AUBURN, Ala — With 30 seconds remaining in the 80th Iron Bowl on Saturday, Alabama running back Derrick Henry took a handoff from quarterback Jake Coker in the backfield. The Crimson Tide offense was positioned in the red zone with a slim 22-13 lead over rival Auburn. Henry barreled into the line of scrimmage, broke free and rumbled 25 yards into the south end zone of Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama players swarmed Henry, smacking him on the helmet and the backside in front of a crowd of 87,451, most of whom had gone silent.
But before Henry strolled back to the Alabama sideline, the junior turned to Auburn’s deflated student section and waved his right hand. Henry had delivered the equivalent of a walk-off home run, a dagger that needed no further explanation. That’s all, folks. Goodbye, upset bid. Goodbye, regular season. Hello, SEC Championship Game.
On Saturday, No. 2 Alabama won its second straight Iron Bowl, 29-13, clinched the SEC West and secured a spot in the conference title game. The Tide will play No. 10 Florida in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 5. That idea seemed far-fetched 10 weeks ago, when the reigning conference champs were reeling from an unexpected loss to Ole Miss. That setback seemed to shake the very foundation of Alabama’s program.
But since that loss, Alabama has been forced to play perfect—or at least, stay perfect in the win column. That’s exactly what the Tide did by beating Auburn, the program’s ninth straight victory since falling to the Rebels. Now coach Nick Saban’s crew is back to being the team no one wants to play in the College Football Playoff. As Saban tells it, Alabama’s late surge is a testament to his players’ perseverance. “Ever since the Ole Miss game, they’ve had their back against the wall,” Saban said. “They’ve responded every possible way that you could ask them to.”
Rivalry games can cast spells on the best of teams, and Alabama didn’t look perfect for the first 30 minutes Saturday. A much-maligned Tigers defense limited the Tide in the first half, standing strong in the red zone and forcing them to settle for four field goals. Those missed opportunities left Alabama, a 14-point favorite over Auburn, holding a slim 12-6 lead at the break.
Despite a struggling offense that missed its share of opportunities, Auburn felt it had the momentum as it ventured to the locker room. “Both teams were kicking field goals in the first half, and we were down six, so I felt pretty good,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said.
But Auburn’s defense wilted in the second half. Alabama quarterback Jake Coker evaded two Auburn defenders and hit receiver ArDarius Stewart for a 34-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter, marking the game’s first touchdown. After that Alabama leaned heavily on its running game. In the second half alone Henry scampered 30 times for 177 yards and the game-sealing touchdown, and he finished with 46 carries for a whopping 277 yards on the night.
Along the way Henry broke Trent Richardson’s single-season rushing record at Alabama, setting a new mark of 1,797 yards. Afterward Saban said he gave Henry, a Heisman Trophy candidate, the option of taking plays off in the second half. But each time, Henry shook off the offer. “We’d really like for someone else to run the ball,” Saban said, “but it got tough to take him out.”
Thanks to a confluence of factors—Henry’s production, Coker’s error-free outing, another stellar defensive stand—Alabama avoided a loss it simply couldn’t afford. Auburn had already dropped five SEC games prior to Saturday, a disappointing fall from its status as a preseason playoff contender. But the Tigers were already bowl eligible prior to Saturday, meaning they had little to lose in striving to spoil their rival’s playoff hopes. Had Alabama lost, even its spot in the SEC title game wouldn’t have been guaranteed; Ole Miss would’ve gone to Atlanta in its place with a win against Mississippi State on Saturday.
The matchup also marked Alabama’s first return to Jordan-Hare Stadium since the infamous Kick-Six in 2013, which shockingly crushed its national title hopes. Saban and most of the Tide’s players harbored painful memories of this stadium and the pitfalls it could represent. On one occasion on Saturday, Auburn trolled the Tide by putting a defender back into the end zone as kicker Adam Griffith—who kicked the Kick-Six two years ago—attempted a field goal. The junior wasn’t fazed; he ended the night 5-for-5 on field goals against the Tigers, including a 50-yarder. “I was just doing my job and trying to win games,” Grifftih said. “I don’t think about all the other stuff.”
Now the Tide are on the cusp of bringing another SEC championship trophy back to Tuscaloosa. After their earlier loss to Ole Miss, the college football world wondered if the end of the Alabama dynasty was near. Now the team that had to read its own obituary two months ago has a chance to repeat as SEC champs. “This team’s gained a lot of confidence in each other, mainly because we figured out how to play with each other.” Coker said. “The effort everybody puts in across the board -- everybody buys in. It’s really special to see how this team’s grown.”
Added linebacker Reggie Ragland: “We had our backs against the wall the whole year, but we had to focus on our goal and that’s what we did.”
That journey isn’t over for Alabama, of course. It still must beat Florida next Saturday in the SEC title game if it hopes to cement a spot in the playoff. Then, the Crimson Tide’s challenges begin anew. Alabama fans haven’t forgotten winning the SEC as a one-loss team in 2014 only to lose a semifinal matchup with Ohio State. At a school with 15 national championships, that kind of season counts as a disappointment.
But in the bowels of Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, Saban admitted this team has the leadership several of his past Alabama teams lacked. The Crimson Tide also feature players who follow those leaders, a give-and-take relationship that, if harnessed correctly, often determines a season, according to Saban. In recent weeks Alabama has responded to adversity with perfection. How long the program can continue that run remains to be seen.
“Their legacy as a team,” Saban said, “will be decided by how we finish.”