It’s as nutty as Alabama and Auburn playing a game that drifted way, way into the fourth quarter with the scoreboard still clinging to the dogged numerals 10-3. (How?) It’s as nutty as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State managing to trade muffed or fumbled punts near their own goal lines within a second half. (How?) It’s as nutty as, well, Michigan manhandling Ohio State. (We saw how.)
“There are a lot of hours left [in] today,” that sometime nut Jim Harbaugh said Saturday afternoon, forecasting mass nuttiness across town. Then the snow kept falling, the cars kept sliding, some game dude drove the snow machine along the sidewalks, and the happy village had that snow-globe look by Saturday evening, when so often Ohio State had left it vaguely bummed.
Here comes conference championship weekend, and, nuttily enough, Ohio State will be idle. Clemson will be idle. Oklahoma will be idle. Wake Forest (10-2) will play Pittsburgh (10-2) in the ACC championship game. Oklahoma State (11-1) will play Baylor (10-2) in the Big 12, after the former looked inconspicuous while slogging around with Missouri State and Tulsa at the outset and the latter frowned at 2-7 in the abbreviated 2020. Michigan (11-1) will play Iowa (10-2) in the Big Ten, with the former in that title game for the first time, a factoid that manages to be nutty overall and nutty right now.
Oregon (10-2) will play Utah (9-3) in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 championship. Both were ranked — 11th and 24th — in the Associated Press preseason poll. How weird. Neither Oklahoma State nor Baylor nor Wake Forest nor Pitt nor Michigan was ranked at all. Iowa sat at No. 18.
Apparently six teams remain viable for the College Football Playoff set to be set next Sunday, and see if this is nutty enough for you: Georgia (12-0), Cincinnati (12-0), Michigan (11-1), Oklahoma State (11-1), Notre Dame (11-1) and Alabama on a tightrope (11-1). It’s an oddball sextet, and we need our oddballs.
We have seen Alabama in several forms across the past 13 seasons, with all the Alabama this and Alabama that, but we have not really seen Alabama perform on a tightrope all that much. (A game-tying drive at LSU in 2014 comes to mind.) Well, those who live life with Iron Bowl memories had to stockpile some more memories from that nutty thing of Saturday, so it’s a good thing Iron Bowl memories rank among the most well tended in American sports.
In horror (Auburn) and in relief or maybe even joy (Alabama), witnesses will remember many details, but here come four. With Auburn ahead 10-3 and Auburn punter Oscar Chapman acing his pinning precision, Alabama took possession at its 3-yard line with 1:35 remaining, its viability as a playoff team hinging on going 97 yards in 95 seconds amid a grand horror of a road crowd. That’s one. Still stuck on that 3-yard line moments later, Alabama faced third and 10. That’s two. From the Auburn 42-yard line later on, Alabama faced a holy-mercy fourth and seven. That’s three. And from the Auburn 28-yard line later on, Alabama faced third and 10, which wound up as Bryce Young’s shocking 28-yard touchdown pass to Ja’Corey Brooks on the right edge of the end zone just behind the pylon, which in turn highlighted Brooks’s season-long catch total coming into the game: two.
That was so much teetering, but in 12 oft-messy plays, Alabama had gone 97 yards in 71 seconds. It won in overtime, of course, a matter of unfathomable pain for the faces in the Auburn crowd, who seemed primed to fill the field with faces after a field storming that never came.
Instead Alabama would go on, hopes afloat, having clinched passage already to play in the SEC championship game against Georgia, a team it has terrified since soon after the border got drawn.
Instead Derrick Hall, the mighty Auburn edge rusher, had to include in his remarks the words, “Losing like this is really painful,” and opt for hope with, “I think everyone’s going to be fine when the sun rises tomorrow morning,” a reassurance that it would.
Instead of opting for self-critique, a knack at which Alabama Coach Nick Saban is an all-time maestro, after a performance with nutty stats such as 66 Alabama total yards at halftime, Saban kept reaching for gratefulness. “Most of the time,” the seven-time national champion said, “I remember the ones we lose, but I think I’ll remember this one for the way the players competed in the game.”
Who is Oklahoma State, you might wonder? Well, it plays defense, lots of defense, No. 3 in the nation in defense when it began its annual scrap with Oklahoma. Then it yielded some yards against the Sooners, as people will, but not too many (441). Then it led 37-33 after Oklahoma’s muffed punt and Oklahoma State’s five-yard “drive” in three plays, and then the sleepless watching TV across the nation saw something deeply nutty: Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams on an electrifying, terrifying or stultifying 56-yard scramble, out of the backfield somehow, then through what resembled an open Oklahoma prairie.
“I just started chasing, you know,” linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez said, “then we got him down.”
They got him down out of bounds at the Oklahoma State 24-yard line, and Oklahoma (10-2) got no more yards, so Stillwater, Okla., could gain plenty more yards of festivity. “First time beating those guys,” Rodriguez said, “so it’s hard to explain.”
So there was a field storming there. There had been a field storming up in Ann Arbor in the snow, a massive one Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara described like this: “Just as soon as I took the knee and watching the rest of our teammates meet us out on the field, watching the snow fall down as the rest of the crowd rushed out, it was truly a surreal moment.”
It all felt fresh, fresh as Cincinnati deeply entwined in a playoff mix, Oklahoma State and Baylor instead of Oklahoma and Texas, Wake Forest itself, Pitt itself, the idea of Wake Forest going up to Boston College for a meaningful 41-10 win, or Notre Dame as a maybe for the playoff because it got thumped at home by . . . Cincinnati. It all felt fresh and nutty, like a score reading 10-3 and Alabama needing to go 97 yards in 95 seconds, lest there be yet another field storming.