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No Miracles, No Nicknames: Auburn Beats Alabama, Wins SEC West, By Being the Better Team

For the second time in a three-game stretch, Auburn took on the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings and dominated the game.

AUBURN, Ala. — It didn’t take a miracle this time. There won’t be one definitive Rod Bramblett radio call that will turn into a ringtone. This game might not even get a name. They still weren’t going to keep them off the field, but by the time the clock hit zero Saturday, no one in the Loveliest Village on the Plains seemed particularly surprised by the result.

The last time Auburn and Alabama met at Jordan-Hare Stadium with the SEC West title on the line, Chris Davis caught a missed field goal and returned it for one of the most memorable touchdowns ever scored. They will call it the Kick Six forever. There will be no names given to any of the touchdowns Auburn scored Saturday. They certainly were useful. Some were quite beautiful, especially the jump pass from Kerryon Johnson to Nate Craig-Myers that opened the scoring a little more than 10 minutes into the game. But they’ll fade into history. One fact will remain.

Auburn simply whipped top-ranked Alabama and won the SEC West on Saturday. There was no magic required for this 26-14 victory, which was Auburn’s second against the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings in a three-game stretch. For the first time since 2010, the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide because they were just better than the Crimson Tide. (And even 2010 is debatable, considering the eventual national champion Tigers needed an all-time great hustle play followed by the signature performance of a Heisman Trophy winner to come back to beat Alabama.) An Auburn season left for dead following an October collapse in Baton Rouge will roll on to Atlanta, where the Tigers will face a Georgia team they’ve already beaten by 23 once with the SEC title and a spot in the College Football playoff on the line. “I’ll remember this night,” Auburn fullback Chandler Cox said, “for the rest of my life.”

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“The 2013 game was obviously a huge win for our program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “But this is different. We’re a lot more stable now.” It’s a credit to Alabama’s dominance under Nick Saban that it took this long for Auburn to finally field a team that could simply match the Tide man for man and emerge the victor. Even the factor that seemed the surest bet in the world—that Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts would prove a better runner than Auburn counterpart Jarrett Stidham—came out in Auburn’s favor when Stidham crashed into the end zone after a 16-yard fourth-quarter draw to stretch Auburn’s lead to 12. “That was nice, wasn’t it,” Malzahn cracked. “Parted like the Red Sea.”

Stidham, who played his freshman season at Baylor and then spent last fall taking classes at a Texas junior college and not playing football, was stellar in his Iron Bowl debut. “It’s been nuts. I watched this game on a couch at [last year] on a couch at my girlfriend’s house in Houston, Texas,” Stidham said. “Turn around a year later and here I am talking to you guys after winning the Iron Bowl.” Stidham’s development this season is one key reason Auburn finally surpassed Alabama. The Tigers were a predictable passing offense early, and that led to an 11-sack disaster in a loss at Clemson on Sept. 9 and a 9-of-26 passing day for Stidham as Auburn gagged away a 20-point lead at LSU in part because LSU’s defense knew whether Auburn was throwing or running on virtually every play. But as the season has progressed, Stidham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have grown more comfortable with one another.  Now, instead of run-throw-throw when Auburn failed to gain more than four yards on first down, the Tigers mix up the run and the pass. They run to set up the pass and vice versa. On Saturday, Stidham showed no fear in the face of Alabama’s pass rush and completed 21 of 28 passes for 237 yards. He also ran 12 times for 51 yards and a score.

Meanwhile, Johnson continued to carry a huge load for the Tigers. The score on the pop pass out of the Wildcat used a season’s worth of Johnson runs to lull Alabama into attacking the line of scrimmage and allowing Craig-Myers to spring open. “It’s something Chip’s been saving,” Malzahn said. “We almost called it two weeks ago.” Johnson gained 104 yards on 30 carries, but he left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury that might be a concern heading into the SEC title game.

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Of less concern is Auburn’s defense, which was as good Saturday as it was against Georgia. Linebacker Jeff Holland and his fellow pass rushers flushed Hurts from the pocket repeatedly and rarely allowed him to get comfortable. Hurts threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy after faking QB Power, but Alabama’s more conventional passing game struggled. The only time the Tide looked like themselves was the first possession of the second half. They marched 79 yards in five plays to take a 14-10 lead. But the Tigers, who didn’t let Alabama convert a third down for the first three quarters, never let the Tide score again. 

Alabama’s last gasp came in the fourth quarter after Auburn incurred a penalty for having 12 men on the field as the Tide ran a fourth-down play. That set up fourth-and-3, but the Tigers wrestled down Alabama receiver Robert Foster after a two-yard gain. After that, a packed Jordan-Hare Stadium just waited for the party to start on the field. For the Tide, there will be no SEC title, but Alabama still has a slim chance to be the only program to make the College Football Playoff every year that it has been played. At 11-1, the Tide probably would remain in striking distance of the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings. But they would need some lower ranked teams to win next week. An Ohio State win against Wisconsin and/or a TCU win against Oklahoma could help Alabama make the playoff. The committee opened the door for an 11-1 team that didn’t win its division to make the playoff last year when it made Ohio State the No. 3 seed in a similar situation. The difference in that case is last year’s Ohio State team had a decisive road win against Big 12 champ Oklahoma on the road. Alabama scheduled what it hoped would be a signature non-conference game against Florida State to open this season, but the Seminoles have not held up their end of the bargain. They’re currently 5-6 with one game to play. So Alabama can only watch and wait. The Tigers, meanwhile, control their path thanks to Saturday’s win.

When it ended, fans spilled out of the stands holding their iPhones aloft to record the moment. Hundreds ran past Apple CEO Tim Cook, an Auburn alum who cheered hard on the sideline those final few minutes, without even noticing the irony. The scoreboard overhead declared the Tigers’ SEC West champions—which could be the first of several if the Tigers keep playing this way.

Auburn needed a few updates to eliminate some earlier offensive bugs, but it’s operating almost flawlessly now. The results speak for themselves. “Not only did we beat two No. 1 teams, but both of them happened to be our rivals,” Malzahn said. “That’s as good as it gets.”