And you couldn’t blame the Crimson Tide’s coach one bit.
The Iron Bowl result was not the sort of steamrolling a playoff-bound Alabama regularly uncorks. It also wasn’t a series of jolts to swing a rivalry game in the Crimson Tide’s favor.
Instead, it was three ugly quarters for Alabama’s offense and then just enough to work with in the fourth quarter (with a little inadvertent help from the Tide’s friends on the Plains) before finally surviving in extra time on John Metchie’s two-point conversion reception from Bryce Young.
Oh, and it kept No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1) squarely in the hunt for a national championship. No small thing. Then again, neither is the Iron Bowl.
And for much of the day, Auburn (6-6, 3-5 SEC) looked like it was headed for a deliriously unexpected triumph. The Tigers’ were enduring a forgettable November — a 20-3 smothering at Texas A&M, a 43-34 shootout loss to Mississippi State that included quarterback Bo Nix’s season-ending ankle injury and then a 21-17 egg at South Carolina. What would another loss be on top of that sequence?
Instead, Auburn forced Alabama to punt in seven of its first eight possessions. It picked off Young in probably his worst outing of the season, and it got three fourth-down stops from late in the third quarter to the two-minute mark of regulation. For as much as it was on the field, the Tigers’ defense couldn’t have been much sharper.
Handed possession just inside midfield with two minutes left, Auburn’s task was simple. It needed to force Alabama to burn two timeouts and then nearly exhaust the play clock heading into fourth down. It didn’t matter if a punt was required. The clock was Auburn’s friend. But the calculus changed when Tank Bigsby was pushed out of bounds just shy of a clinching first down.
That miscue, however well-intended, handed 40 extra seconds to the Crimson Tide. And despite Auburn MVP Oscar Chapman dropping his second consecutive punt inside the Alabama 5, the extra time was what Alabama needed.
Ja’Corey Brooks’s 28-yard touchdown catch with 24 seconds to go and Alabama’s ensuing extra point finally tied the game. And it should be noted that, yes, 24 is less than 40.
From there, the teams traded touchdowns (first overtime), field goals (second overtime) and two-point conversions (third overtime) before Alabama finally coupled a stop with a two-point play. It heads to Atlanta with a place in the playoff clearly at stake; with a victory over undefeated Georgia, there’s no keeping the Crimson Tide out of the semifinals.
Auburn, though, nearly wrecked those plans a week early, in what would have been the most unexpected result of an already bewildering weekend. Saturday provided enough to leave anyone in college football a bit dazed and confused. In the end, there was clarity on one issue: Alabama is still Alabama, and it remains a factor in this year’s championship chase into December.
Georgia. The No. 1 Bulldogs (12-0) effectively clinched a playoff berth with their 45-0 drubbing of Georgia Tech, controlling their end-of-year rivalry game from the very beginning. Stetson Bennett completed 14 of 20 for 255 yards and four touchdowns, and Georgia rolled up a 463-171 yardage advantage.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech (3-9) lost the last two games in its latest forgettable season by a 100-0 margin.
As the lone remaining power conference unbeaten, Georgia will be the No. 1 seed in the playoff if it beats Alabama in next weekend’s SEC title game. But even if it loses to the Crimson Tide in ugly fashion, it has enough of a track record to make falling out of the top four — and behind a theoretical one-loss Big 12 champ or 11-1 Notre Dame — seem highly unlikely.
Oregon. Better late than never for the Ducks in clinching the Pac-12 North. A week after getting boat-raced at Utah, No. 11 Oregon scored on six of its first seven possessions to build up a comfortable lead in the rivalry-formerly-known-as-the-Civil War before holding on to defeat Oregon State, 38-29.
Anthony Brown’s passing performance (23 of 28, 275 yards, two touchdowns) wasn’t enough to save the Ducks’ playoff hopes, which were vaporized with a 38-7 loss in Salt Lake City. It was enough to earn a rematch with the Utes in Las Vegas on Friday.
The winner heads to the Rose Bowl, the ancestral home of Pac-Whatever champs but in recent years the consolation prize for a league that will be shut out of the playoff for the fifth consecutive season.
Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons’ to-do list this week included a pleasant holiday, locking up coach Dave Clawson to a long-term contract before the hiring silly season was fully underway and clinching their first ACC Atlantic Division title in 15 years.
Check. Check. And check.
Wake Forest crushed undermanned Boston College, 41-10, to secure a bus ride to Charlotte, next weekend and the chance to meet Pittsburgh for a conference title. Sam Hartman threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns and tacked on another score on the ground for the No. 18 Demon Deacons (10-2, 7-1 ACC), who also secured the second 10-win season in program history.
Maryland. For the first time in five years, the Terrapins (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) are bowl eligible after a 40-16 thumping of Rutgers to close out the regular season.
The sixth victory came a bit later than Maryland would have liked after its 4-0 September, but a tangible sign of progress is nonetheless welcome in College Park. After all, the Terps have recorded only one winning season since their finances-fueled move to the Big Ten in time for the 2014 season. A bowl triumph would double that total.
Cincinnati. The No. 4 Bearcats (12-0, 8-0 American) have operated without a margin for error for playoff purposes all season, and now they’re a game away from having an incontrovertible case for inclusion after picking off East Carolina, 35-13, on Friday.
Cincinnati was a bit sluggish early, playing against a revived Pirates program that traditionally has a rowdy home-field advantage. But the Bearcats scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the second quarter to take control, then returned a blocked field goal for a score early in the fourth to effectively finish things off.
Luke Fickell’s team hasn’t lost a regular season game since 2019, and has taken 22 of its last 23 games overall. It’s a remarkable run regardless of whether Cincinnati can knock off Houston in next week’s American Athletic title game, but it’ll look all the more impressive if the Bearcats do become the first Group of Five program to earn its way into the playoff semifinals.
N.C. State. The Wolfpack slew the dragon earlier this season when they caught Clemson in a down year. But they did the truly remarkable — authoring a complete reversal of N.C. State Stuff and stuffing back at their biggest rival.
Things looked grim for the Wolfpack on Friday when North Carolina went up by nine with 2:12 to go on Grayson Atkins’ 50-yard field goal. Yet in just 63 seconds, N.C. State — which has endured its share of agonizing defeats — crammed a pair of Emeka Emezie touchdown catches sandwiched around a recovered onside kick — to rally for a 34-30 victory.
No. 20 N.C. State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) maintained its chances of only the second 10-win season in school history. And it improved to 17-7 over the last two seasons, a steady showing that might get overlooked but stands as a remarkable response to a 4-8 mark in 2019 that marked a program crossroads.
Mississippi. The No. 9 Rebels locked up the first 10-win regular season in school history Thursday with their 31-21 victory at Mississippi State, and they stand a decent chance of landing a New Year’s Six invitation after improving to 10-2.
The losses were both on the road, against Alabama (which happens to just about everyone) and Auburn (which is bound to win a game it probably shouldn’t nearly every year). In aggregate, it’s one of the best years in Ole Miss football history.
Which brings the discussion to one Lane Kiffin. The onetime wunderkind who landed the head coaching jobs with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Southern California before he turned 35, it didn’t seem too far off to label Kiffin as an all-sizzle-no-steak when he was fired at the airport after a loss to Arizona State in 2013.
Kiffin’s second act as a head coach is different. He has three 10-win seasons between Florida Atlantic and Mississippi over the last five years, a feat that might not be fully appreciated at the moment but should be.
Breece Hall. Things haven’t been perfect for Iowa State this season, yet Breece Hall has largely done his job. And the junior running back never did it better than his 242-yard day in Friday’s 48-14 trouncing of Texas Christian.
Hall accounted for four touchdowns (one came on a 22-yard catch) to set an FBS record for most consecutive games with a trip to the end zone. Hall’s done it 24 games in a row, breaking the record of Arkansas’ Bill Burnett set from 1968-70.
Hall has 20 multi-touchdown games, tying the Big 12 record. He’s up to 1,472 yards on the season, 100 shy of the total he had last year when he finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. His 3,941 career rushing yards ranks second in school history behind mid-1990s star Troy Davis.
The Cyclones’ relative struggles — they finished 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big 12 after opening the season in the top 10 — have obscured Hall’s sensational season. They shouldn’t. He’s still one of the top backs in the country.
Oklahoma State. The Cowboys didn’t get the excess of chaos they needed elsewhere, but they created enough of their own to claim a 37-33 Bedlam victory over Oklahoma and end their in-state rival’s Big 12 and national championship hopes.
It was an impressive defensive turnaround that helped Oklahoma State (11-1, 8-1 Big 12) claim a regular season conference title. Tied at 24 at the break, the Cowboys shut out the Oklahoma offense on its eight possessions in the second half. The Sooners’ only points in the final 30 minutes came on a safety and a muffed punt recovered in the end zone.
A muffed punt was also how Oklahoma State went ahead for good after Demarco Jones recovered one at the Oklahoma 5-yard line with 9:43 to go. Three players later, Jaylen Warren bulldozed into the end zone from a yard out.
Oklahoma State, which will meet Baylor in next week’s Big 12 title game, still needs some help to navigate its way into the final four. Losses by any of Alabama, Cincinnati and Michigan would be of use. But the Cowboys still have to handle their own business, something they’ve done quietly for much of the season.
Notre Dame. The Irish are in the clubhouse at 11-1 after hammering Stanford, 45-14. Jack Coan threw for 345 yards and two touchdowns, while Kyren Williams rushed for 74 yards and two touchdowns.
Notre Dame gave up only 23 points over its final four games, an authoritative closing stretch that should be celebrated in South Bend. But realistically, it also has a strength of schedule problem. It beat six teams that are bowl eligible, which in theory doesn’t sound bad. But that motley half-dozen consists of Purdue (8-4), Wisconsin (8-4), Toledo (7-5), North Carolina (6-6), Virginia (6-6) and Virginia Tech (6-6).
Basically, the Irish need exactly the sort of help Oklahoma State does, and an Oklahoma State stumble would be useful for Brian Kelly’s team, too. Notre Dame isn’t done as a playoff factor just yet, but it has nothing left it can do to bolster its case.
Wisconsin. The Badgers’ season came full circle. At the beginning of the year, when hopes were high, Wisconsin’s offense couldn’t get traction against good teams, managing a combined 40 points in losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan.
A seven-game winning streak put Paul Chryst’s team in position to claim the Big Ten West. The Badgers had scored at least 27 points in their last five outings, including three in a row with at least 35. Granted, this was mostly against the Big Ten West, but it still seemed like improvement.
Then Wisconsin ran into Minnesota’s stout defense, and that was that. It was the Golden Gophers who were swinging Paul Bunyan’s Axe at the end of a 23-13 victory after holding the No. 14 Badgers (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) to 233 total yards. Wisconsin’s only touchdown came on an interception return.
With that, Iowa (10-2, 7-2) — another team that faced challenges on offense throughout the season ends up with a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game to face East Division champ Michigan.
Temple. If the Owls haven’t been the worst FBS team over the second half of the season, they’re close. They land on this list not because of their inert offensive showing (182 total yards) in a 38-14 loss to Navy, but rather for the totality of their seven-game skid to get into the barn at 3-9.
After defeating Memphis on Oct. 2, the Owls were outscored 299-59 and never once held a lead. That’s not just bad. That’s almost 1990s-and-early-2000s Temple bad. For a program that played in five consecutive bowl games from 2015 to 2019, that’s incredibly sobering.
Nebraska. Well, if this doesn’t sum up the Cornhuskers’ season, nothing does.
Nebraska (3-9, 1-8 Big Ten) didn’t lose a game by less than nine points all season. It flirted with upsetting Oklahoma, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa, but unearthed ways to lose to all of them. If ever there was a team of whom an opponent could say “Let’s just hang around, and eventually they’ll give this away,” it is Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers.
The season began with a Week 1 loss to Illinois when all of Nebraska’s problems under Frost resurfaced. It ended by giving up 22 points in a row to close a 28-21 loss to Iowa as the Hawkeyes used a blocked punt return for a touchdown, a safety, a short field goal after the safety and a methodical late touchdown march after a meek three-and-out to finish off the Huskers.
You know, the usual.
It’s tempting to suggest Nebraska might be the best three-win team (non-pandemic seasons division) college football has seen in decades. But it ignores how difficult it is to lose all those close games. Flip a coin eight times, it’s bound to come up heads once; the odds it lands on tails every time is 1 in 128. It feels like Nebraska’s season is more improbable, but there’s little reason to believe the Huskers would do anything other than lose a close game if they had a 13th chance to play this year.