AUBURN, Ala. — It started out as every bit the heavyweight fight we thought it might be. But for the second time in the last five years, Auburn has defeated Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium for the SEC West title. And as the game wore on, the Tigers did it with authority, taking the Iron Bowl 26-14.
Though it wasn’t as dramatic a finish as the Kick Six in 2013, it might be even more satisfying for Gus Malzahn and Auburn. Because this time, the Tigers didn’t need a special teams miracle or a gimmick offense. They played big boy football against Alabama, and they just did it better.
Auburn, now 10-2, will now advance to the SEC championship next Saturday in Atlanta against Georgia in a de facto quarterfinal for the College Football Playoff. Two weeks ago, Auburn defeated Georgia 40-17 and ends the regular season as the nation’s hottest team.
Here are three takeaways from Auburn's win.
1. Congratulations to Gus Malzahn for turning around everything.
Six weeks ago, everything at Auburn seemed like it was in flux. People were questioning the playcalling arrangement between Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. The Tigers already had two losses after blowing a big lead at LSU, leaving them no margin for error. Athletics director Jay Jacobs was on the verge of getting fired. And now look at them. They’re 10-2, one game away from winning their second SEC title under Malzahn and are playing arguably the best football of anyone in the country.
Much like the 2013 season, when Auburn lost to Florida State in the national championship, the Tigers swept their key home games against highly ranked Georgia and Alabama teams. But this time, they did it in style. No luck necessary. And now it’s hard to believe Malzahn will even consider going to Arkansas, which was the buzz of the coaching industry the last few weeks as it became clear the Razorbacks were moving on from Bret Bielema.
After all, Malzahn is going to be a little bit busy next week. And probably for awhile after that. At this point, a contract extension seems far more likely than him calling the hogs.
2. This was a semi-beatdown.
You almost never see a Nick Saban team get manhandled physically like this, or mentally melt down in key moments like it did here. Auburn ran 78 plays to Alabama’s 60. The Tigers finished with 408 yards, starting the game by attacking the Tide’s defensive backs on the perimeter, then gashing the defensive front as fatigue set in.
Also, give quarterback Jarrett Stidham huge credit. He was patient in the pocket but stepped up and ran when he had to, firing accurate third down passes and even scrambling for a couple huge conversions. Auburn finished 9-for-18 on third down, allowing the Tigers to keep the ball for nearly 36 minutes. None of that was terribly surprising, given the way Auburn has been playing and some shakiness in recent weeks from Alabama’s injury-riddled front seven.
But Alabama started 0-for-6 on third down and didn’t convert one until it fell behind two scores in the fourth quarter, which played right into Auburn’s hands. And when Alabama had opportunities to put the pressure on, it made huge undisciplined mistakes.
Throwing short of the sticks on fourth-and-3 in the fourth quarter. Going offside on a punt return with 7 minutes left, giving Auburn a fourth down. But the game’s most important sequence arguably occurred with 1:01 left in the third quarter.
On a third down, quarterback Jalen Hurts threw a ball up for grabs against pressure. Auburn tipped it, and it seemed for a moment like tight end Hale Hentges caught it for a touchdown. Replay overturned the call, and Alabama settled for a 35-yard field goal attempt to draw within 20-17. Instead, punter/holder JK Scott didn’t handle the snap cleanly and had to improvise, allowing Auburn to escape without giving up any points. In many ways, that felt like the ballgame.
3. Alabama isn’t out of the playoff picture, but it can’t feel extremely confident.
The Crimson Tide finished the season 11-1. But Alabama does not control its own fate with the playoff committee. Though many will compare Alabama to Ohio State from last season, which got into the playoff at 11-1 without winning the Big Ten or even its division, the more apt comparison is Ohio State from 2015.
Last season, the Buckeyes not only had a road win against Big 12 champion Oklahoma, but they had beaten two other top-10 teams in Michigan and Wisconsin (on the road). They were safely in the field as one of the top four teams based on resumé.
In 2015, however, Ohio State’s 11-1 resumé was much thinner. The Buckeyes simply lacked quality wins, and its head-to-head loss to Michigan State cost them both the division and conference title. Though it seemed like Ohio State with Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa and a cast of stars was one of the best four teams (and was certainly one of the most talented), it just didn’t have the schedule heft to back it up and lost the game it needed to win.
This Alabama team is in a similar predicament. While the Crimson Tide have been visually impressive at times this year, their best win is over LSU. Their second-best win is over 8-4 Mississippi State. The rest of their opponents, quite simply, were mediocre.
Alabama could have won this game, lost to Georgia and perhaps gotten in because it would own a quality road win over Auburn. But now they’ll need a huge benefit of the doubt from the committee, especially after a double-digit loss. We’ll see if they get it.
Next week on WFMY News 2: SEC Championship
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