TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Auburn has had its share of stunning comebacks this year, erasing double-deficits in wins against South Carolina, Clemson and Georgia.
They all pale in comparison to Friday’s.
The No. 2 Tigers rallied from a 24-point first-half deficit to pull out a 28-27 win against No. 11 Alabama, ending the Crimson Tide’s 20-game unbeaten streak at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“That was a game that will certainly go down in history,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said, with no hint of hyperbole.
Auburn (12-0, 8-0 SEC) kept its national title hopes alive in the process, with an SEC title game matchup against South Carolina next week in Atlanta all that separates the Tigers from a date in Glendale, Ariz., for the BCS title game.
Although Auburn has come from behind in eight of its 12 victories this season, the 24-point deficit was the largest comeback in school history.
“We’ve been like situations like this all the time,” linebacker Eltoro Freeman said. “We never point fingers. We never do none of that, man. We just stick together. We’ve been in this situation before.”
Well, not quite like this. The three double-digit comebacks earlier this year all happened in the cozy confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium, before a friendly crowd in temperate weather.
Friday’s was by far the most daunting -- Auburn trailed 24-0 after 22 minutes -- took place in chilly, sometimes drizzling weather, and happened before a Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd of 101,821 that Alabama (9-3, 5-3 SEC) hadn’t lost in front of since 2007.
It was all Crimson Tide early. Quarterback Greg McElroy threw for 315 of his career-high 377 passing yards by halftime, completing two touchdown passes. Receiver Julio Jones, who had 199 receiving yards, got lost behind a confused Auburn secondary on a broken coverage on one of them for a 68-yard score.
Jeremy Shelley’s 20-yard field goal made it 24-0 at the 8:01 mark on the second quarter.
But the Tigers didn’t crack.
“The strength of this group is the team,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “That’s what makes it so fun. They care about each other, and they play for each other.”
Auburn’s defense got timely turnovers when Antoine Carter and Nick Fairley forced fumbles near their own end zone, preventing the Tide from putting the game away in the first half.
The Tigers’ offense couldn’t solve Alabama early -- “They were whipping our butts early,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said -- but finally got in gear midway through the second quarter.
Quarterback Cam Newton engineered the comeback. He completed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Emory Blake to cut the halftime lead to 24-7, then had a 70-yard hookup for a score with Terrell Zachery on the second half’s second play.
A 1-yard touchdown plunge by Newton cut the lead to 24-21 before another Shelley field goal, following a fumbled punt by Quindarius Carr, pushed Alabama’s lead back to 27-21.
It was but a mere hiccup in the comeback. On the ensuing possession, Auburn faced a fourth-and-3 at the Alabama 47 with 13:49 remaining. After a timeout, the Tigers lined up in a pooch punt formation, but Newton dropped back and fired a 9-yard pass right on the sideline to Darvin Adams for the first down.
“We came here to win the game,” Chizik said. “We did not come here to tie. We didn’t come here with our hat in our hand. We came here to win the game. Sometimes you have to make those calls.”
Five plays later, Newton threw back across the field to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen for a 7-yard touchdown. Wes Byrum’s extra point gave the Tigers their first lead at 28-27 with 11:55 left.
Newton didn’t have eye-popping stats but finished with 216 passing yards and three touchdowns and 39 rushing yards and another score.
“He’s a special player,” Malzahn said. “He found a way to lead us to victory.”
The lead held up. Auburn allowed only 62 yards in the second half. T’Sharvan Bell’s cornerback blitz resulted in a sack that pushed the Tide out of field-goal range on its second to last drive, knocking McElroy out.
Alabama got the ball back with 51 seconds left, but backup quarterback A.J. McCarron threw four straight incompletions to give Auburn the win.
“That’s the thing about this team,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “We fight adversity. They had all the momentum in the world, but we know how to fight back.”
The victory puts Auburn one step away from the national championship game. Chizik was asked afterward about the BCS national title game, and whether a one-loss SEC team should be considered.
He didn’t get into hypotheticals, boiling it down to the simplest terms.
“If we’re lucky enough to win the SEC championship,” he said, “then we’ll be playing for it.”