AUBURN, Ala. —
Nick Saban said it.
And, he meant it.
Then he said he probably shouldn’t have said it quite the way he did.
“Only the strong survive,” the Alabama coach said minutes removed from a 26-21 come-from-behind win over cross-state rival Auburn.
Then he used the word management consultants teach you to avoid at all cost. He started the next sentence with “but.”
But it wasn’t how the sentence started that made it newsworthy. It was how it ended.
“But the strong still get their ass whipped and that was my message to the team,” Saban concluded.
Alabama may have gotten pushed around a little Friday afternoon at Auburn, but it won. That’s 12 wins and no losses.
Who wouldn’t take a whipping like that?
Then Saban started to backtrack.
“I shouldn’t use that kind of language,” he said.
Then he used “but” again. It is never what you say before using “but” that matters because the money words always come at the end of the sentence.
“But we did survive because of our character and resilience,” he said. “You have to win games like that.”
And Alabama did — with character and resilience.
The Crimson Tide didn’t play its best game. But it didn’t need to. It just needed to get the win and move up the road where the games really matter now.
But the win didn’t come easy.
Alabama did it in the face of what would have been an almost unbearable loss simply because of what it would have meant to the folks on the other side.
The offense, playing from behind most of the game, took control in the closing minutes. It took the ball at its 21 following an Auburn punt with 8:27 to play.
Auburn was up 21-20 and the unmistakable smell of an upset was in the air.
Forget the SEC championship next week in Atlanta against No. 1 Florida. Forget the possibility of playing for the national championship in the Rose Bowl.
What stood between Alabama and all of that glory was 79 yards of Jordan-Hare Stadium grass and a stingy Auburn defense with eight men crammed into the box.
Fifteen plays and more than seven minutes later with just 1:24 left in the game, Alabama had made a statement that silenced the frenzied Auburn crowd.
Greg McElroy, an efficient if not flashy quarterback, found running back Roy Upchurch open in the end zone on third-down-and-goal from the 4.
“That may be one of the greatest drives I have ever been associated with,” Saban said.
That is a strong statement for a man who already has one national championship ring.
Upchurch was a big part of the Alabama playbook as the Auburn defense was centered on Mark Ingram, the running back looking to win the first Heisman Trophy in the storied Crimson Tide history.
“They focused on not letting me have a big day, so other players stepped up,” Ingram said.
Alabama football is not about Heismans. It’s about championships. Auburn has the Heismans, but doesn’t have the championships.
Championship moments find players like Upchurch.
“I just had a feeling it would work out and I would be wide open in the end zone,” Upchruch said.
Champions have those feelings.
In the end, Saban summed it up best.
“Everything is based on results,” he said. “Great competitors can play in the moment and great teams can play in that moment.”
Saban then reversed field again.
“I am not saying we have a great team,” he said.
He doesn’t have to.
His players said it for him.
Chuck Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org