AUBURN, Ala. -- After he raised one finger and ran past the only corner of Jordan-Hare Stadium painted crimson to a Million Dollar Band serenade of Don't Stop Believin', Nick Saban arrived in the Alabama locker room. With his panting, smiling players huddled around, Saban delivered the following message.
"Only the strong survive," Saban shared later. "But the strong still get their [fannies] whipped. That was my message to the team."
Message received. Alabama needed a clutch fourth-quarter drive to escape Iron Bowl LXXIV with a 26-21 win Friday. Crimson Tide tailback MarkIngram's Heisman Trophy chances probably got ground into grass stains sometime before he limped off in the fourth quarter with a hip pointer, but that didn't matter, because a program with a pile of national titles and no Heisman Trophy winners has its eyes on an entirely different prize.
Maybe next year they'll rechristen it the Profanity Bowl, because no game so far this season has inspired more swearing. Saban, interviewed while heading into the half tied 14-14, told Alabama's radio network listeners that the Tide knew they would have to "survive a [you-know-what] storm."
The folks inside the hollowed-out volcano that serves as BCS headquarters probably swore up their own [you-know-what] storm at about 3 p.m. Friday when Auburn used enough trick plays to fill an entire Boise State coaches' clinic to take a 14-0 lead. Ten men had blocked perfectly on TerrellZachary's 67-yard end-around, and a [stonesy] onside kick had set up EricSmith's one-yard touchdown catch. At the very least, a 'Bama loss Friday followed by a 'Bama win in next week's SEC title game might have allowed an unwashed non such as TCU to dream of a spot in the BCS title game. At the very worst, a one-loss 'Bama might have made the BCS championship over undefeated Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State. That probably would have prompted a few phone calls from the Justice Department, all including the phrase "Sherman Act" and followed in the BCS lair by the word [bleep].
Florida coach Urban Meyer, whose papal namesakes would blush at his blue practice parlance, probably paid tribute to Saturday opponent Bobby Bowden with a few choice [dadgummits] after watching fellow title contenders Texas and Alabama survive scares from their rivals in consecutive days. Meyer probably called seven more meetings for Friday night just to ensure hated rival Florida State doesn't give the Gators a similar scare in The Swamp.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati and TCU players probably dropped a payload of [sixth-letter-bombs] when they saw Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy engineer a 15-play, 79-yard drive in the fourth quarter to save Alabama's undefeated record. Three times on that drive, Alabama faced third down. Twice, McElroy hit Julio Jones to convert. Alabama fans have [complained] all season that Jones has not produced enough, but he may never make catches more important than the nine- and six-yarders he hauled in to keep the drive alive.
The third time 'Bama faced third down on that possession, the ball rested at the Auburn 3-yard line. Saban's coaches sent in a running play for freshman Trent Richardson, who so ably replaced Ingram that Heisman voters probably surmised Ingram's supporting cast guarantees a [boatload] of production for the featured back. Still, something gnawed at the boss man, so Saban called timeout. He ordered a pass play. On the sideline, tailback Roy Upchurch yelled for coaches to insert the personnel group that would make him the play's target. Upchurch got his wish. McElroy took the snap and faked a handoff to Richardson. Upchurch pretended to block a defender, but the defender wasn't in on the ruse. He grabbed Upchurch -- by the facemask, Upchurch claims -- and wouldn't let go. Finally, Upchurch slipped free and drifted into the right flat, where McElroy hit him with the game-winner with 1:24 remaining. "That," Saban said, "may have been one of the greatest drives I've ever been associated with." Said Upchurch: "It doesn't get any bigger than winning the Iron Bowl."
Oh, but it does. On Dec. 5, the Crimson Tide will play Florida in a huge-[fannied] game in Atlanta with the SEC title and a berth in the BCS title game on the line.
The Iron Bowl certainly exposed Alabama's vulnerabilities, but it also revealed an iron will Crimson Tide players may not have realized they had. "We learned," linebacker Eryk Anders said, "to keep our poise early, take deep breaths and be where we were supposed to be."
We also learned who Heisman voters probably should have been watching on the Crimson Tide roster. Cornerback Javier Arenas locked down receivers, sacked Auburn quarterback Chris Todd on a blitz to kill a drive and tilted field position with a 46-yard kickoff return and a 56-yard punt return. Arenas, an almost unknown player when the Tide recruited him out of Tampa, Fla., in 2006, has done that stuff all season.
Meanwhile, linebacker Rolando McClain remained the pounding heart of a unit that always seems to rise at crucial moments. McClain led Alabama with 12 tackles, and none was more important than a fourth-quarter sack of Todd. Auburn, up 21-20, had started its possession on the Alabama 44. After McClain threw Todd to the ground for a 10-yard loss three plays later, the Tigers had traveled 16 yards backward, and their punt would set up Alabama's winning touchdown drive. Then, after Upchurch scored, McClain stood at the goal line waiting for Todd's final desperation heave. With zeros on the clock, McClain swatted the ball out of the sky.
The Alabama sideline went ape[stuff]. The Tigers, who had played valiantly, hung their heads. Some even muttered a few swears as they left the field. Come to think of it, so did one of the Tide players.
"That was a [heck] of a game," offensive guard Mike Johnson said. It also taught Alabama a [heck] of a lesson. "We're still hungry," Upchurch said. "And we're fighters."