Let's get this out there right away: Losing this game sucked. It wasn't entirely unexpected (as you might recall, I called it a 31-27 Auburn win...pretty close), but it was still an absolutely miserable experience. And I'm guessing it'll remain that way right up until Auburn wins the BCS Championship (because they will) and beyond.
Now, I'm not about to assume the role of a 2009 Auburn fan and try to spin a "moral victory" out of what happened in the Iron Bowl, okay? But let's put this in perspective. Bama had them beat and let them off the hook. Minus two egregious pass plays that resulted in TDs, the defense played it's game of the year. They did everything I thought they needed to do to win: they forced Auburn into 3rd and long situations, the linemen kept Newton in front of them and then finished tackles, they expertly defended the middle of the field against play action passes, even the defensive backs (most of whom I called out by name prior to the game) did a mostly amazing job covering their assignments and offering run support. The first half was a master class in defending Gus Malzahn's offense. The second half wasn't quite so strong, but still should have been good enough to win. Like I said in Unsolicited Advice, there's not shutting Auburn down, you just have to slow them down enough to let your offense win it.
And for a quarter and a half, the Tide offense did it's part. Jim McElwain called about half a game that put his 2009 SEC Championship masterpiece to shame. He got the ball to Julio Jones early and often to devastating effect, and utilized smart scheming to minimize Nick Fairley's impact on the game.
But then the guy who never fumbles fumbled, and the football improbably rocketed 20 yards straight down the sideline, mere inches from the boundary, into the endzone.
Not long after, Fairley whipped redshirt freshman Anthony Steen (starting his first SEC game in place of injured Freshman All-American right guard Barrett Jones) and stripped Greg McElroy of the ball. In another surreal moment, the shellshocked Steen stood motionless over his quarterback as the ball skittered around his feet, realizing too late that it was a live ball. Fairley recovered.
Both plays were equal parts great plays by Auburn and outright bizarre occurrences that, had the ball bounced another way, as the saying goes, should have, at minimum, resulted in two field goal attempts for Alabama. And even if the young Tide kickers made just one of those two...they would have represented the winning points.
But this is still just the first half we're talking about. The Bama offense had 30 minutes worth of opportunity to finish the job after half time. However, in the second half, the offense, which had been so dynamic and unpredictable early, crawled back into it's shell and could only muster 3 points the rest of the way. They tried to play it safe and let the offensive line grind out the victory, but as suspected going in, the interior line was not man enough to play straight up against the Fairley-led Auburn line. This was definitely not 2009's OL.
As if things weren't going badly enough, Bama's best opportunity to retake the lead late in the game was without two of it's top receivers due to injuries. And then McElroy was knocked out of the game with a concussion. The defense managed to secure one more offensive possession, but at that point, circumstances had thrust a redshirt freshman with minimal playing experience into the untenable position of leading a last-second scoring drive. It was destined to fail.
In the end, that's kind of how the whole game felt: like destiny. Auburn was just destined to carry on it's national title chase. Sure, scheme and execution had a lot to do with it, and Auburn having two world class players did, too. But you can't hep but look back at the two bizarre fumbles and all the key late injuries and think, "It was just GOING to happen." And you have to come to terms with it.
Sometimes you're just on the other end of Cody's Hand.
But, again, not to make this a MORAL VICTORY~!!! situation, but think of it this way: Auburn came to Bryant-Denny with one of it's best teams ever, maybe it's best player ever, and played what, in no uncertain terms, was a rebuilding Tide team. Despite that, it took two freakish plays and a rash of injuries to key personnel for Auburn to escape with a 1-point victory. Not taking anything away from Auburn: they earned the win, they deserved to win. But they got a lot of help along the way, too.
Don't take this game as an indication that Auburn is on it's way up and Bama is on it's way down. Quite the opposite. This is as high as Auburn is going to be for a long time. And 9-3 is about as low as Bama is going to be for a good, long while, too. And it was a 1-point game. The future is bright for the Tide, and I'm really excited about the 2011 team.
In fact, I'll be back in the coming weeks to review the 2010 season as a whole and figure out what went right, what went wrong, and what it means moving forward, specifically next season (spoiler: it's positive.)