TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Football, like life, is a series of choices. Auburn's Antoine Carter made a simple choice -- one years of practice have conditioned him to make -- and saved the Tigers' national title hopes.
Without Carter's choice, the Tigers don't return from a 24-point deficit -- the biggest comeback in school history. They don't fight back for a 28-27 win that might go down as the most exciting Iron Bowl ever played. They don't dance with their band as thousands of Alabama fans trudge toward the Bryant-Denny Stadium exits to contemplate 364 days of War Eagle ringing in their ears. They don't move one step closer to a national title.
Carter could have chosen to stop. He weighs 256 pounds. He already had rushed the quarterback. That effort alone can drain a big man's powers like Kryptonite. Ahead of Carter, Alabama tailback Mark Ingram hit a clearing and accelerated. Carter couldn't catch the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner. Besides, a convoy of Auburn defensive backs would bump him out of bounds before he reached the end zone.
The Tigers trailed by three touchdowns early in the second quarter. Auburn's national title dream stood at death's door anyway. Why not stop, let the defensive backs do their bumping and get ready for the next play?
Carter chose to run.
Ingram gained ground, but then Auburn safety Zac Etheridge flew in from the left at the Auburn 33-yard line. Etheridge took a horrible angle. He sailed past Ingram and out of bounds, but his effort wasn't in vain. He had turned himself into a speed bump.
Carter chose to keep running.
Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof preaches to his charges to finish plays. Don't give up -- even when all hope seems lost. "Here's what happens," Roof said. "You never know. A guy could stumble. The ball could get tipped. The ball could be fumbled."
After cutting to avoid Etheridge, Ingram stumbled. As he tried to regain his footing, Carter finally began to close the gap. At the Auburn 18-yard line, 50 yards from the spot where Carter first chose to chase, Carter finally reached Ingram. The ball got tipped. The ball got fumbled.
The ball hugged the sideline and bounced through the end zone for a touchback. A sure 28-0 deficit turned into hope, but the Iron Bowl's participants would have to make a few more critical choices to reach Friday's frenzied conclusion.
After Alabama tailback Trent Richardson dropped a sure touchdown pass and the Crimson Tide settled for a field goal to go up 24-0, Auburn finally responded with a touchdown of its own. But Alabama charged down the field again. During the drive, Tide quarterback Greg McElroy surpassed his personal best for passing yards in a game. He stood at 335 for the day on the second-and-goal play when Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley blasted through Alabama's line and sacked McElroy. In the process, Fairley separated McElroy from the ball.
Fairley could have chosen to pop up and celebrate. After his first sack of McElroy in the first quarter, Fairley did a little shimmy that drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty that resuscitated Alabama's third touchdown drive. He probably didn't deserve the flag, but maybe it provided an important lesson. After the second-quarter sack, Fairley didn't think to celebrate.
He saw an offensive lineman trying to help up McElroy. He also saw the ball rolling on the ground. Had he heard a whistle? No. He hadn't. "Something had to be going on," Fairley said.
Fairley chose to keep playing. He jumped on the ball, squelching a drive that would have allowed Alabama to go into the half up 20 or 24.
In the locker room, the Tigers chose not to panic. They were down 17 against Clemson and won. They were down 14 against Georgia and won. This was worse -- a 17-point deficit that could have been a 35-point deficit -- but they believed they could overcome it.
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn minced no words about his offense's first-half production. "We were on the verge of being terrible," Malzahn said. Alabama had taken away Auburn's inside run game. Some blitzes had reached quarterback Cam Newton. For the Tigers to move the ball, they'd have to come out throwing.
Auburn went deep on the second play from scrimmage in the second half. Newton threw down the left side of the field for receiver Terrell Zachery. The ball seemed to hang forever.
As Newton's pass dangled in the air, Alabama safety Mark Barron faced a choice. Would he try for the interception, or would he try to knock Zachary into SEC championship week?
Barron couldn't choose immediately. He froze for a moment. In the end, he chose to seek the interception. He chose wrong. Zachery caught the pass. Barron sloughed away and onto the ground, and Zachery raced ahead for a 70-yard touchdown. On the sideline, teammate Darvin Adams filled in Zachery on the consequences of Barron's other option. "He told me that if he had went for the hit instead of going for the ball," Zachery said, "he would have killed me."
The Tigers finally pressed fast-forward on their up-tempo offense and closed the gap more, but Malzahn and head coach Gene Chizik faced a critical choice early in the fourth quarter. Auburn had a fourth-and-3 on the Alabama 47-yard line. The Tigers' defense had improved and stuffed the Tide for the entire third quarter, so pinning Alabama inside the 10 with a punt might have been the prudent call.
Auburn's coaches chose to have faith in Newton. He took the snap and fired to Adams down the sideline for a 9-yard gain. Five plays later, Newton hit a wide-open Phillip Lutzenkirchen to tie the score. Wes Byrum's extra point gave the Tigers their first lead, but Chizik and Malzahn would face the same choice again on Auburn's next possession.
With plenty of time remaining for Alabama to drive for a field goal, Auburn faced fourth-and-inches from its own 36. Again, Chizik chose to have faith in Newton. Newton took the snap and launched himself over the line of scrimmage. He got the first down, and by the time the Tide got the ball back at their own 19, they had 51 seconds and no timeouts. Afterward, Chizik sounded as if he never contemplated punting. "We came here to win the game," he said. "We did not come here to tie. We did not come here hat in hand. We came here to win."
And they did. They won perhaps the greatest contest in a series full of great contests.
At least for now.
Because the Tigers made another choice this season. They chose to play Newton these past few weeks even though they knew the NCAA was sniffing around an alleged pay-for-play scheme that might have made Newton ineligible. Asked about the status of the investigation, Chizik's tone turned sour. "I'm not addressing any of that," he said.
At some point, the NCAA may swoop in and wipe Friday's comeback from the record books. Maybe it won't. But based on the NCAA's handling of previous cases, that remains a possibility.
It won't matter for anyone who witnessed what transpired in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Friday. Everyone, from the Auburn fans who proudly wore their colors in hostile territory to the stadium P.A. guy who played "Take the Money and Run" and "Son of a Preacher Man" as Auburn warmed up to the Alabama fans who waved dollar bills at the Tigers, will remember the day Auburn rose from the dead and ripped Alabama's heart from its chest.
The ultimate Iron Bowl comeback began with a choice. Antoine Carter could have stopped. He chose to just keep running.
And look what happened.