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Melted Iron

By Matt Smith
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Alabama never even had a chance to win in the fourth quarter, as the Tigers held No. 1 scoreless for the final 28 minutes. It was, by Alabama standards, a meltdown.

Usually when Alabama loses, an opponent makes a great play to pull out victory in the final minutes. Deshaun Watson did it. Senquez Golson did it. Chris Davis did it.

That’s what makes Saturday’s 26-14 Crimson Tide loss at No. 6 Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl so strange. Alabama never even had a chance to win in the fourth quarter, as the Tigers held No. 1 scoreless for the final 28 minutes. It was, by Alabama standards, a meltdown.

Credit is due to Auburn, which knocked off the top-ranked team in the nation for the second time in a fortnight. The Tigers will face Georgia in next week’s SEC Championship Game, whom they demolished two weeks ago, 40-17.

The Tigers won the battle in the trenches on Saturday, and Jarrett Stidham was excellent under center. It was a good enough performance to win even if Alabama had played a decent game. But Alabama didn’t come close to playing a decent game.

The gaffes began on Alabama’ second possession, when Jalen Hurts was stripped by Auburn’s Jeff Holland on a quarterback run. The Tigers recovered. Auburn should have capitalized, but Stidham made his only big mistake of the day on the ensuing drive, fumbling a snap and trying to pick it up rather than falling on it. Alabama recovered.

Before halftime, Nick Saban curiously shunned using at least one of his timeouts to attempt to get the ball back. Alabama instead let the clock wind down, and Daniel Carlson connected on a field goal to give Auburn a 10-7 lead as time expired. That was more of a philosophical decision than a mistake, but it showed Saban’s lack of faith in his offense.

Alabama found some fire in the third quarter, marching 79 yards in five plays, the final four runs, to grab a 14-10 lead. That was the high point of the afternoon. Alabama’s final five drives: Punt, bad snap on a field goal attempt, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, end of game.

The punt came as the result of a mistake by senior wideout Robert Foster, who ran a crossing route short of the line to gain on a third down play, as well as not falling forward after the making the catch to reach the marker. He lost a yard after making the catch, and Alabama had to kick it away.

On a crucial 3rd-and-7 with Alabama ahead 14-13, the Crimson Tide allowed Stidham to escape for a nine-yard gain and a first down. Auburn took a 20-14 lead six plays later on a short touchdown run by Kerryon Johnson.

With a chance to cut the six-point deficit in half, holder JK Scott couldn’t corral a subpar but workable snap on a field goal attempt, and the Crimson Tide walked away from a drive into the red zone with no points. Auburn had a chance for blood after that, and took full advantage, easily marching down the field for a touchdown in just seven plays, capped by another Stidham scamper, this one from 16 yards out.

Then came the bad shotgun snaps. The first turned a 3rd-and-4 into a 4th-and-9. The second technically never happened, as Alabama was bailed out of a turnover on downs by Auburn having 12 men on the field. The Tide had another chance, but failed to convert a shorter fourth-down attempt.

We’re not done yet.

Alabama quickly forced a three-and-out to keep hope alive with half of the fourth quarter left to play, but Damien Harris jumped offsides on a punt block attempt, giving Auburn a first down.

The Crimson Tide got the ball back, but with only five-and-a-half minutes to play. A first down at the Auburn 30-yard line quickly turned into a 4th-and-22, and that was the game. Alabama had lost by two scores in the regular season for the first time since 2010 at South Carolina.

This team was far from the greatest of the Saban era, but the prevailing thought was that Alabama was a clutch performer who would require an opponent to make more clutch plays to hand it a loss. Thanks to the gamut of uncharacteristic mistakes by the Tide, Auburn never faced game pressure in the fourth quarter.

At 11-1 and with no SEC Championship Game to play in, Alabama is now very much a bubble team, if you will, for the College Football Playoff. If 12-0 Wisconsin and 11-1 Oklahoma win their conference championship games next week against Ohio State and TCU respectively, Alabama is probably headed for an unceremonious Orange Bowl date with the Clemson-Miami loser. Should the Buckeyes or Horned Frogs pull off an upset, Alabama seems likely to get in the playoff for the fourth straight year.

For the first time in the playoff era, Alabama’s fate is out of its hands. There’s never a pity party for Alabama when it loses, but there was at least an ounce of sympathy after its last loss to Auburn, the “Kick Six” game in 2013, that cost it a chance at the national title. No sympathy exists this time, as the Crimson Tide were simply manhandled by a better football team.

The good news for Alabama? There won’t be a documentary made about this loss, as no miracle finish was needed. The mighty Crimson Tide were anything but on Saturday.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.