AUBURN, ALABAMA – Alabama’s championship hopes collapsed under a flurry of missed kicks and opportunities and one utterly improbable final play.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide, seemingly invincible at times this season, wound up losing 34-28 to No. 4 Auburn on Saturday when Chris Davis returned a missed field goal 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play.
As a result, Alabama (11-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) won’t get a chance to make history with a third straight national title. In fact, the Tigers (11-1, 7-1), not the Tide, will play for the SEC title in Atlanta.
“We told our team that this is like March Madness,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “Coming into this game that if you want to keep playing in the tournament you have to keep winning.”
And presumably, the Tide is eliminated. Though strange things happen in college football at this time of year.
Davis caught the ball about nine yards deep in the end zone after freshman Adam Griffith’s 57-yard attempt fell short. He then sprinted down the left sideline and cut back with nothing but teammates around him in a second straight hard-to-fathom finish for the Tigers (11-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference).
“I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run,” Davis said. “I knew they would have big guys on the field to protect on the field goal.
“When I looked back, I said, ‘I can’t believe this.’ “
The Tide several times seemed poised to continue its run toward the first three-peat in modern college football, but couldn’t put the Tigers away.
The Tigers put it away just when overtime was on tap. The public address announcer in the stadium had already declared the game 28-28 at the end of regulation.
But Alabama got 1 second restored and one more play after a review of T.J. Yeldon’s run to the Auburn 39.
That gave Saban a chance to try the long field goal — and now he probably wished he never did, given the stunning result.
“It was a great game,” Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said. “Sometimes luck just isn’t on your side.
“It’s one of those crazy plays. It’s almost like a video game. That’s something you do on Madden or NCAA. It’s just a wild play.”
The entire field looked like a sea of orange shakers as the celebration continued long after the climactic finale of one of the biggest Iron Bowls in the bitter rivalry’s 78-year history.
It lived up to the billing — and then some. According to NCAA records, it was only the fourth time that a missed field goal was returned for 100-plus yards, with LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. doing it against UAB early this season.
This finale even one-upped Auburn’s last-gasp win over Georgia two weeks earlier. A deflected 73-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis dubbed “The Immaculate Deflection” with 25 seconds left set up only the second Top 5 Iron Bowl matchup and first since 1971.
A team that went 3-9 last season and had been destroyed by Alabama 91-14 combined the past two seasons will play for an SEC title and perhaps a trip to the BCS championship game.
Undefeated Ohio State, which was third in the BCS standings this week and figures to move up to second behind Florida State, will have something to say about which teams play for the national title, too. No doubt the Buckeyes, who won their own thriller against Michigan earlier in the day, were celebrating Auburn’s win almost as much as the Tigers.
On the final play, Alabama turned to Griffith to replace Cade Foster, who had missed three field goals, with a potential clinching 44-yarder going low and getting blocked in the final minutes. Griffith was only 1 of 2 all season with a long of 20 yards.
Marshall had tied the game with a 39-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Sammie Coates with 32 seconds left after Auburn blocked a low field goal attempt. The Tigers moved 65 yards in 2 minutes all on the ground with Mason until that play.
Marshall raced toward the line with two defensive backs coming after him. Then he pulled up just in time with the ball tucked in his left hand, deftly switching it to his right and lofting the pass to Coates standing all by himself.
McCarron, a Heisman Trophy candidate, had staked Alabama to a 28-21 lead with a 99-yard pass to Amari Cooper for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Tide had a few chances to put the game away, but couldn’t convert a fourth-and-short deep in Auburn territory, had four missed field goals — one after a false start penalty negated a make — and a dropped potential TD in the end zone by Cooper.