For just a brief time, hope lived. Hope not only for Auburn but hope for the remaining few teams that will have to go through Alabama to win a national championship. For 30 minutes Saturday, Auburn had played Alabama to nearly a draw. That in and of itself was an upset.
Well, actually for 27 minutes and 29 seconds. Then Auburn coach Gus Malzahn seemed content to be trailing Alabama by merely a field goal and inexplicably surrendered the final 2:31 of the first half with a chance to at least tie the score or even take the lead. The play calls: run, run, run, and run – then run to the locker room.
Granted, there’s little chance the outcome would have been any different. Alabama is simply too powerful to put together back-to-back lackluster halves. The second half market correction was as inevitable as a gimmick call from Malzahn. The Crimson Tide needed just nine plays and a total of 3:37 to score touchdowns on their first two possessions of the third quarter to cruise to a 52-21 victory.
“The basic message (at halftime) was I’ve been talking to you guys all week about control your energy, control what you can control and execute,” Saban said. “Do your job well and don’t make poor emotional decisions. That’s basically what I said.”
Basically. One has to assume it was delivered a little more colorfully than that.
And to think it was just a year ago that Auburn stunned Alabama 26-14. Seems like a decade ago. Or at least seven years and $49 million ago. Auburn isn’t near the team it was then.
And Alabama is as close to invincible as it has ever been under Saban. The biggest difference, of course, is that this time last year, Tua Tagovailoa was the most talented backup quarterback in college football. Now, he’s almost a shoo-in to win the Heisman Trophy.
If there was anything missing from Tua’s resume, it was big numbers in the second half. CBS announcer Brad Nessler even joked on the Auburn pregame radio show that he just wanted to witness one pass play from Tagovailoa in the fourth quarter.
Nessler got his wish. Tua actually threw two passes in the fourth quarter, the second one a 22-yard touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs before yielding the stage to the man he beat out, Jalen Hurts, who promptly threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Waddle.
Tagovailoa’s third quarter and brief appearance in the fourth quarter was reminiscent of Doug Williams’ second quarter quarter in Super Bowl XXII. That was nearly XXXI years ago. The numbers were Heisman worthy and made instant Iron Bowl lore. Twelve passes, 11 completions, four touchdowns, 208 yards. The only thing more remarkable than the stats was the unequivocal praise from Saban, the perfectionist-in-chief.
“He doesn’t ever seem to get flustered in a game,” Saban said. “Things don’t go well. We missed a couple of passes or whatever. Get a little pressure in the pocket. He always seems to respond exactly the way you want a quarterback to respond. He always keeps playing. Plays the next play. He’s into it. He’s excited about it. He’s excited for his teammates. His leadership is something that I think is really important to the other players on the team and I think they have a lot of confidence in him.”
Then Saban told the story of having Kobe Bryant visit with the team during last offseason. “Kobe Bryant got asked when he was here, ‘What motivates you more, how much you love to win or how much you hate to lose?’ He said, ‘Neither one. I get motivated because I want to be the best player that I can be.’ We have some players on our team, and I think he’s one of them, that he’s motivated to be the best player that he can be. I know he loves to win and I’m sure he hates to lose, but I know he’s always worked to try to get better.”
His teammates have seen it so much they’re almost numb to it.
“We see it every day in practice,” said running back Josh Jacobs.
Jacobs was on the receiving end of Tua’s second touchdown pass of the quarter.
“At first, I didn’t think he was throwing it to me,” Jacobs said.
But Tagovailoa saw what his running back couldn’t see, that Jacobs had a clear path to the end zone.
Up next: Georgia, Saturday in the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs know all too well that Tagolvailoa doesn’t need to pitch a complete game to dominate it. But Alabama also knows all too well that Georgia isn’t Auburn. The Bulldogs might not be the team that took Alabama to overtime in last season’s national championship game. But they’re light years ahead of the that got embarrassed by LSU nearly two months ago.
“You accomplish a lot in a season, and I think the SEC is a very good league and for our team to go undefeated is quite an accomplishment,” Saban said. “But it really doesn’t mean anything if we can’t take advantage of the opportunity that we have next week in the SEC Championship game, and obviously Georgia is a very good team.”
But good enough to beat Alabama? We’ll see soon enough.