AUBURN, Ala. --College football dynasties always seem to end before we think they will, and they tend to do it in a spectacular, memorable way.
It's hard to make up a more spectacular and memorable way for Alabama's bid for a possible third straight national title to end. A field goal return for a touchdown doomed the Crimson Tide in a 34-28 loss to rival Auburn.
Somebody else (perhaps a future trio of Alabama teams) will have to be the first since the poll era began in 1936 to win three straight national championships.
College football fans, especially those in this state, will remember that touchdown return for decades, but maybe that's not what kept Alabama from completing a three-for-three run of national titles.
Maybe this Alabama team just wasn't great enough. If the Crimson Tide had been great, it would've polished off Auburn well before the final play. There would've been no chance for an amazing touchdown to seal the coffin.
Nick Saban said afterward he still believes Alabama is one of the best teams in the nation, and it's hard to argue with that. Try to name more than a handful of teams that are in the Tide's class.
But even though the Alabama of 2013 is awfully good, it never seemed as good as the 2011 and 2012 national champions, which provided a perfect example of what a No. 1 team looks like. Those teams were great. That 2011 team was one of the country's two best, along with LSU. Both of them were head and shoulders above everyone else. The 2012 team was better than everyone else.
But this year? Maybe Alabama managed to get this far without losing because the Tide had a difference-maker at quarterback (AJ McCarron) and, most importantly, the schedule wasn't that tough.
Alabama played only four real challengers this season. Virginia Tech exposed issues with Alabama's offense, but special teams helped the Tide roll to a 25-point win. Texas A&M exposed Alabama's defense, especially the cornerbacks, which continued to be a problem all year.
LSU might've challenged Alabama but lost by 21. It's easy to wonder now what might've happend had Alabama's Tana Patrick not forced that fumble as the LSU fullback was barrelling into the end zone.
On Saturday, Auburn beat up an Alabama defense that's been good but isn't in the class of the ones that helped win three of the previous four national titles. Auburn ran almost when it wanted to do so, and at one time, it never seemed possible that could happen to one of Saban's Alabama defense.
As for the passing game, Auburn went after the cornerbacks. Ricardo Louis dropped what would've been an unchallenged touchdown catch early. Marshall then took advantage of an Alabama mistake by cornerback Cyrus Jones in the final minute. Marshall found a wide-open Sammie Coates for a 39-yard touchdown pass that tied the game.
Alabama's offensive line was good this year, but not as solid as the one last year. That's a tough comparison, too, because that group had three All-Americans who now are in the NFL.
As a result, the Crimson Tide running game wasn't quite as hard to stop as it used to be. Make no mistake, it was good, but if it had been as solid as it should've been, Alabama would've made that fourth-and-one at the Auburn 13 in the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Alabama essentially had to do what it has done rarely in its history -- rely a lot on the arm of its quarterback. McCarron was amazing Saturday, and he nearly carried Alabama past another good team, as he did against Texas A&M earlier in the year.
Alabama trusts McCarron. How many coaches would allow their quarterback to throw deep when they're on their own 1 and the other team is watching for the long ball? He made that 99-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Amari Cooper work.
For the whole season, the nation has watched and waited for Alabama to fall. It finally happened Saturday.
But in examining the 2013 edition of the Alabama football team, it looks like it was bound to happen sooner or later. This team wasn't going to get out of the season unscathed.