It’s November 30th, 2013. We’re in Auburn, Alabama, for the 78th Iron Bowl. The #4 Tigers have drawn even with the #1 Crimson Tide at 28, and with just one second left, Nick Saban has sent out his kicking team for a 57-yard field goal, hoping to either break the tie or move on to overtime.
Whoever wins here tonight will move on to the SEC Championship, and likely play for the National Title. This snap is set to dictate much of the college football season, and you likely remember what comes next, but for everything that made it special and truly matter, let’s rewind.
It goes without saying that these schools hate each other. But that hate has led to some incredible performances, and fueled some even more incredible comebacks.
The first time the game came here to Jordan-Hare Stadium was in 1989, when Auburn pulled off a 30-to-20 upset that ended Alabama’s national title hopes - and possibly even worse, made them share the SEC Championship with Tennessee. In ‘84, a missed block by Bo Jackson on 4th and goal capped off Alabama’s victory over the #11 Tigers. In 1972, Alabama came in as a two touchdown favorite, but Auburn blocked two punts in the final five-and-a-half, returning both for scores to win 17-16.
Legendary coach Bear Bryant even admitted that, “nothing matters more than beating that cow college on the other side of the state.” Recently, that statement has held even more weight considering the winner of the last four Iron Bowls has gone on to be crowned national champ.
But for Auburn, after “the Camback” in 2010, the Tigers hadn’t shown up in back-to-back matchups. In 2011 they put up 14 points, all of which came from defensive scores, before getting shut out a season later. So in the first quarter of tonight’s game, when Auburn QB Nick Marshall took off for a 45-yard touchdown to open the scoring, it marked more than just the first offensive points scored by the Tigers in 3 years.
It also represented hope that this rivalry could be competitive again.
But it hadn’t been expected that Auburn would make it this close, this quick. After Cam Newton made Gene Chizik look competent in 2010, Auburn struggled to replicate that success. Their title defense came up well short as they alternated wins and losses from October on. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left to coach Arkansas State, and with him went the Tigers offense. They tumbled from best in the nation with Cam, to outside the top 100 in total offense in a season where they finished with just 3 wins. They were winless in SEC play, and once Chizik got the boot, the Gus Bus pulled back into the station, and with it the hope for anything that resembled an offense. While a turnaround was expected, it wasn’t forecasted to happen in Malzahn’s first year back.
The Tigers entered the season unranked, and needed some late magic from Marshall just to sneak past Mississippi State. After a loss in Baton Rouge, Auburn strung together a couple wins, and a shootout victory over Johnny Manziel in College Station hurled Auburn up the ranks. But two weeks before the Iron Bowl it looked like their ride was over.
Down one late to Georgia, they were facing 4th and 18, when Marshall heaved a ball up that deflected off a mob of Bulldog defenders, popping up and straight into the hands of Ricardo Louis. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare moved Auburn up to number 4 in the nation for their showdown with Alabama, making it the highest ranked Iron Bowl ever, and just the second time both teams were in the top 5.
And unlike other times Bama has faced a fellow top-five team, at 28-all, the Tide have let this one get competitive.
While Auburn’s turnaround surprised some, Alabama had dominated its schedule pretty much as expected. They were coming off back-to-back national championships, the most recent being their complete annihilation of Notre Dame, and were projected to take home a third straight. They came into the season ranked number 1, and hadn’t left that spot since.
The toughest test for the Tide came in their second game of the year at sixth-ranked Texas A&M, but even that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. Since then, they beat opponents by an average of 43 points, so Vegas was being polite to give this just a 10-point spread. With AJ McCarron, Amari Cooper, and TJ Yeldon, most believed their offense would be too much for Auburn to handle. The only person reckless enough to not pick Bama was Sir Charles Barkley, who claimed not only would Auburn win it, but that it shouldn’t be considered an upset.
And in the 2nd quarter, it looked like Chuck was right that people wouldn’t be calling this an upset. McCarron hit Jalston Fowler for their first score, then connected with Kevin Norwood for a 20-yard touchdown after a Tre Mason fumble gave them a short field. Following an Auburn punt, Yeldon barreled in to make it 21 unanswered for Alabama. And even though they haven’t held onto that lead, they’re still in position to win it right here.
But from 57-yards out, this kick is essentially a different type of hail mary that left even Verne and Gary confused.
Sixty minutes ago, it would’ve made a little more sense. Alabama’s kicker, senior Cade Foster, came into this game on a roll. He hadn’t missed a field goal attempt since his first try of the season, and had even drilled a 53-yarder against Ole Miss. But tonight … that went out the window. In the first quarter, he sent a 44-yard kick wide left. A chance at redemption wouldn’t come until the start of the fourth, which he knocked through from 28-yards out. But a false start penalty forced a second try from 33, which he badly missed again to the left. Nine minutes later, Saban avoided his struggling kicker, going for it on 4th down instead of attempting a 30-yard field goal that would put them up 10 - a gamble that didn’t work out. Foster would later get a chance to put Bama up double digits late, but Auburn would block the attempt, continuing a rough night for the senior.
By the time Alabama was looking at a 57-yarder to win it, Foster had lost his chance to play the hero. He was replaced by freshman kicker Adam Griffith, who had only attempted two kicks all season, making one from 20, and missing the other from 30. Whether Saban had seen enough of Foster, or didn’t want to further shake the senior in case he was needed in overtime, Griffith lined up with one second left looking to end it.
But wait...who’s this little guy down here?
So that’s senior cornerback Chris Davis. He’s a real long way from the ball, but a moment earlier he wasn’t even on the field. Auburn originally sent fellow DB Ryan Smith to the end zone in case the kick came up short, but realizing they had someone a little better at returns, called a timeout to make the switch. Davis, one of just a handful of players remaining from the Tigers 2010 National Championship, was leading the nation in punt return average. Against Tennessee, even after a muff, he took one to the house which sparked an Auburn rout.
On top of those duties, he entered tonight as Auburn’s leading tackler. But while he added another 10 to his total, back in the 4th Auburn probably wished their top defensive back had been closer to the action on one play in particular. With Alabama in the shadow of their goal post following an Auburn punt, Davis was up at the line playing the contain on an expected rush attempt. But coming off the play action, McCarron unloaded one deep to the opposite side of the field. Amari Cooper just had to shake off one would-be tackler while the trailing corner could only watch as Alabama took a 7 point lead.
And when Auburn got the ball back, still trailing 28-21 with two-and-a-half minutes remaining, it felt like Bama’s defense would hang on. The Tigers last four drives had ended with three punts and a turnover on downs, as the Tide had clamped down on their use of the option. It felt like only a matter of time considering they were facing a quarterback who began his career as a 3-star defensive back at Georgia, and was still just in his first season leading the Auburn offense.
But as he’d been asked to do throughout the season, Marshall once again looked to bail Auburn out with under a minute to play. After handing it off to Tre Mason for 6 straight rushes, Marshall kept the ball himself. As the defender bit he found Sammie Coates with nothing but space around him.
And now both sides hope for a different sort of miracle. The fact that there’s even a second left for this attempt is a good start for Alabama.
Starting from their own 29 with just 25 seconds remaining, the idea of getting close enough even for a hail mary pass took a hit when McCarron had to dance around the pocket before getting rid of the ball, which quickly killed 9 seconds. Alabama then seemed content to head to overtime, but on 2nd down Yeldon gained enough that Saban called one of their two remaining timeouts.
With 7 seconds left, the booth expected an end zone shot. Instead, they ran the same draw, which Yeldon took toward the Alabama sideline. He was met by Davis who not only forced him out, but unintentionally became an obstacle for Yeldon that kept him from actually reaching the sideline until after the clock hit zero. As CBS decided it was going to overtime, officials gathered and took a look at the play. Following the review, they put one second back on the clock, which brings us back to here. And from past to future, there’s a lot on the line.
We’ve watched two bitter rivals trade scores all night long, with the winner moving on to the SEC championship and possibly a chance at the national title from there. Alabama’s kickers would probably rather throw out the game tape from tonight, but now they’re being asked to win it here. Auburn is looking to cap off a turnaround season that few expected to happen in Malzahn’s first year. And their senior corner waits, hoping to guide the Tigers back to the title game.
After 60 minutes, it comes down to this. Welcome to a moment in history.