For the fourth time in five years, the University of Alabama football team has beaten Auburn. And for the fourth time in five years, it won't even stop to celebrate because there are bigger fish to fry. That is the measure of where Nick Saban has brought the Alabama program. Four times in five years, the Crimson Tide's regular season has been a prelude to bigger things in the postseason. In 2008, Alabama came within a play or two of upsetting Florida and making it to the BCS National Championship Game but could not overcome Tim Tebow that time. The next year, it did, and finished the run in Pasadena, Calif. After one interruption in 2010, Alabama made it again in 2011 without even having to go through Atlanta. So the Crimson Tide's current situation, in control of its own destiny, is exciting but not new. If anything, it is status quo.
This was the fourth shutout of the season for a defense that had a tough act to follow from the 2011 Tide defense. Alabama had three takeaways – two more than it had in its past three games combined – and didn’t let Auburn past the Tide’s 41-yard line. Auburn was held to 4 of 12 third-down conversions. Grade: A
"We really executed well offensively in the first half," Saban said. "I feel great about the seniors being able to close out their career with a win like this. This is a great rivalry game and it means a lot to our players and our fans. "We had a lot of people who played well. Eddie (Lacy) did a good job running the ball, the offensive line played well and Amari Cooper had some big catches. But this was a great team victory. Tide starting quarterback AJ McCarron, who left the game after just one series in the second half, completed 15 of 21 passes for 216 yards and four touchdowns. Lacy, who also came out after the initial third-quarter possession for the Crimson Tide, gained 131 yards on 18 carries, scoring twice on short runs. TJ Yeldon also had a 2-yard touchdown run, while Cooper and Kevin Norwood each had two touchdown catches from McCarron. Alabama converted its first 11 third-down chances in the game. "We did a good job of keeping drives alive on third down," Saban said. "But a lot of that has to do with what you do on first and second down. I thought we kept ourselves in manageable situations."
It might have been as easy as it looked, but it wasn't simple. To execute with near-perfect efficiency, Alabama's offense needed McCarron to be nearly faultless in his decision-making. The Crimson Tide's junior quarterback was just that, not only completing 15 of 21 pass attempts for 216 yards and four touchdowns, but also changing plays at the line of scrimmage to match UA's play-calling with what Auburn's struggling defense would least be able to stop. "I felt like I knew what they were going to do every play," McCarron said. That wasn't guesswork. McCarron studied Auburn all week, to the point that come game time he was able to read the Tigers' defense like a children's book. It boiled down to this: When Auburn had two safeties playing deep he checked to a running play, and when Auburn played one safety in deep coverage he checked to a pass. The result, in chess terms, was checkmate. "AJ did a great job with his checks," said running back Eddie Lacy, who shredded Auburn for 131 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.
Alabama wide receiver Kenny Bell will miss the rest of the season with a broken leg. Saban said Bell's rehabilitation is expected to require five to six weeks. Bell was helped from the field to the locker room after a 19-yard run by T.J. Yeldon in the second quarter. The junior from Rayville, La., entered the game leading the Crimson Tide in yards per catch at 26.0. "They're going to have to put a rod in his tibia, I guess. He's got a broken leg," Saban said. "... He's going to be out." "It hurts us to see him go down because we know he wants it (worse) than any of us," Norwood said. "It's a shame." Saban also said nose guard Brandon Ivory sustained a minor ankle injury. Cornerback John Fulton (turf toe), who returned to practice after the Western Carolina game, saw fourth-quarter action for the Crimson Tide.
Though the actual members of Alabama’s defense are reluctant to admit that comparisons -- as in, "This 2012 Alabama defense doesn’t compare to the record-setting one from 2011" -- are what’s driven them throughout this season, it sounds as if that’s exactly what that group did to reestablish itself as one of college football’s best. "That was a little motivation for them as well," wide receiver Kevin Norwood said. "Everybody was saying that we lost a lot of great defensive players, but at the same time we gained a lot of them."
"Certainly when we’re at our best, we’re hard to beat," he said. Next for the Crimson Tide is the SEC Championship Game against No. 3 Georgia. "I think we’re clicking on all cylinders right now going into this SEC championship (game), so it should be a great game," Jones said. "Georgia played well today. It’s going to be a great fight." Jones was asked if he expected to win as big as Alabama did in the Iron Bowl. "Every time we step on the field, we want to dominate our opponents," he said. "I think we did that today. "Certainly we played very well. As a unit, I thought we were on the same page all night. A lot of communication. Very efficient."
Norwood was asked if this Iron Bowl victory was as easy as it looked. "When you play any team, they’re going to bring their all," he said. "Nothing’s really easy. Nothing’s given to you. We prepared hard. We worked hard for it, and we just got the best end of it." He expected more of a fight out of the Tigers. "We thought they were going to come and bring the pain and bring everything they’ve got, with nothing to lose for the season," Norwood said. "Everything just worked out for us."
I’ve seen bad Auburn teams. I’ve seen Auburn teams that underachieved. Prior to Saturday, I’d never seen a bad Auburn team mail it in against Alabama. Add another one to the list of firsts for Alabama football under Nick Saban. At least an undermanned Western Carolina team put forth an effort last week. If nothing else, the Catamounts earned their $475,000 paycheck. Auburn, on the other hand, will likely have to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million (Gene Chizik’s buyout) to try and erase any and all evidence of the 2012 season. Lost in the Tigers’ tailspin was an impressive performance by Alabama. The Crimson Tide did exactly what a team with aspirations well beyond beating its in-state "rival" should do: it took control with devastating ease, sending a large number of Auburn and Alabama fans to the exits by halftime. This wasn’t the Iron Bowl (not that it really has been since 1989). Given the manner in which the Crimson Tide bludgeoned their "rivals", this was more like the Tire Iron Bowl. After Saturday’s 21-0 first quarter start, Alabama has outscored the Tigers 59-0 in the opening stanza since 2010. Amazingly, the Crimson Tide lost one of those games. That was two years ago. By sundown Saturday, it may as well have been two hundred years ago.
Did Dee Milliner ever dream that No. 2 Alabama would beat Auburn 49-0 in the Iron Bowl? "I never thought of that," the Crimson Tide's star junior cornerback said. "We just came out and competed like we were supposed to." Alabama has won games consecutively by the same score. Western Carolina was the victim the previous week. "Looking back last week, we had a good game, but we didn’t execute like we wanted to," Milliner said. "We tried to come in focused more this week and we did a great job."
"Fun" was a word - besides "dominate" - that many Alabama players used to describe the feeling after nearly making Iron Bowl history. The Iron Bowl-record 32-point favorite fell short of the biggest margin of victory in the 77-game series. The record is Alabama's 55-0 victory in 1948. This was Alabama's 15th shutout in the series. Its Iron Bowl record improved to 42-34-1. Was this the nation's No. 2 team playing at its best? "Yeah, I think so," said junior running back Eddie Lacy, who ran 18 times for 131 yards and two touchdowns and now has 1,001 yards rushing this season. "For the first time this season, I think we actually came out and had we fun. We had fun out there. It brings your game to a whole 'nother level."
Alabama dominated so completely, even Tide defensive back Dee Milliner admitted he was a bit surprised: "I never thought it would get like that." Afterward, Saban even appeared downright jolly, as he opened his postgame news conference joking about how he couldn't get any of the postgame pizza in the locker room. He said he asked one of the linemen to share but was refused. "This was a great team victory," Saban said. "Everybody contributed. We asked for everyone to play their best game today. When you make a commitment to something, it comes from the heart, and I really thought our players did that. Our players did a good job of that today and competed well in the game."
A win like Saturday's 49-0 rout of Auburn are an indication that Alabama is making the most of its second chance yet again, senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. "We understand that we let an opportunity go away the first time," Johnson said. "We've been blessed to get another opportunity and to have another chance, it's like all out or all in. "Everybody is all in now, so everything as far as focus, intensity, paying attention to detail, it goes up." In hindsight, Johnson said, it wasn't always that way. "After losing to Texas A&M, that kind of woke us up to realize that only thing we can control is what we do," he said. "That's what we do week in and week out. "At first, I think we caught up in the media and the hype and stuff, and that kind of hurt us. We're just trying to take advantage of everything."
Since its season-changing loss to Texas A&M, Alabama has taken advantage of some weaker competition and done just that. It was reaffirmed Saturday against Auburn, when the Crimson Tide registered its best third-down performance of the season. In a variety of ways and under an array of circumstances, Alabama’s first-team offense converted all 11 of the third downs it faced. That went a long way toward the Crimson Tide picking up seven touchdowns on its first seven possessions and racking up 483 yards of offense en route to a 49-0 blasting of the Tigers. "It's a real key to being successful when you have success on third down and extend drives," Saban said. "Time of possession is critical, and I thought we did a really good job offensively today." Alabama’s 11-of-14 performance on third downs officially put it above its goal of 45 percent for the season. The Crimson Tide is now 68-of-142, good for 47.8 percent. "It's just one of the things we emphasize at practice during the week," said wide receiver Kevin Norwood, who had three third-down catches Saturday. "Moving the ball and keeping the ball moving to give our defense a break so they can do their job."
"I thought they got a hat on a hat. We had a good plan. We went up-tempo to try to avoid having bad plays. Everybody did a good job of executing," UA coach Nick Saban said. "AJ got us in the right play and the offensive line made the right adjustments to get a hat on a hat. We were effective running it, and we had pretty good protection most of the time when we threw it." Many of Alabama's 267 rushing yards came between the tackles, where center Barrett Jones and guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen opened holes consistently. "I don't think we made many mistakes when we were out there, the first team," Jones said. "We scored every drive, so that's what we want to do. I think we came out and did our job and beat them pretty soundly."
Melton attended the game with his cousin, Ben Melton, who was at his 40th straight Iron Bowl. Melton’s uncle, Oakley Melton, had been to every Iron Bowl since 1948 until the the streak ended last year. Melton said Auburn being such a huge underdog took a little of the excitement out of the game for him. "You want to beat them, but you don’t want to see it this bad," Melton said. "I just want to get past the game with no one getting hurt."
OVERALL F: It’s the end to Auburn’s worst season in half a century. No conference wins. The Tigers weren’t competitive in a league game the final two months. Alabama looks so light years ahead of Auburn that maybe the school should seek a demotion to the Sun Belt. Scratch that. Auburn would have struggled to finish in the top half of the Sun Belt this season. There has to be plenty of changes.
42: The number of points Alabama scored in the first half. It is the most points scored in the first half of an Iron Bowl. It was also the second straight game Alabama put up 42 points in the first half. It was also Alabama’s 42nd win in the Iron Bowl against 34 losses and one tie.
He seems to thrive in the spotlight, and there’s no bigger spotlight in this state than playing in the Iron Bowl. Millbrook’s Dee Milliner had an interception return for a touchdown in last year’s win over Auburn and followed that up with a fumble return to set up another in this year’s 49-0 win over the Tigers. "I was around the football every time," he said, "so it just so happened I was in the right place at the right time."
A look back at previous Alabama-Auburn games clearly reveals one thing: Clyde Bolton pretty much had this rivalry pegged in the 1970s. The longtime Birmingham News sports writer once wrote: "If you throw out the record book in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, all you’ve got is a missing record book." In other words, in a game in which both sides are known to bring their best in a fiercely fought battle, there have been relatively few surprises over the years.
"Coach talked about being physical on both sides of the ball," Lacy said when asked about his yards after contact. "Just because you’re on offense doesn’t mean you can’t deliver a blow. That’s the mindset we came into the game with offensively. We were able to break tackles and get extra yards." That wasn’t limited to running backs, either. Cooper caught five passes for 109 yards – including touchdown receptions of 37 and 29 yards. On Cooper’s second touchdown, he caught a deep slant as Auburn’s Jake Holland, Jermaine Whitehead and Jonathan Mincy all converged on him at the same time. Cooper took the shot from all sides, was able to keep his balance and raced the final 10 or 15 yards for the touchdown as the three Tigers were on the ground, looking like toppled bowling pins. Norwood also caught five passes for 65 yards, with touchdowns of 7 and 38 yards from McCarron. Saban said his quarterback put Alabama in the right play throughout the time he was in the game. "We were trying to go at a particular look – two high safeties, safety down or whatever it is," Saban said. "Sometimes it’s run-to-run or sometimes it’s run-to-pass, but he is a pretty bright guy and he did a pretty good job."
Alabama’s defense earned its second straight shutout and fourth of the season on Saturday, the most for the Crimson Tide since 1979. Senior safety Robert Lester ended a three-game interception drought when he picked off Jonathan Wallace’s pass near theAlabama40 and returned it 31 yards. Wallace’s pass attempt for C.J. Uzomah was high and the 6-foot-4 sophomore leaped for it, but only managed to tip it. Lester grabbed it, setting up anotherAlabamatouchdown that made it 28-0. "Any time the ball’s up like that, giving me a chance to make a play, I’m going to get it," Lester said. It was the fifth-year senior’s 14th career interception, which tied him for fifth on the school’s career list. He is eighth all-time with 183 career interception return yards.
Favored by 34 points, the Crimson Tide blew by that margin before halftime. The first-team offense scored touchdowns on all seven of its possessions. The Tide punter didn’t get on the field until the fourth quarter. Toward the end, the Tide was driving for a touchdown that would’ve set the scoring margin record, but on fourth-and-goal at the Auburn 5, Alabama had backup quarterback Blake Sims intentionally take a knee and hand over the ball. A moment of mercy, perhaps? But even with all of Auburn’s problems this year under Gene Chizik, who will lose his job, this one isn’t all on the Tigers. Alabama played that well, maybe its best game of the year. Maybe its best since pounding Michigan in the opener. This wasn’t the Crimson Tide that struggled with a physical LSU team and suffered a third-quarter letdown three weeks ago. This wasn’t the Crimson Tide that looked tired, sloppy and out of sorts in losing to Texas A&M two weeks ago. Alabama looked ready to dominate, and Auburn simply stood in the way.
Chizik and Auburn’s players also insisted that this season’s unthinkable crash — which came two years after a national title and one year after an 8-win season, complete with a bowl victory — was all about a lack of execution, momentum and confidence that never developed and a snowballing, negative vibe. It couldn’t possibly have been about talent. Indeed, recruiting rankings say that Auburn has talent comparable to Alabama’s, but Alabama’s talent has outscored Auburn’s 91-14 over the past two years. It couldn’t possibly be about coaching, not when rivals Georgia and Alabama manage to outscore Auburn 87-0 this year and 174-21 over the past two years. When a process- and accountability-driven rival that Auburn beat six years in a row from 2002-07 and again in 2010 so humiliates the Tigers two years in a row, it couldn’t possibly be questionable evaluation on top of an atmosphere of lost accountability. Dream on, indeed, Auburn players and their soon-to-be former coach, and take a cue from the marching band. The band seems to execute its act and have yours pegged.
Auburn hasn't scored an offensive touchdown in the last two meetings since Cam Newton & Co. completed the rivalry's largest comeback in the Tigers' last visit to Bryant-Denny Stadium two years ago. This one supplied another milestone of sorts. It's the first time Alabama has scored 40-plus points in two straight Iron Bowls, following last season's 42-14 win when Auburn managed to score on a kick return and fumble recovery. The 42-0 halftime score was the same as the Tide had last week against FCS team Western Carolina, which finished 1-10. The previous largest halftime margin in the Iron Bowl was 34-0 by Auburn in 1957 in a 40-0 win during its only national title run before 2010. "We had that sick feeling in our mouth," offensive lineman Chad Slade said. "You know, you hate to feel that way. I lost it last year, and I lose it this year. It's hard, it's real hard just to speak on it. Next year has to be a different story."
"Obviously, that was a very disappointing and embarrassing loss to our in-state rivals. It was obvious to everybody. It was a sad performance and the Auburn fans and the Auburn alumni don't deserve that. We did all the classic things in a football game that you can't do and expect to win. We just got beat. We weren't very efficient offensively, we certainly weren't very efficient defensively and special teams we were very sporadic as well. Again, a very poor performance."
Chizik called it a "sad performance," and said the Auburn fans and alumni didn’t "deserve" such a poor performance in a game that means so much to so many people in this state. As for what his message would be to the fans in terms of making a case for why Auburn should bring him back next season, Chizik said only, "I don’t have to make a case. Y’all saw what you saw out there." What everybody saw were the charred remains of a program that crashed and burned this season. The Tigers (3-9, 0-8) are just two years removed from winning a national championship, but it might as well be 32 years after a season like this. It was Auburn’s first winless season in the SEC since 1980 and the first time in school history that Auburn finished with an 0-8 record in league play. The Tigers will head into next season on a 10-game SEC losing streak, the longest in the league. Five of their eight SEC losses this season were by at least 17 points. "Any time you’re 3-9 in a season, it’s hard to stand up here and say there were a lot of positives," said Chizik, who would be owed a $7.5 million buyout. "We’ve got to coach better, and we’ve got to play better."
Chizik in a post-game press conference with reporters after the Alabama game refused to address his future as AU's head coach. "I'm not going to go into all of the job situation with any questions. This isn't about me," Chizik told the media. Sources close to the Auburn situation said late Saturday that any chance Chizik had to keep his job likely died with humiliating defeats to Auburn's two most bitter rivals - Georgia two weeks ago and Alabama on Saturday. Both universities shut the tigers out and beat them by a combined score of 87-0.
Crimson Tide senior left guard Chance Warmack is from Georgia. He's excited about the pairing. "It's an opportunity to play a team that you've always seen since you were little," he said. "I'm from Alanta. I moved there when I was young. Just to play those guys is going to be an amazing feeling for me." Did Warmack think about going to Georgia? "I'm not going to say I wasn't interested in Georgia at the time," the Westlake High School graduate said. "But I chose the right team, and I'm happy that I'm with the team I am right now."
"To play in the SEC Championship Game again is going to be fun," Johnson said. "For me personally, my freshman year, the SEC Championship Game was more fun than the national championship, because we played Florida. It’s going to be fun. We’re just going to go back to the basics and correct the mistakes we made today and go in and try again for 60 minutes."
"He’s one of the reasons that my career has been successful as it’s been," Grantham said after Saturday’s win over Georgia Tech. "A lot of the things that I believe in philosophically come from him. A lot of the things we do defensively come from him. Defensively we’re very similar in what we do." Grantham called Saban a friend, and said the two have spoken "periodically" over the past few years. But not since this season began. "He’s really good at what he does, there’s a system in place. They’ve got good players, they’ve got good scheme, they’ve got good coaches," Grantham said. "But we’re gonna be ready too."
This team is playing with an edge it hasn’t for years. It has beaten its last four opponents (Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia Southern, Tech) by scores of 37-10, 38-0, 45-14 and 42-10. That’s a composite dismembering of 162-34, give or take a limb. Please, don’t come back with: "But look who they’re playing?" Georgia has seldom stepped on opponents like this, certainly not in November when everybody, fans and pollsters, are watching. With the score 42-3 Saturday, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo still could be seen and heard screaming in the coach’s box when things didn’t go well, at one point yelling into his headset, "Get your [bleep] off the field!" after the offense went three-and-out and players walked (not ran) to the sideline. "Yeah, my dad texted me," Bobo said later, somewhat sheepishly. "I guess he heard it on radio or TV. But you’re playing in Sanford Stadium. You should at least run off the field." Does this seem like the same Georgia team to you?
"We’re fixing to go out there next week and play the game of our life," said Georgia senior safety Bacarri Rambo, referring to next Saturday’s SEC title game in the Georgia Dome. "Because that is going to determine who makes it to the national championship, which was our goal for the season." "Definitely, that’s what the goal was at the beginning of the season. We had the road-to-Miami slogan and everything," said freshman tailback Keith Marshall, referring to the site of the BCS title game Jan. 7. "It’s good that we can almost taste it, but we’ve got to stay focused and worry about the SEC Championship game."
Play-in game is set: Alabama and Georgia both did their part on Saturday with blowout wins over rivals. Alabama thumped Auburn 49-0, while Georgia routed Georgia Tech 42-7. What that means is that a lot more than just the SEC championship will be at stake on Saturday in the SEC championship game. The winner will earn a spot in the Discover BCS National Championship Game to face Notre Dame, which beat USC on Saturday night and will remain No. 1 in the BCS standings. So in other words, the SEC championship game becomes a play-in game for the right to play for the national championship. It’s similar to both of the 2008 and 2009 SEC championship games when Alabama and Florida squared off in back-to-back years in Atlanta. This is the first time that Alabama has faced somebody other than Florida in the SEC championship game.