A 12-men-on-the-field penalty doomed Alabama after it stopped Auburn for a three-and-out. Tough.
AUBURN, Ala. -- The second-highest scoring Iron Bowl in series history was a thriller from start to finish, but it was a missed 30-yard field goal with 2 minutes remaining that doomed No. 5 Alabama as it lost 48-45 on the road at Jordan-Hare Stadium to No. 15 Auburn. The Tigers, which faced an exceedingly tough schedule this year, ended the regular season with a signature win for coach Gus Malzahn and Co.
Auburn took a 40-38 lead into the fourth quarter and held on for a three-point win, forcing Alabama to go for it on fourth down late in the game and then seeing its rival miss a 30-yard field goal after initially facing first-and-goal from the 10-yard line. After getting the ball back, the Tigers appeared to be headed toward a three-and-out, but Malzahn kept his offense on the field on fourth down and tricked the Crimson Tide into an illegal substitution, giving the ball back to Auburn to run out the clock.
Auburn's offense did not put up gaudy stats with quarterback Bo Nix completing 15-of-30 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown. In fact, no receiver had more than 66 yards, though running back JaTarvious Whitlow picked up 114 rushing yards on 16 carries. However, the Tigers defense capitalized on two huge mistakes by Tide QB Mac Jones, who threw a pair of pick sixes as the team's starter in for injured Tua Tagovailoa, including the.
Jones was otherwise fantastic, completing 26-of-39 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns,, who had 98 yards on four receptions. Waddle also added a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown, giving him four scores in the game, which doubled his season total. Najee Harris was also tremendous for Alabama's offense, adding 146 rushing yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
Alabama outgained Auburn 515-354, matching the hosts on the ground but besting the Tigers through the air 335-173. However, the Tide did not have a single sack in the game and only had four tackles for loss. Though the score may not show it, Auburn beat Alabama with defense, which is how the Tide have been so dominant historically.
What are the takeaways from the Iron Bowl for the ages?
1. It's time to get off Malzahn's back: The coach of the Tigers has been on the hot seat seemingly every year after his first in 2013 -- when he came within 13 seconds of a national championship. That has to stop ... right now.
Malzahn is 3-4 against Nick Saban and Alabama in his seven seasons with the Tigers. Two of those wins (2013 and 2016) were de facto SEC West title games, and this year's effectively eliminated Alabama from the College Football Playoff. If beating Alabama is the gauge for a successful Auburn coach, a 3-4 record against the best coach in college football history shouldn't just be enough to stay employed, it should be close to statue-worthy.
Auburn isn't Alabama's little brother anymore. The two are more like cousins. When Malzahn arrived as offensive coordinator in 2009 and took over as head coach in 2013, Auburn found out that it can win at an elite level -- in the midst of the Saban's Alabama dynasty -- doing things its own way. The Auburn way. The Malzahn way.
Is his play-calling predictable? Yeah, at times. He should be criticized for it, too. But he also shows his brilliance when it matters most, including on Saturday when he lined up his punter at wide receiver on fourth down specifically to cause confusion to a substituting Alabama. The resulting penalty allowed Nix to drain the clock and flushed away the Tide's title hopes.
Criticize Malzahn, but don't call for him to be canned. After all, he's had more success against Saban than any other coach in SEC history.
2. Nix is going to be a star: Malzahn and defensive lineman Derrick Brown said after the game that the future of the program is bright with Nix under center. He showed why on Saturday. His stat line wasn't sexy, but he made smart reads in the running game, delivered the ball on time on short and intermediate routes and showed off his touch on several deep balls, including one to Seth Williams in the second quarter that set up a touchdown.
He bookended his true freshman season in grand style. His game-winner to Williams in the season-opening win over Oregon announced his presence with authority, and slamming the door on Alabama -- just as his dad, Patrick, did in the 1993 Iron Bowl, signals that this kid has what it takes to be a star. There were some speed bumps in between -- the Florida and LSU losses, specifically -- but Nix's here to stay, Williams and the rest of the receivers already are in sync with him and the offense has a full offseason to grow.
"I've said it all along, he's got something special to him, Malzahn said. "He'll win a championship before he gets out of here."
After 12 games, that prediction isn't outlandish.
3. Alabama's miscues cost them again: The Crimson Tide came out sluggish in the first half of the LSU loss and made similar mistakes against Auburn. The clanked field goal that would have tied the game was the last of one of the sloppiest games of Saban's tenure.
In addition to the doink, the Crimson Tide committed 13 penalties for 96 yards, and Jones' two critical mistakes were inexcusable. Smoke Monday might as well have been the receiver on his 29-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter, and Zakoby McLain's 100-yarder in the third quarter was three feet behind his receiver. Would Tagovailoa have made those mistakes? It's unlikely.
But this wasn't on Jones. The entire Crimson Tide team -- save for wide receiver Jaylen Waddle -- were rattled by the atmosphere and weren't ready for the biggest moment of the season.
4. Waddle is a cheat code: Speaking of Waddle, his name came up on Saturday on the Alabama roulette wheel of superstar receivers. His four touchdowns (three receiving, one kickoff return) matched his total for the entire season.
This team is impossible to defend, and its warehouse full of weapons is the reason why. Waddle is the third or even fourth option at wide receiver behind Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III. Even Auburn -- one of the best defenses in the country -- could not stop him.
What does this mean moving forward? The three juniors are draft-eligible, which means it could be his show in 2020. If that's the case, the offense is in good hands no matter who's taking the snaps.
5. Iron Bowl forever: It's the greatest rivalry in sports, and Saturday night showed why again. It had two pick sixes, a kickoff return for a touchdown, coaching trickeration, a doinked field goal that would have tied the game, fans rushing the field and some of the greatest catches that you'll ever see.
Or, in other words, it's par for the course. But while outsiders might view it as Alabama missing a chance at a national title, something bigger was won and lost on Saturday -- the state title.
This rivalry isn't about national titles, the race for the College Football Playoff or anything bigger than this state. Saban joked with me on Friday at the Alabama team hotel that both teams could be 0-11 and it wouldn't matter. That seems like lip service until you actually experience it.
Nobody cared about the CFP in Jordan-Hare Stadium because the state title was on the line. It might not be the stated goal before the season, but it's the implied goal for 365 days. Auburn gets to celebrate it for the next 364. It's the most important title for either team.