By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 26, 2011
When the score of a game is 42-14 and the first thing out of people’s mouths is that it wasn’t really that close, you might have a problem.
When you have two first downs through three quarters of play, you might have a problem.
When the success your program has enjoyed recently is clearly the result of one or two key players – and those players no longer play for your school – you have a big problem.
And the “you” in these scenarios? Auburn.
Alabama made Auburn look like the Auburn most Alabama fans were expecting to see after the Tigers hired a 5-19 Gene Chizik away from Iowa State prior to the 2009 season. After an up-and-down first season, Auburn rode Cam Newton and Nick Fairley to a national championship in 2010. Then, the 2011 season came about.
After seeing Gus Malzahn’s offense for two years (three if you count his aborted tenure at Arkansas under Houston Nutt many moons ago), SEC defensive coordinators caught up. Without Fairley around to flip field position or (especially) Newton around to make the Tigers’ offensive engine purr, Auburn spent 2011 getting blown out by the four best teams it faced – LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama.
Alabama gave Auburn 14 points in this game, literally. A.J. McCarron fumbled in his own end zone, and the Crimson Tide kickoff coverage team, which has lately been skirting the borderline of competency, allowed Auburn to return the second-half kickoff for a touchdown.
Outside of that, Auburn put up offensive statistics that looked like the starting field at a NASCAR race – no three-digit numbers allowed.
Alabama held Auburn to 78 yards on the ground. It held the Tigers to 62 yards in the air. Those are the kind of numbers that get people fired over the offseason.
If Alabama was trying to make a statement against Auburn, then it did, without question. That statement read, “This is the best overall team in America.”
For a while, it appeared Alabama was trying to recreate the 2010 game. Alabama took a halftime lead of 24-7, same as last year. Alabama quickly let Auburn back into the game after halftime, same as last year. Safety Mark Barron was knocked out of the game with an injury, same as last year.
But this time around, there would be no Newton to lead a Tiger comeback charge. Instead, Alabama stuck to its knitting, controlling the clock and keeping everything in front of itself on defense. Vinnie Sunseri stepped up into Barron’s shoes with aplomb. Then, Dee Milliner stuck the dagger in with a 35-yard interception return for a touchdown. Auburn might as well have thrown Trooper Taylor’s white towel onto the field at that point and called it a day.
Instead, Auburn played on, and in doing so might have helped Trent Richardson win Alabama’s second Heisman Trophy in three years. Richardson’s final run of the night, a 57-yard romp down to the Auburn 16-yard line, put him over 200 yards for the night and put the finishing touches on Alabama’s BCS rematch resume.
As Auburn fans spend the next few days trying to convince themselves this Tiger team has a SEC-caliber quarterback on its roster – which is very debatable, in the best of scenarios – Alabama fans are gearing up for a rematch that is now more probable than just possible. What a strange trip it has been to this point, with other teams losing just when they needed to, Alabama and LSU essentially copying off each other’s papers down the stretch against common opponents and the Crimson Tide getting inspired play at critical times from unexpected players, most notably on this night Sunseri. Now in his fifth year as head coach, Nick Saban has Alabama in the national title discussion for the third time at this late point in the season.
These were the kinds of things Alabama fans expected when Saban was hired prior to the 2007 season: national titles, Heisman campaigns and domination of UA’s two traditional rivals. This Saturday, Kentucky beat one of those rivals, Tennessee, for the first time since the Reagan presidency, knocking the Volunteers out of the postseason discussion, while Alabama took care of Auburn in a way that showed there is very real separation between the two programs.
Unless there’s another Cam Newton floating around out there, this separation may only get wider. From here, Auburn goes to a minor bowl against a mid-level ACC or Big Ten opponent. Alabama, meanwhile, could be getting ready to inscribe its name under yet another crystal football.
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