AUBURN — Why do we talk about this game for 364 days? Because it’s so worthy.
Auburn and Alabama produced another classic Saturday night. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix didn’t play like a freshman, the Tigers’ defense returned two interceptions for touchdowns and Anders Carlson made four long field goals in a 48-45 victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
With the Crimson Tide in position to tie the game, kicker Joseph Bulovas hooked a 30-yard field goal attempt into the left upright with exactly two minutes on the clock. The ball bounced harmlessly back on the field — which is soon where many in the crowd of 87,451 were headed.
Even then, however, the Tide had a chance to get the ball back with two timeouts remaining. But on fourth-and-4 from the Auburn 26 and with the Tigers about to punt, the Tigers goaded Alabama into an illegal substitution penalty. Auburn ran out the final 1:06 after the penalty gave it a first down.
“It was a team effort. It was defense. It was offense. It was special teams,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We got the penalty at the very end right there. We put our punter on with the offense. They had their defense, and then their punt returner, and then they got 12 guys (on the field). It was really just an overall team win. It was a big one for us.”
Auburn improved to 9-3, 5-3 in the SEC. The Tigers have played five of this week’s AP top 15 — losses to No. 1 LSU, No. 4 Georgia and No. 8 Florida and wins over No. 14 Oregon and now the fifth-ranked Crimson Tide.
“We knew it was going to be a gauntlet,” Malzahn said. “We played the toughest schedule in college football and our guys hung in there. At times it was tough. They never flinched. Going into this game we felt like we had the better team.”
Alabama (10-2, 6-2) will miss the College Football Playoff for the first time since the four-team format was adopted in 2014. It is the first time the Crimson Tide has taken multiple losses in the regular season since the 2010 team went 9-3.
“I really think that was a heck of a game,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “You’ve got to give our guys a lot of credit for the way they competed in the game. They obviously overcame a lot of adversity in the game. Two pick-sixes for them. Some big plays on defense.
“But our players kept battling back. Look at the game, we gave ourselves an opportunity to tie the game, we got a chance to get the ball back at the end of the game.”
It also gave Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn a third victory — he’s now 3-4 — over Alabama’s Nick Saban in the Iron Bowl.
“He’s a great coach. Everybody knows that. But this is Auburn and they’re Alabama. This is the best rivalry in college football,” Malzahn said. “It’s not about me, it’s about our players. Our players believe we can beat them. The other teams, for the most part, hope.”
The ending was actually anticlimactic to what took place over the previous 58 minutes. Players from both teams stepped up in clutch situations. Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle returned a kickoff 98 yards for a score and added touchdown receptions of 58, 12 and 28 yards. He finished with 230 all-purpose yards and had four catches for 98.
Quarterback Mac Jones, in his first Iron Bowl, experienced the highs and lows of this storied series. Jones was 26-for-39 passing for 335 yards and four touchdowns — three to Waddle and a 3-yard pass to Henry Ruggs III, who led Alabama with six catches for 99 yards.
Jones also was intercepted twice. Auburn’s Smoke Monday returned the first 29 yards for a score.
With Alabama leading 31-30 midway through the third quarter and with first-and-goal on the 2, Jones threw a hurried pass for Najee Harris at the goal line. The pass was behind the running back and he appeared to make a one-handed swipe at the ball, but couldn’t bring it in. Auburn linebacker Zakoby McClain caught it and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown.
“It was unbelievable, the swings that went back and forth,” Malzahn said after the teams combined for 48 points in the second quarter. “The first half was crazy.”
Waddle staked Alabama to a first-half lead with two huge plays.
Immediately after Monday put the Tigers on top 17-10 when he caught Jones’ floated pass for Jerry Jeudy and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown, Waddle returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards to the end zone.
Boobee Whitlow then fumbled on the Tigers’ next possession and Christian Harris recovered for Alabama on the Auburn 37.
Jones shook off the interception and threw a nice fade pass up the left sideline that DeVonta Smith caught over Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene at the 4. Three plays later, Jones hit Ruggs in the back of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown with 4:12 left in the half and a 24-17 Alabama lead.
The Tigers weren’t done. Nix led the Tigers on a seven-play, 75-yard drive over the next 3:06. Nix hit Sal Cannella for the 14-yard touchdown as Cannella did a nice job of staying inbounds on the grab in the end zone along the left sideline.
That touchdown tied the game 24-all with 1:06 left in the half.
That was time enough for Waddle to explode on a 58-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown on a two-play, 62-yard touchdown drive with 33 seconds remaining in the half.
Auburn added three controversial points to close out the first-half craziness.
The Tigers started with good field position when T.D. Moultry fair caught the kickoff at the Auburn 35. A screen pass to Eli Stove gained 14 yards. On third down from the Auburn 49, Nix hit Whitlow for 17 yards on a screen in the left flat to the Alabama 34.
Auburn was out of timeouts, but the clock stopped to move the chains. It stayed stopped — it appeared to Alabama fans and head coach Nick Saban — while the Tigers lined up a long field goal.
The snap beat the clock and Carlson — who also made kicks from 43, 43 and 44 yards — drilled a 52-yarder that sent the Tigers to the locker room trailing 31-27 — but with some momentum, Malzahn said.
The coach said Saturday’s game will do wonders for Carlson’s confidence. The kicker came into the game having made 13 of 20 field goals and all seven misses came from the 40-50-yard range.
“I told him all year, ‘Man, you’re going to win a game for us’ — and he did tonight,” the coach said.
Asked about the sequence and what officials told him, Saban said, “I don’t know if I should tell you that.”
“The guy beside me said they won’t be able to get it off anyway,” Saban continued. “They waited and waited and waited and wound the clock and they snapped the ball and the guy kicked it and they said it was good.
“I think you can snap the ball with a second to go in the game. Whether they did or didn’t, that’s not my judgment.”
A Carlson field goal and McClain’s 100-yard interception return as Alabama was about to score opened the third quarter and put Auburn on top 37-31.
Waddle caught his 12-yard TD pass from Jones to retake the lead 38-37 with 4:57 left in the third.
Carlson’s 44-yarder with 49 seconds left in that quarter sent Auburn to the fourth with a 40-38 lead.
“When we play at home, and we play them, we get to the fourth quarter, we find a way to win — 2013, 2017,” Malzahn said. “It kind of held true to the script tonight and our crowd has a lot to do with that. Our guys believed and our crowd willed us.”
Waddle’s 28-yard touchdown pass from Jones put the Tide back on top with 13:44 on the clock. But Nix led an 11-play, 77-yard march over the next 5:32. Shaun Shivers scored on a run around right end. Nix then hit Shedrick Jackson for the two-point conversion and a 48-45 lead with 8:08 remaining.
“We’ve grown and our quarterback has grown,” Malzahn said. “The previous teams we’ve played top 5, top 10 teams, we haven’t put enough points on the board. Tonight, obviously, there were enough points.”
Just barely. Alabama’s Jones had a huge scramble on fourth-and-7 for 18 yards to the Auburn 19 on the Tide’s final drive. The quarterback also converted with a quarterback sneak for a first-and-goal at the 9. But a false start penalty backed Alabama up. On third-and-goal from the 10, Jones threw a pass that Derrick Brown batted back to the quarterback for a loss of a yard.
That set up Bulovas’ miss from 30 yards.
“Joe’s play is just one play — it didn’t win or lose the game,” Saban said. “I know nobody feels worse about it than Joe.”
Saban said he was disappointed in the number of Alabama penalties — 13 for 96 yards — and the turnovers.
“Obviously, when you have the ball on the 2-yard line and you throw a pick six and they go back 98 yards, that’s a huge play in the game,” the coach said. “But we still battled back, even after that.
“We just didn’t play well enough. You have to give their team credit, because they fought back and did a great job in the game as well.
“Very, very disappointing. I know our fans are disappointed. But I can promise you that our players are disappointed and we’re all very disappointed and it’s my responsibility to get our team to do these things better, and that certainly will be the goal in the future.”