AUBURN — Bo Nix still had the football in his hands.
Yes, that one. The one he received from center Nick Brahms when he took the knee that officially ended the Iron Bowl and sent a sizable portion of the sellout crowd of 87,451 fans inside Jordan-Hare Stadium flooding onto Pat Dye Field to celebrate Auburn’s wild 48-45 victory over Alabama.
The true freshman quarterback took it with him through the crowd of students pounding on players’ shoulder pads and singing “Dixieland Delight” as loud as their voices could go, probably much to the chagrin of any Alabama fans who hadn’t made their way out of the stadium gates yet. He took it with him into the postgame media room, keeping it close as he answered questions from a crowd of reporters so large that many were standing on chairs just to get a view of him.
Nix put the ball down once during that time, but only briefly so he could take off his jersey and shoulder pads. No one had touched it but him.
“You fantasize at home in your room about taking a knee against Alabama in your freshman year at the end of the game, and that actually happened,” he said as the party outside shifted from the field to a Toomer’s Corner that would soon be drenched in white. “So it’s just a surreal moment. There’s nothing like. I’ve never experienced it anything like it.”
There weren’t many outside Auburn (9-3, 5-3 SEC) who thought Nix and his teammates would experience that Saturday. Not this year, at least. The narrative entering the 84th playing of the Iron Bowl was all about Alabama (10-2, 6-2).
It didn’t matter that the visitors didn’t have star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (out for the season with a hip injury), a single victory over a top-25 opponent or a chance to win the SEC West — they were still the Crimson Tide, which meant that they still had a legitimate shot to reach the College Football Playoff.
SEC Network analyst and radio host Paul Finebaum did a segment in front of Samford Hall this week sitting behind a table that read “Alabama should be in the Playoff again. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Auburn did, like it believed it would — head coach Gus Malzahn said the Tigers felt going into the game like they had the better team. The result does a lot to prove that.
“It was perfect timing. Perfect timing against Bama, man,” senior defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “Knocked them out of the Playoff. Crushed their dreams. That’s amazing.”
You could point to any number of things as the reason why the Tigers were able to do what they did Saturday.
The offense, which has suffered from some mix of starting slow and getting going too late or moving the ball but not finishing drives in its tougher games this season, finally put together four quarters against a good defense. Nix put Auburn on the board early with a 7-yard rushing touchdown late in the first quarter. Running back Shaun Shivers scored what proved to be the game-winner from 11 yards out near the midway point of the fourth quarter, knocking Xavier McKinney’s helmet right off his head along the way. Anders Carlson, who had missed his previous six field goals of 40 or more yards, hit four, including a crucial one with one second remaining in the first half.
The defense gave up more points (38, with the other seven coming on special teams) than it had in any of its first 11 games. But it also scored its first two touchdowns of the season, on interception returns of 29 and 100 yards from safety Smoke Monday and linebacker Zakoby McClain, respectively.
And the opponent, Alabama, made mistake after mistake. The interceptions were the two biggest, but they weren’t the only ones. Placekicker Joseph Bulovas missed a 30-yard field goal that would have tied the game. The team committed 13 penalties, including an illegal substitution on fourth-and-4 late in the fourth quarter that gave Auburn a first down and effectively ended the game.
“When we've played at home and we've played them to get to the fourth quarter and find a way to win in 2013 and 2017 — it kind of held true to the script tonight,” Malzahn said,. “Our crowd has a lot to do with that, and our guys believe. Our crowd willed us. It was a team effort. It was defense, it was offense, it was special teams.”
Most of all, though, it was that belief. It didn’t matter that the Tigers had already lost three SEC games to three longstanding rivals Florida, LSU and Georgia in games that felt frustratingly similar, with the defense playing great and the offense not measuring up — they still felt that this game was out there for them.
“We had a lot to prove,” Nix said. “We lost three tough games. We battled. It shows a lot for our team and how the coaches kept us in the season, didn’t let us split apart, and as a group, we became a unit. We stayed as a unit throughout the season, and we never divided.”
That comes from leadership, Monday said. It comes from seniors like Davidson and Derrick Brown and Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas, who wanted to finish their Jordan-Hare Stadium careers with a victory. It comes from Malzahn, too — he's been criticized (sometimes rightfully so) for the play of the offense this season, but the fact that his team never quit despite those struggles cannot be dismissed.
And now that all is said and done in the regular season, even after those three difficult-to-swallow losses that took the Tigers out of SEC West and Playoff contention, they’re still 9-3 with a chance to get to 10 wins in a bowl game, which would mark the third time in Malzahn’s seven-year tenure and just the eighth time since 1990.
“We’ve got coach’s back,” Shivers said. “People seem to put everything on my head coach. We play against great teams. It was a good team we just played against, a team just as good as us, just as talented as us. This game is big right here because we won against Alabama. It’s Alabama. Beating them at home, it’s a big thing. And a big thing for our coach.”
It was written all over Malzahn’s face Saturday evening. He’s now just the second head coach to defeat Nick Saban three times since he’s been at Alabama, and he’s done it in seven seasons. He joked about another instance of one second being put back on the clock on the Iron Bowl, which again worked to Auburn's advantage. And that penalty that cost the Crimson Tide one final possession in the fourth quarter? Malzahn baited them into it.
As a result, rather than being asked about his losing record against Auburn’s biggest rivals or his job security as head coach despite having a contract buyout of more than $27 million, he was asked about what he planned to eat for his typical post-victory meal at Waffle House,
“Ham and cheese omelet, scattered, smothered, covered, chunked. I'm going to get some extra bacon, I'm going to get an extra waffle, too,” Malzahn said. “That's going to be the order, so go ahead and have it ready.”
That’s what a win in the Iron Bowl can do for Auburn. It can erase, or at least diminish, any frustrations that preceded it. It can spark a celebration on the field with thousands of the team’s supporters. It can lead tp a hefty fine from the SEC, too, for fans entering the playing surface, but it’s one the university will happily pay to beat its biggest rival.
“It was crazy, man,” Dinson said. “I beat Bama twice in my span here. 2017, I was going buck crazy, but this one, I just sat there and just soaked in the moment. I cried a little bit, shed a few tears because, man, it’s crazy. This is the one I wanted. I’ve been ready for this game a long time, just thinking about it, thinking about the whole year — man, we got the win.”
Just like Auburn believed it could.
“It’s just a culture thing,” Nix said, game ball still in hand. “I feel like Auburn and just a few other teams, we’re the only ones that can consistently play with them. That’s something to be said for this school. It’s a mindset going in. It’s a rivalry. We just come to play every time we play them.”