With seemingly nothing to play for, Alabama played like it had nothing to lose.
Looking at times more like the team that began the season atop all the polls, seventh-ranked Alabama closed out the regular season with a comfortable 49-27 victory against Auburn.
With quarterback Bryce Young in vintage form early, the Tide scored five times before intermission — with Young accounting for four scores. And after Auburn found early success on offense, the Tide defense gradually forced the Tigers to chase in one-dimensional fashion.
It was a commanding, if not resounding, victory. Yet also a reminder of what could have been for the Crimson Tide.
Barring an apocalyptic level of chaos, Alabama is expected to miss the College Football Playoff for only the second time since its 2014 inception. That’s because of last-second losses on the road to Tennessee and LSU — the latter closing the road to the Tide’s most viable return route to the CFP via an SEC West title and a chance for revenge against Georgia in Atlanta.
Those circumstances made Saturday’s finish with a flourish even more impressive.
While a prohibitive, 22-point underdog, Auburn had much more to play for in comparative terms. The Tigers have enjoyed a rebirth of enthusiasm under interim coach Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and had a chance to earn a bowl berth with another shocking outcome in Tuscaloosa.
Instead, after Auburn raced out to an early 7-0 lead, Alabama played the role of movie villain by responding with 21 unanswered points.
A month ago, that would have been the expectation.
Yet this is the Alabama team that never lived up to its own expectations. For the first time since 2010, the Tide saw its title hopes evaporate before the Iron Bowl. But that’s where the comparisons end. Alabama’s 2010 team, which crashed in the “Camback” Iron Bowl, was loaded with future NFL stars.
Yes, there’s NFL talent on the ’22 version. But outside of Young and Will Anderson, whose stock may have dropped this season, there’s not a bevy of first rounders headed into the NFL draft.
Auburn, meanwhile, was staring down a dismal 3-9 season when Bryan Harsin was finally dismissed a month ago. Instead, under the ever-popular Williams, the Tigers returned to its traditional, tough-nosed pedigree to restore the faith on the Plains.
Even in defeat, Auburn showed a grit that it lacked in recent memory, rushing for 318 yards. Alas, it was an impressive, but one-dimensional, attack that piled up stats but took too much time to rescue the Tigers from a big deficit. And no one was more effective than Ashford, who ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns — matching Williams’ Iron Bowl scoring effort a generation ago – while struggling as a thrower.
But Alabama had Young, who led Alabama to comfortable leads once, twice, thrice while working a myriad of targets for 343 yards passing in what was likely his final home game. He’s expected to head to the NFL, where he may be the top quarterback taken in the draft.
Still, needing a knockout blow to provide human pollsters and computer ratings one final, unforgettable impression, Alabama came up short due to inopportune penalties, lapses of discipline and a missing killer instinct. That’s how a 42-21 lead dissipated in the fourth quarter, with Auburn cutting it to two scores with a pair of late field goals.
Alabama closed the regular season with 10 wins, below expectations. But Alabama’s track record under Nick Saban says national titles follow disappointments.
Auburn finished with a second straight losing record, yet the final month left Tigers fans recharged with hope that had been absent for three seasons.
Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist.