sell it short by pointing out that Auburn is "just a 7-5 football team" some such is missing the point. Alabama took Auburn's best shot, briefly went to the canvas, shook it off, absorbed a few more body blows ... and came right back with its best. That was good enough to win.
That, folks, is what champions are made of.
If you do like historical symmetry — and you know I do — what about 1979? That year, Alabama came into the Auburn game 10-0, to face 8-2 Auburn. Auburn gave its best shot, and led 18-17, late. Alabama drove the length of the field late, with Steadman Shealy scoring to win the game, 25-17. That team eventually won the consensus national championship, something almost nobody did back in those days.
This isn't a championship team yet (unless you count division championships, and I don't). But should it become one, we can look back to that 15-play, 79-yard drive and say, "That's when they went from just another good team to being champions."
Some other thoughts ...
— I'm still not convinced that Gene Chizik is the long-term answer for Auburn as a head coach — it will be interesting to see what happens once he loses Gus Malzahn (and he will, if not this offseason then the next) to someone in need of a head coach. But his staff put together a great plan Friday, with at least one Auburn blogger willing to go the extra mile and say his team "outprepared and outcoached–vastly outprepared and outcoached, in my opinion" the Alabama staff. Arguably the best call was the deep ball to Darvin Adams, if only because they caught 'Bama in a corner blitz and instead of throwing the hot read — which Mark Barron had anticipated and would've intercepted — threw an out-and-up for a touchdown.
— While we're praising the Auburn offense, let us also praise Alabama's defense, which shook off those big plays and left its offense in a position to win late. Just as a parallel, let's recall the 2005 Alabama team, also highly ranked, also with a highly regarded defense, also playing a well-prepared Auburn team (to be fair, that Auburn was vastly more talented than this one). That Alabama team surrendered a handful of big plays early and then basically quit in a 28-18 loss.
And this one had chances where it could've quit. At 14-0 in the first after the offense sputtered for the second time, at 21-14 after the offense failed to gain a yard in two plays (that one made me furious), and especially at 21-20, when Auburn took possession in plus territory early in the fourth, with a chance to potentially put the game away with a first down or two. Instead, 'Bama made them go backwards.
— Mark Ingram's day, obviously, has been dissected enough already. The Heisman thing can probably go away now. It is worth noting, though, that the touchdown pass to Colin Peek doesn't happen without him — he blew up a blitzing linebacker at the line of scrimmage, allowing Greg McElroy time to step up and find his tight end. A huge play, particularly since it came on third-and-11.
— RBR has a fantastic post up today about Roy Upchurch, who came in the game three times, two of them pass plays. Worth noting: I was about to start swearing at someone — a popular pastime in this game, apparently — when it appeared coach Saban wanted to play for a field goal. I wanted to score. Apparently, so did the coaching staff.
— Julio Jones is a sophomore. So is Mark Ingram, And Trent Richardson is a freshman. I just thought that was worth mentioning.
— This will go by the boards, of course, but it warrants mentioning: on Friday, Auburn hosted Alabama at 1:30 p.m., and Auburn High hosted Prattville (the fourth round of the AHSAA playoffs) at 8 p.m. Other reasons you're probably glad you don't cover sports for a living.
— As always, my favorite aspect of any Auburn-'Bama game is the family feel it has to it. Our section was a mixture, just like most sections all across the stadium. And for the most part, everyone got along. Once it was over, all anybody could say was, "What a great game," over and over. I even declined participation in "Rammer Jammer," though I'm not certain it was out of respect as much as it was out of an inability to speak or stand up.
— That reminds me: on replay, it appears Chris Todd's final heave into the end zone hung up there for about 5 seconds. At the time, it felt like about 2 hours. Not a good feeling.
— Now, I suppose, is the time to start thinking about Florida, since, as the guys from AG said this 12-0 football team has yet to actually win anything. Auburn folks can worry about their bowl destination — in a very weird quirk, the SEC finished with 10 bowl-eligible teams, 6 of them with 7-5 records (one other funny note: both ACC championship-game participants lost to 7-5 SEC opponents).
But, just once more, I'll cede the stage to one of the state's leading columnists.
No one said the Iron Bowl was dead, but after Auburn dominated for six years and Alabama took a chokehold for 60 minutes, this game needed a new beginning, and got it with a classic ending.
This was the first Iron Bowl that wasn’t decided until the final play since 1997. From the looks of things, it won’t be a dozen years until the next one.