AUBURN — Magical things happen when Auburn plays Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
This place is different. It really is.
Auburn always seems to find something extra when it plays embittered rival Alabama on the Jordan-Hare turf. Against Alabama on this patch of grass in Lee County, the Tigers are greater than the sum of their parts, and that was true again Saturday when Auburn beat Alabama 48-45.
This is the 15th time Auburn has hosted its in-state neighbor to the west and the 10th time that the home team won.
This place is so magical that it probably saved Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn's job. His seat is still warm, but Jordan-Hare handed him an ice pack.
In the past 11 seasons, Alabama has lost only 15 games, but three of them have been to Malzahn-coached teams on this field. Former LSU coach Les Miles is the only other coach to beat Nick Saban three times at Alabama, and one of those instances was in 2007 before Nick got the machine running.
Gus explained it by saying that in this rivalry, his players know they can beat Alabama, while the rest of the county just hopes they can. They believe even more when they're at home.
Take a look at what Alabama did:
Mac Jones, the Crimson Tide's inexperienced backup quarterback, threw four touchdown passes. Najee Harris ran like a horse. Jaylen Waddle, the now-you-see him, now-you-don't mighty mite, returned a kickoff for a touchdown. He caught three passes that went for scores, too.
None of that mattered. At all.
When Alabama was down three with two minutes left and relying on Joseph Bulovas to try a chip-shot field goal from 30 yards away, his kick hit the left upright so squarely, it sounded like the crack of the bat when a slugger gets a hold of one.
It probably isn't a coincidence that in the fourth quarter Alabama was heading into the end zone with the jumbo-screen scoreboard.
That end of the stadium is especially loud, distracting and intimidating. Five times in the fourth quarter while facing that scoreboard, Alabama's offensive line jumped early and drew a false-start penalty.
Auburn ran back two interceptions for touchdowns, but the real magic might've been the Tigers' last scoring drive. Bo Nix, the quarterback that Auburn fans apparently love to hate, found something within himself to conduct an 11-play, 77-yard drive for a touchdown. That put the Tigers ahead 48-45 and called for Alabama to answer, which it didn't.
Forget the Xs and Os, the most important part of that drive was Nix's intestinal fortitude.
Want more magic? At the end of the first half, time appeared to run out, but the replay showed that Auburn should get one more second. Nick Saban argued. He said in his postgame news conference that the official standing next to him said it didn't matter because Auburn wouldn't get the snap off in time.
Magically, the Tigers did, the kick was good, and Auburn had three points that made a difference.
Still, maybe the best Malzahn moment came in the final seconds when he outfoxed Saban. Auburn faced fourth down and planned to punt. Malzahn even inserted his punter — at wide receiver. Nix, the quarterback, stayed in the game.
When Alabama saw the punter enter, it sent in its punt return team, including Waddle, the return man. When Alabama noticed that Nix was set up behind center instead of the punter, the Tide sent its regular defense back out and took out the punt team. Waddle, however, remained on the field until it was too late.
When the ball was snapped, Alabama got a penalty for having 12 men on the field. It was the mistake Malzahn was hoping the Tide would make. The 5-yard penalty gave the Tigers a first down, and they could run out the clock.
Before Saturday, who knows if Malzahn would've kept his job? A loss to Alabama would've made him 0-3 against Alabama, LSU and Georgia this year. In the last six years, he would've had only four wins against those three.
The fan base had lost confidence … maybe enough to persuade somebody to pay Malzahn's $27 million buyout and send him on his way.
But now? If you want to question Malzahn, he can say, "Nobody has beaten Nick Saban like I have, and I outsmarted him on top of that."
The magic of Jordan-Hare at work again.
Auburn didn't host Alabama here until 1989. When the rivalry re-started in 1948, the teams split the tickets 50-50 and played in Birmingham. In the 1980s, Alabama wanted to start a ticket donor program and wanted to add the Auburn game to the season-ticket package to make the program more attractive. It was called Tide Pride.
Because of that, Alabama wanted to claim a home game every other year and take the majority of the tickets. Then-Auburn coach and athletics director Pat Dye said that was fine with him … because he would take Auburn's home game in the series and move it to Jordan-Hare.
Alabama objected, but it was Auburn's home game, so the Tide couldn't do anything but stew over it. Auburn won that first game in 1989, and those who attended swear it was the most special game this stadium has ever seen.
This week, Malzahn showed his team a five-minute clip of that game. It fired them up.
Naturally, some of the magic rubbed off.