Saban's Errors Lead to All-Time Epic College Finish
So Destiny trumps Dynasty, two weeks after the Prayer at Jordan-Hare. Is this God's makeup call, as they surely believe down yonder in Alabama, for the oak trees being poisoned at Toomer's Corner? However we attempt to explain it, not since Cal's Kevin Moen weaved through the 144-member Stanford band has college football had a wilder finish -- and never has a wild finish carried so much meaning in the sport.
Because Nick Saban foolishly let a freshman backup try a 57-yard field goal, this after Saban had lobbied strongly for one second to remain on the clock in regulation, an Auburn senior cornerback named Chris Davis was able to catch the errant kick nine yards deep in his end zone. With 0:00 frozen in the night, Davis weaved left, eluded a lunging defender, tip-toed to avoid stepping out of bounds, then glided up the sideline with nothing but grass and blockers and the other end zone ahead. Seconds later, the scene was overtaken by lunacy, and Auburn and former high-school gadget king Gus Malzahn had produced an epic, massive, 34-28 upset that ends Alabama's national reign, weakens AJ McCarron's hard-charging Heisman Trophy campaign, makes it more convenient for Saban to leave for Texas and thrusts Florida State -- and a quarterback being investigated for his role in an alleged rape -- into the No. 1 spot in the rankings.
That's a large load to absorb. But such was the magnitude of an ending that reminds us why college football shakes the soul like no other sport.
``We had every opportunity to win the game and we just came up short," Saban said.
Said Malzahn, the new king of Alabama, right down to his post-game celebrations at Waffle House: ``"That's what you coach for. That's what these kids play for.''
If the final play was historic-freaky, it was anything but a fluke victory for Auburn, which now triggers a national debate about whether its impressive one-loss resume -- with a shot to add another ranked victim in the SEC title game -- makes the Tigers more deserving to play in the national championship game than an unbeaten Ohio State team lucky to survive Michigan. Alabama simply didn't look like a team gunning for its third straight national title, repeatedly blowing coverages in the secondary, missing four field goals and showing cracks in the Saban ``process,'' none more glaring than the lack of athletes on the field for Davis' historic return. Even the brilliance of McCarron, who seemed to seal a victory with a magnificent 99-yard touchdown hookup with Amari Cooper, wasn't enough to overcome a ragged overall performance that left Saban with a pained, anguished look most of the game. In the end, it was Saban's backfiring decisions that buried the Crimson Tide's hopes of winning a fourth BCS title in five years and becoming the first college football team to three-peat since Minnesota in the 1930s.
``We're a team of destiny. We won't take no for an answer," Davis said, per the Associated Press. ``I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run. I knew they would have big guys on the field to protect on the field goal. When I looked back, I said, `I can't believe this.' ''
For a coach who demands perfection from his players, Saban was anything but perfect in making erratic calls. Earlier in the fourth quarter, he chose not to summon struggling kicker Cade Foster for a makeable field goal, and T.J. Yeldon who gained 141 yards on the day, was stuffed for no gain on fourth down at the Auburn 13. Later, with two minutes left, Saban went back to Foster for a 44-yard try, a low kick that was blocked, setting up a 65-yard Auburn drive topped by Nick Marshall's 39-yard scoring pass to wide-open Sammie Coates with 32 seconds left. All day, Auburn wide receivers were open deep, with Ricardo Louis -- the receiver on the miraculous ``Immaculate Deflection'' that beat Georgia on the same field -- twice just missing long scoring grabs. All day, Marshall and Tre Mason were able to run on Alabama's vaunted defense, which supposedly couldn't be done.
Still, Alabama had two supreme artists in McCarron and Yeldon, which should have been sufficient reason for Saban to be confident for overtime. First, Old Man Football had a convergence with High Tech. As time was running out in regulation, a replay confirmed that Yeldon's foot landed out of bounds with a fraction of a second left. Rather than entrust the icy McCarron, who again played wonderfully and nearly flawlessly in a big game, with a more practical Hail Mary, Saban inexplicably summoned freshman Adam Griffith for a 57-yard field-goal try -- the same Adam Griffith who had tried only two field goals all season, missing one and making the other from 20 yards.
``I don't ever like to say I don't have confidence in a player," Saban said of eschewing the earlier field goal. ``But I think the percentages were we would make the first down. We've been a very good short yardage team all year. It didn't work out that way. Myself and a lot of other people would probably say we should have kicked a field goal there. But we had another field goal from the same spot that we missed. So you can't take it for granted that we would have made it."
You know the rest. You will see it today, tomorrow, all week, all month and for years to come.
``It was a great game. Sometimes luck just isn't on your side,'' McCarron said. ``It's one of those crazy plays. It's almost like a video game. That's something you do on Madden or NCAA. It's just a wild play."
Ohio State will jump to No. 2 in the national polls. I don't think the Buckeyes are worthier than Auburn, as we'll debate all week and probably beyond. This was a day of jittery survivalism, not shiny superlatives, with Michigan's Devon Gardner throwing for 451 yards and four touchdowns on a porous OSU pass defense. And Urban Meyer's reputation for coaching undisciplined players wasn't helped when starting right guard Marcus Hall and kick returner Dontre Wilson were ejected for throwing punches during an ugly altercation between the teams in the second quarter. Hall left the field, fired his helmet to the ground, then flipped two middle fingers to the Michigan crowd as he disappeared into the tunnel. Both could be suspended by the Big Ten for next weekend's conference title game against Michigan State, which, Auburn fans should note, is no lock for the hole-filled Buckeyes despite the running dominance of quarterback Braxton Miller and unstoppable Carlos Hyde.
The game was as exciting as any of the previous 109 Ohio State-Michigan scrums, though Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler are squirming in their graves at the thought of 83 points and 1,129 yards between the teams. A crazy afternoon came down to a Gardner touchdown pass to Devin Funchess with 32 seconds left, leaving Michigan coach Brady Hoke with a 42-41 deficit and a decision.
Go for two?
Yes, you go for two. You go for the two-point conversion, and the victory, because Michigan could not stop Hyde and Miller and couldn't have kept matched Ohio State play-for-play in overtime. The call was right; the execution was wrong, with Gardner forcing a pass into triple coverage and leaving it in the hands of Ohio State's Tyvis Powell.
``We weren't doing a great job of stopping them,'' Hoke explained. ``We play the game to win. I thought about it, we did it.''
``I would have done the same thing,'' Meyer said.
Nobody was saying that about Nick Saban. As he heads back to Tuscaloosa, where he and his wife have said they are underappreciated as it is by ``spoiled'' fans, the phone calls to and from Austin soon will commence. The dynasty is over.
It died nasty.