TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban disagreed with the characterization of his decision. He had opted to send his offense onto the field facing fourth-and-three from the Auburn 42-yard line early in the third quarter with his team trailing by 12 points, but to Saban the circumstances were not as dire as they seemed to everyone else.
“I don’t think it was do-or-die,” the Alabama coach said after his team kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive with a 55-44 win in the Iron Bowl. “I thought we could play field position. One of the things that comes into my mind when we make those kind of decisions is if we were playing really, really well on defense, I probably wouldn’t have made that decision. But the fact is I thought we needed to score to change the momentum of the game. You have to take some chances.”
If it wasn’t do-or-die, it came awfully close. With more than 23 minutes remaining, Alabama’s defense had already allowed 422 yards. The Tigers were gashing the Crimson Tide for 7.7 yards a play. Alabama’s defense had offered no guarantee that it would stop Nick Marshall, Sammie Coates and Duke Williams at any point in the proceedings. Meanwhile, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims had already thrown three interceptions, and the Tigers had turned those picks into 13 points. If Alabama didn’t convert at that moment, it would have increased the probability that Auburn would win the Iron Bowl and crush Alabama’s national title dreams for a second consecutive season. Only this time they wouldn’t be crushed by a freaky missed field goal returned for a touchdown. They would be buried under blizzard of Marshall passes they simply couldn’t defend. The playoff race would have moved one giant step closer to full-scale chaos. The SEC might have been shut out of the field it pushed for and then ultimately helped create when two teams from its West Division -- Alabama and LSU -- faced off for the title following the 2011 campaign.
So, more rode on that play than Saban admitted. But the coach clearly knew his players well, because they rewarded his faith in them. Sims, who said he didn’t notice backup Jacob Coker warming up on the sidelines after his third interception and before that drive, forgot the failures of the previous hour. He found DeAndrew White in the flat for a three-yard gain. First down. Then Alabama took a shot.
On the next play Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin raised his hands in celebration before Sims even threw the ball. Kiffin saw that the Tigers hadn’t jammed Amari Cooper. They had left safety Johnathan Ford to pick up college football’s best receiver on the fly. Ford stood no chance. Cooper faked an out and then turned toward the post. Ford bit on the out. By the time Sims hit Cooper in stride, Ford was three yards away and turned the wrong direction.
Auburn responded with a field goal, but Sims found Cooper for a 75-yard score on Alabama’s next play from scrimmage. The Crimson Tide still trailed by two, but the momentum had shifted back in their direction. They would take the lead for good three plays into the fourth quarter on an 11-yard Sims run. “Since I’ve been here the emotion when we’re down has always been that we can come back,” Cooper said. “It’s never too much for us.”
For a while on Saturday, it seemed like too much. At halftime Saban addressed his team. “He gave us a small, little speech,” said Cooper, whose gift for pass-catching is surpassed only by his gift for understatement. “He just told us we hadn’t been playing like we should have been,” offensive tackle Austin Shepherd said. “And that we’re going to win this game.”
Now that sounds a little more like Saban. Linebacker Trey DePriest, who played his final game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, offered the most complete summation of Saban’s message. “That was our worst half of football that we’d played all year, and we were only down five,” DePriest remembered Saban saying. “Just imagine if we actually played. Then we’d be all right. That’s pretty much the gist of it.”
The tone? Probably somewhere between irritated and Phyllis from Mulga.
Still, Saban did tell his team at halftime that he thought the Crimson Tide would win. They had played terribly, yet they remained close. “This is a gut-check as to what kind of heart you have, what kind of character you have and what kind of competitor you are,” Saban remembered telling the team.
It also tested the Tide’s willingness to play outside their comfort zone. Saban designed Alabama to win games 20-17, not 55-44. But this season with Kiffin -- and even a little last year with Doug Nussmeier -- the Tide have managed in shootouts. Consider this fact: The 630 yards Alabama allowed on Saturday are the most any Crimson Tide team has ever allowed. The previous mark for defensive futility was set last fall, when Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel kept throwing over Alabama cornerbacks’ heads to receiver Mike Evans at Kyle Field. Other than piles of yards, what did those two games have in common? Both were Alabama wins.
While Saban may not enjoy these games, he has crafted a team that can win them. This is good, because the offenses Alabama might see if it makes the College Football Playoff can put up gaudy numbers. Oregon, TCU or Baylor can test the upper limits of a scoreboard. Heck, the Missouri offense Alabama will see on Saturday in the SEC title game can stress a defense with furious tempo.
The Tide could dip in the selection committee’s rankings this week. Alabama took over the No. 1 spot after beating Mississippi State on Nov. 15, but the Tide’s hold on the spot seems tenuous after they allowed the Tigers to shred them for so many yards on Saturday. This matters little, though. If Alabama and Oregon swap spots, it wouldn’t change either team’s semifinal destination. Oregon would still go to the Rose Bowl, and Alabama would still head to the Sugar Bowl. It would alter the opponent, but given the general lack of separation between teams one through six, this doesn’t matter, either. What matters for Alabama is that even during a disastrous first 35 minutes, its players didn’t turn on one another. “We could have easily started blaming each other and pointing fingers,” DePriest said. “You got burned. You threw a pick. It could have easily been worse than what it was.”
Instead, they stayed just close enough to take a chance in a moment that may have only seemed do-or-die to those of us who don’t know better. “Losing,” Sims said, “was never in our minds.”