BIRMINGHAM, NOV. 27 -- The contentious, often perplexing Southeastern Conference finally was resolved today, seventh-ranked Auburn claiming the title and a place in the Sugar Bowl with a 10-0 victory over No. 18 Alabama before 75,808 at Legion Field.
The tangled significance of the game was an indication of the infighting in a conference with six bowl teams this season. While Auburn (9-1-1, 5-1) was playing for the title, Alabama (7-4, 4-2) could only have tied with No. 8 Louisiana State, and in that case, the Sugar Bowl bid probably would have gone to LSU on the basis of higher ranking, despite a loss to the Crimson Tide.
But the issue was made irrelevant by Harry Mose's five-yard touchdown run with 52 seconds left in the first half and Win Lyle's 23-yard field goal with 1:19 left in the game. The Tigers meet unbeaten and fourth-ranked Syracuse in New Orleans on New Year's Day, while Alabama heads to the Hall of Fame Bowl against Michigan in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 2.
This edition of a matchup that began in 1893 featured a defensive standoff that produced three turnovers by each team. It came down to which offense could accomplish anything at all, and Alabama lost that issue with certainty.
"It's a game of inches, and the inches were on Auburn's side," Tigers Coach Pat Dye said.
First, there was Alabama Coach Bill Curry's decision to pass on fourth and goal at the 1 late in the first half, rather than try for a field goal. When the attempt failed, Auburn turned the situation to its advantage with the 99-yard scoring drive that included a 44-yard pass from Jeff Burger to Lawyer Tillman and culminated in Mose's run.
It was a precursor of the stifling ball control Auburn exercised in the second half, Alabama only having possession for 7:35 in the last half. The Tigers wore down the Crimson Tide and discovered a late breaking running game in the form of redshirt freshman tailback Stacy Danley, who rushed for 157 yards on 26 carries, a season high for the entire backfield.
"They just had great possession of the time, and that was the key," defensive back Gene Jelks said. "And our offense had a bad day at the wrong time."
Alabama began the game primed for an upset. The first half would have belonged to the Tide, which outgained the Tigers by 146 yards to 116 and held the ball for five more minutes, if not for that wasted opportunity at the 1. Ultimately, the Tide ended its regular season having gone scoreless for six straight quarters and without a touchdown since beating LSU, 22-10, on Nov. 7.
"I don't think you can play a team like Auburn cautious," Curry said. "You've got to knock it in the end zone."
The critical momentum swing came in the final five minutes of the second quarter, as the Tide failed to score after taking possession at the Auburn 9 on linebacker Derrick Thomas' blocked punt. Thomas, who anchored a superb defensive effort with 10 tackles and three sacks of Burger, got a hand on Brian Shulman's punt from the 29 with 6:16 to go in the half. Taking over at the 9, Alabama ran Bo Wright into the line, sent two pitches to Bobby Humphrey, who gained 83 yards on 22 carries, to get to the 1.
In what was shaping up as a defensive epic, conventional wisdom called for the chip-shot field goal. Instead, the Tide went for it. And with a rollout option pass to tight end Howard Cross that fooled no one.
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Dunn rolled right to the short side of the field, looking for his only receiver, all other possibilities having lined up in the backfield. But Auburn defensive coordinator Thomas Hall had called the right coverage. Cross stumbled in a crowd and Dunn was contained on the sideline, left with no option but to throw the ball away.
"Obviously we thought we could score on the play or we wouldn't have called it," Curry said. "Had it been more than a yard or so, we would have kicked it. But everything we did ended up being defeated by Auburn. Anytime a goal line call doesn't work, you've failed. If you score, you're brilliant."
But there was no denying that the Tide came away discouraged, and the Tigers refreshed. They proceeded to march 99 yards, ending with Mose's five-yard scoring run. A frustrated Alabama helped with 30 yards on two personal foul penalties.
"It was a big shift," Tillman said. "The goal line stand got our adrenaline flowing. We had to move the ball so the defense wouldn't be upset with us after that effort."
On the way, Burger completed a crucial third and eight pass to Danley to get to the Auburn 12. A play later, on second and seven at the Auburn 15, Burger hit Tillman with the 44-yard pass along the sideline. The play was called X-Take Off, a stop and go that Tillman had suggested when he noticed defensive back Jelks was overly aggressive in anticipating his moves. Jelks fell for the fake, and the 6-5 Tillman made a leaping catch over the 5-11 cornerback.
"He jumped on the stop and I kept going," Tillman said. "He grabbed my jersey, but after that it was just a matter of concentration."
Jelks was so frustrated that he kicked the ball, resulting in a dead ball foul that moved the Tigers 15 more yards to a first and 10 on the Alabama 26. A sack of Burger for 13 yards was negated by another personal foul penalty, an automatic first down on the 22.
From there, Danley burst through the middle for 17 yards. On first and goal, Mose took a pitch left and swept into the end zone untouched with 52 seconds left.
The second half belonged to Danley, who helped the Tigers outgain Alabama, 313 yards to 183. A change from sophomore Dunn (five for 14, 38 yards) to senior Dave Smith, the starter at the beginning of the season now healed from a broken collarbone, didn't help. The Tide's last ditch chance ended with Clay Whitehurst's reception but fumble when he was nailed at the Alabama 42 with a minute to go.
Alabama 0 0 0 0 0 Auburn 0 7 0 3 10
Aub -- Mose 5 run (Lyle kick)
Aub -- FG Lyle 23
A -- 75,808.
Ala Aub First downs 10 20 Rushes-yards 39-136 59-185 Passing 47 128 Return Yards 4 10 Comp-Att-Int 7-15-2 14-18-1 Punts 6-37 6-30 Fumbles-Lost 1-1 3-1 Penalties-Yards 3-39 5-36 Time of
RUSHING -- Alabama, Humphrey 22-83, Wright 6-28. Auburn, Danley 26-157.
PASSING -- Alabama, Dunn 5-12-2-38, Smith 2-3-0-9. Auburn, Burger 14-18-1-128.
RECEIVING -- Alabama, Cross 2-12, Battle 1-15, Wright 1-9. Auburn, Donaldson 4-29, Danley 4-13, Tillman 3-6