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Doug Segrest: Auburn’s no match for Alabama in this Iron Bowl, but building to something special in '21

Auburn vs Alabama

Oct 3, 2020; Tuscaloosa AL, USA; Bo Nix (10) runs for the first down during the game between Auburn and Alabama at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

There was a moment, a brief moment, when it looked like Gus Malzahn had Alabama’s number. Again.

Seth Williams ran by two Alabama defenders; Bo Nix threw deep and a touchdown looked certain … until the ball bounced off hands and to the turf. Forty-one seconds remained in the first half, but this version of the Iron Bowl was effectively over.

When college football’s premier rivalry renewed Saturday, the difference wasn’t Xs and Os. It was Alabama’s big-play ability. Auburn may be late to the party, but it took only minutes to realize why the Crimson Tide’s 2020 offense is arguably the best in the program’s history.

Top-ranked Alabama’s 42-13 victory was impressive, but not a no-contest. It showed how far 22nd-ranked Auburn has come since the depths of a loss to South Carolina. And how far the rest of college football has to go to catch this Tide team.

With or without Nick Saban on the sideline.

This game played out in a way that gave Auburn its best chance to win. Set the pace, control the clock on offense. And, on defense, limit Alabama layups. Auburn even forced three punts in the first half. The only thing the Tigers couldn’t script was forcing Alabama into major errors, like the pair of Pick-Sixes that turned around the 2019 Iron Bowl.

But even with success there was anxiety because of Alabama’s elite playmakers. Mac Jones is a legitimate Heisman Trophy frontrunner, receiver DeVonta Smith is an NFL first-round lock. And Najee Harris is Tank Bigsby two years from now. Each made his presence known Saturday.

So, mourn the loss, but only for a moment.

A month ago, Auburn was a pedestrian team, barely holding off Arkansas, losing to a bad South Carolina team, bludgeoned by a Georgia team with a prehistoric offense.

The Auburn of November, the team that came up well short in the Iron Bowl, is a legit Top 25 team. It suffered the same fate as No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 9 Georgia, both of whom played similarly solid first halves only to see the scoreboard short circuit and the game turn lopsided after intermission.

Auburn is building to something big. Whether it comes to fruition in 2021 or begins in 2020 depends on how the Tigers respond. Auburn can end Texas A&M’s dreams of crashing the College Football Playoff party next week. The gap between these two is manageable.

Skeptics will say they’re tired of the rollercoaster performance of Malzahn’s teams. But this season hasn’t been a wild ride. It has been a steady ascent that can lead to a title run a year from now.

You’ve seen the same improvement: an offensive line rebuilt from scratch, playmakers emerge, a more sophisticated passing game and a defense raided by the NFL that’s still one of the SEC’s best — regardless of Saturday.

SEC programs are fueled by optimism, albeit most of it pie in the sky. But Auburn has something to play for next week, and amends to make next season. The 2020 Iron Bowl was simply a mismatch.

Next year, before a full house in Jordan-Hare Stadium, should be the equivalent of a playoff quarterfinal.

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