The 1994 Alabama team is one that is often overlooked in terms of being a truly great modern-era Tide squad (12-1, No. 4). That year, Jay Barker had morphed from the smiling church guy who handed the ball off into a legitimate threat at quarterback. The defense was vintage Stallings. The skills positions were loaded. The offense was lethal when need be.
Along the way to its third SEC West title and a No. 4 final ranking, Alabama would avenge the previous year’s tie against Tennessee on the road in Neyland in a game that was vintage SEC defense.
The team would record a one-point shootout win in a deafening night game against Eric Zeier’s George Bulldogs. Until Arkansas came to town five years later, I don’t think there was a louder moment in Bryant Denny Stadium in the 90s.
After an undefeated SEC season, the Tide would play a title game for the ages against Florida, in a game that Alabama lost, but that you never wanted to see end...
And, finally, they put an exclamation mark on the season with an iconic moment for Gene Stallings and Jay Barker, a 24-17 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Citrus Bowl.
But, to get there, No. 4 Alabama (10-) would have to face the No. 6 Auburn Tigers (9-0-1) in Legion Field and avenge a bitter 1993 22-14 loss to the Tigers in Jordan Hare.
Thid was the high water mark of the Bowden regime. On probation, the 1993 team went undefeated. And, coming into the ‘94 game, Auburn had just one blemish -- a 23-23 tie the week before in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. It was a fast, athletic, long defense. The wide receivers were big and physical. The quarterbacking thrived in Bowden’s spread offense. The backfield was vintage Auburn.
Like so many other moments in that season, Alabama fans were treated to a memory of a lifetime.
After jumping out to an early lead, it looked as though Alabama was easily the better team. But two second-half Patrick Nix touchdowns left the Tigers just one point down in the dying moments of the fourth quarter. Auburn was buried near midfield, facing third and long, when the Tide brought pressure. Nix was flushed out of the pocket, but somehow managed to elude enough ‘Bama defenders to pick up most of the yards need.
Fourth-and-three/long-two at the Alabama 43 yard line, there was no question who would get the ball, future NFL WR Frank Sanders. Nix stepped back into the pocket, caught Sanders on two-yard route, and all he needed to do was fall forward to keep Auburn’s drive and its undefeated streak intact.
This is when we learned the truism that football is a game of inches.
Sanders was stoned immediately at the catch, just an inch shy. Alabama held on for a 21-14 win.
The play was controversial. On the call, Eli and the Alabama booth immediately shouted that the ball was short. The Alabama sideline was celebrating. So too was the Auburn bench. The referees appeared to give Sanders a less-than-generous spot. Whether you think Sanders voluntarily retreated, that the refs or REC intervened for ‘Bama, or that Sanders had attained the forward progress will depend largely on how crimson your goggles are.
This would almost surely be a replay in today’s game. Given the angle of the cameras, I don’t know if Sanders was actually just short of the first down marker. But, I do know that there is not indisputable evidence to overturn that play either. In almost identical circumstances two decades later in the 2016 Michigan-Ohio State game, we saw the exact same thing, with different results. So, it’s not even clear whether replay would matter.
Bang-bang play. Game of inches. Sometimes the cliches ring true and they keep fans debating for decades.
The 1994 Iron Bowl was such a play.
As for the number 24? There’s not really a tie-in today. I just wanted to fold in all the exciting moments of the 1994 season. It was one of my favorite Alabama teams of any decade, with some of the most fun games of the Stallings era. Like its counterpart 20 years later, that squad would not win a national title; but, just like that 2014 Alabama team, it was a helluva lot of fun along the way.
24 days ‘til Alabama football.
Roll Tide (and fAU)