TUSCALOOSA, Ala.–There’s an old college football proverb that goes something like this: when your opponent goes for it on 4th-and-4 on your 38 and scores a touchdown, you are screwed.
Granted, it’s not a widely-known proverb. But it came into play Saturday afternoon at the Iron Bowl, as No. 1-ranked Alabama punched rival Auburn in the mouth, then dusted off its hands and began looking forward to the SEC Championship before the fourth quarter even began in a 30-12 victory.
Alabama had thundered its way into this game as grim and relentless as an avalanche, averaging 44.3 points and a 32-point margin of victory in its 10 wins. Auburn, meanwhile, hadn’t held up its end of the bargain, fumbling away a winnable game to Georgia two weeks ago, a game that now looks uglier with every passing day.
Auburn was an 18-point underdog coming into the game, so it’s not like this was some stunning result. Still, Louisville had fallen to Kentucky. Georgia had fallen to Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech hung half a hundred on Virginia. Michigan and Ohio State played perhaps the most thrilling game since the 2013 Iron Bowl. Clearly, the college football gods were feeling feisty this day.
But Nick Saban, as he’s done so many times before, pulled rank on the gods. This was Saban’s 10th Iron Bowl, and he’s only lost three of them: his first, in 2007; the Cam Newton-engineered miracle 24-point comeback in 2010; and that Kick Six business back in 2013. This time around, he brought one of his most complete squads of his tenure to the battle, and even freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts rallied from a rocky start to deliver big in what, to date, is the biggest game of his career.
Hurts is the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and while the sun was still up on Saturday afternoon, he played like it, alternating exuberant brilliance with infuriating misfires. Hurts and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin worked the offensive gameplan like a backyard Thanksgiving game, scattering bubble screens and rollouts and shovel passes and delayed draws and deep outs all across the field.
But Hurts’ also generosity extended to the defense; he threw two cringeworthy second-quarter interceptions and probably got away with a fumble that was overturned on review. The interceptions resulted in six Auburn points, and that only because Hurts threw them so deep in Auburn territory that the Tigers barely had to move to be in field goal range.
“At halftime, everybody thought I was going to throw a fit,” Saban said after the game. “But all I told the guys was, ‘Look, guys all we gotta do is go out there and play with poise and confidence. I believe in everyone’s ability and everyone’s got to do their job. Because we’ve got too many guys making mistakes.’”
Whatever Saban (or, more likely, Kiffin) told Hurts at halftime, it worked. The Tide’s first drive of the second half was an efficient three-minute, 57-yard, zero-third-down machine that ended with Hurts scooting into the end zone for a touchdown that put Alabama up two possessions. Less than five minutes later, facing that aforementioned fourth-and-4, Alabama decided the Tigers didn’t deserve the respect of a punt or field goal, and receiver ArDarius Stewart broke free for a 38-yard touchdown jaunt that stomped Auburn’s last sparks of hope into the dust. (One interesting side note amid the whuppin’: Auburn’s inability to get into the end zone means Alabama has not surrendered a touchdown in the last 267 minutes and 54 seconds of game action, dating back to October 22 against Texas A&M.)
This won’t go down well with Auburn fans, but the truth rarely does: at this point, the Iron Bowl is an afterthought for Alabama. The Tide is expected to win — the only memorable games of the last decade are the ones Alabama lost — so much so that the mood in the air around Tuscaloosa on Saturday wasn’t one of joyful exultation but satisfied expectation. “Beat Auburn” is on Saban’s to-do list, sure, but it’s way down there, well below “National Championship,” “Playoff Berth,” “SEC Championship,” and “Practice saying nothing of consequence.” (At least “Beat Auburn” got checked off this year, unlike, apparently, “vote.”)
“The legacy of the team still lies ahead in terms of what they can accomplish,” Saban said. “I don’t want to minimize the impact of an undefeated season, but I also think there’s a lot more out there for this team … This is like being in the playoffs. You can’t fall in love with what you just did. You’ve got to look forward to the next challenge.”
Alabama now draws Florida in the Georgia Dome, and then will wait to see who comes its way in the New Year’s Eve playoff. Whoever it is had better come strong; the Tide is only gaining momentum as this season rolls on.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.