TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here is the reality of what we saw at Bryant-Denny Stadium on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 2010.
Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- that happened before 4:26 p.m. Central time mattered:
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• Alabama, ranked ninth and the defending national champion, jumped out to a 24-0 lead against No. 2 Auburn, its most bitter rival. Didn't matter.
• Alabama was in position to deliver a knockout punch right before halftime when it drove to the Auburn 8-yard line with a 24-7 lead. But Nick Fairley knocked the ball loose from Greg McElroy and the Tigers dodged a bullet that could have been fatal. Didn't matter.
• McElroy was magnificent in the first half, completing 19 of 23 passes for 335 yards. By halftime, Auburn, which led the SEC by averaging 42.7 points per game, had been limited to 87 total yards. Didn't matter.
• Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton, who has been the object of month long NCAA investigation, is the SEC's leading rusher. By halftime he had nine carries for minus-10 yards. Didn't matter.
All that mattered is that at 4:26 p.m. Central time the fourth quarter started and Auburn had fought its way back to within six points, 27-21.
In a game like this, where emotions run so high, Alabama and Auburn had 15 minutes of football to determine who had bragging rights for the next 364 days. If you've never spent any time in this state, you simply have no idea how important that is.
And before the first snap of the final quarter in a football rivalry with no peer, the Auburn team, en masse, ran down to one end zone and raised their helmets to that corner of the stadium where their fans were located.
That is Auburn's way of telling their fans: "We're going to win the fourth quarter like we have all season."
And with everything -- literally everything -- on the line, Auburn scored on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Phillip Lutzenkirchen with 11:15 left. Then the Auburn defense made the score stand up to take a dramatic 28-27 victory in one of the toughest atmospheres I have seen in a long, long time.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of this football team," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said after the Tigers snapped Alabama's 20-game home winning streak. "This is a tough place to play and a tough place to win. But our guys just did what they've been doing all season. They just kept playing."
Now Auburn (12-0) is clear on what it must do. If the Tigers beat South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 4 in Atlanta, there is little doubt that they will advance to the BCS title game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 10.
Auburn has not won a national championship in college football since 1957. Now the Tigers are one win away from having a shot at the crystal football.
|Auburn's Philip Lutzenkirchen celebrates his TD with Ryan Pugh (50), Cam Newton (2), Mike Berry. (AP)|
Here's that rundown:
• They trailed South Carolina by a couple of touchdowns and then forced four turnovers in the fourth quarter and won 27-23.
• They kicked a field goal at the buzzer to win at Kentucky 37-34.
• They trailed Arkansas 43-37 and scored 28 unanswered points to win 65-43.
• They found a way to win a dogfight in the fourth quarter and beat No. 5 LSU 24-17.
• Two weeks ago they trailed Georgia 21-7 before winning 49-31.
And when they were down 24-0, it would seem the Tigers would just be trying to avoid embarrassment. If Auburn could just make the score respectable, maybe it wouldn't drop too far in the BCS Standings and remain within striking distance next Saturday by beating South Carolina.
Auburn, it turned out, had other plans.
"But we saw what they were doing defensively and we feel like we made the adjustments we needed and were in pretty good shape," Chizik said. "We just had to go out and execute and have faith in each other. And the players on this team believe in each other."
Auburn will look back on four big plays that went its way and ultimately spelled the difference in the game:
• With Alabama up 21-0, Mark Ingram caught a pass over the middle and went 41 yards. Auburn's Antoine Carter chased Ingram down and knocked the ball loose. It went out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.
• Fairley, whose unsportsmanlike conduct penalty kept an Alabama scoring drive alive in the first quarter, made a magnificent play, forcing and recovering a McElroy fumble to keep the score 24-7 at halftime.
• On the second play of the third quarter, Newton found Terrell Zachery open for a 70-yard touchdown pass to make the score 24-14.
• Trailing 27-21 and facing a fourth down and three at the Alabama 47-yard line, Chizik elected to go for the first down. Newton completed a 9-yard pass to Darvin Adams to keep the drive alive. That drive would lead to the go-ahead touchdown.
"The bottom line is that we came here to win the game," Chizik said. "There comes a point where you have to show your players that you have faith in what they can do."
Chizik saved his greatest praise for the Auburn defense which was simply torched for 379 yards in the first half. But in the second half, when it really counted, Alabama simply could not run the ball and was limited to 79 total yards.
Alabama, which went 13-0 last season to win the national championship, finishes at 9-3 and awaits its bowl assignment.
"We simply did not finish the game and that is what you must do against a very good team like Auburn," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "But you first must give credit to Auburn. They did a very nice job of coming back."
Finally, I'll leave you with this. Newton has been the most scrutinized player in recent college football history. We have watched him play 11 great football games and wondered if he would eventually crack under the glare of a negative spotlight. But after a difficult first half in a tough atmosphere, he completed 8 of 10 passes for two touchdowns and ran for a third in the second half. In case any doubters remain, he proved again Saturday that he is the best player in college football. Beat South Carolina in Atlanta on Dec. 4 and the case -- at least for the Heisman Trophy -- should be closed.
Watch Tony Barnhart Show each Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS College Sports Network.