AUBURN, Ala. – And the last shall be first.
The last second of the 2013 Iron Bowl shall be first in the hearts and minds of Auburn fans forever. The last second of the 2013 Iron Bowl shall be first on the list of infamous moments in Alabama football lore. The last second will never end for those who lived it, those who loved it, those who loathed it.
It was, quite simply, the most astounding ending ever to a college football game. I was at the Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl in 2007; this tops it. More at stake, and even more shock value on the final play (minus the player proposing to his girlfriend on the field).
The last second shall be first in the annals of unforgettable plays.
Auburn's Chris Davis Jr. ran as far as a man can run with the football – 109 yards, give or take a few blades of Jordan-Hare grass – after a missed Crimson Tide field goal to score a touchdown that shocked two-time defending champion Alabama 34-28 and altered the course of the season. In a stupefying thunder clap of a play, giant Alabama was slain. Nick Saban, undisputed king of the sport, was the goat. The BCS was thrown into an uproar, with Ohio State celebrating its imminent elevation to No. 2 but now looking over its shoulder at yet another challenger – Cinderella Auburn, which scored two touchdowns in the final 32 seconds Saturday and has won consecutive games on certified miracle plays.
In FBS history, a missed field goal has only been returned for a touchdown four times. There has never been a walk-off field goal return – scoring the winning touchdown on the last play, much less the last play of the biggest game of the year, between teams ranked No. 1 and No. 4, with everything at stake.
In a sport that dates to 1869, this literally was unprecedented.
"This is going down in history," Davis said. "This is one of the moments I'll tell my son about."
This was Senior Day and Davis – a hard-luck cornerback from Birmingham who has been dogged by injuries in his four years at Auburn – was among those honored before the game. His 3-year-old son, Chris III, was on the field for the ceremony. Davis never had a relationship with his father, but nevertheless added the "Jr." to the back of his jersey this year in acknowledgement of Chris Sr.
"I never got a chance to see my dad growing up," Davis said. "I take that every day and try to be a better dad myself."
It will take a few years, but one day Chris Davis III will understand the magnitude of what his daddy did on a November night in the Loveliest (and Luckiest) Little Village on the Plains.
When Davis caught freshman Adam Griffith's 57-yard field goal and planted his right foot near the back line of the South end zone to launch himself into history, there was no time left on the clock. The game was tied and overtime was imminent, as soon as this formality of a runback was over.
But with each step Davis took against a Crimson Tide field-goal unit that absolutely blew the game, the roars grew. With each block his teammates threw, the unfathomable became more possible. With each stride, the dream ending for Auburn and ultimate nightmare for Alabama came into sharper focus.
In real time, Davis went from no way to Oh my god in 14 seconds.
Davis cut left at the 4-yard line, heading toward the Auburn sideline, picking up a wall of blockers. Alabama tight end Brian Vogler lunged at him and missed – the only Crimson Tide player to come close – sending Davis further toward the boundary and necessitating a full-speed tightrope act to stay inbounds. And then there was nothing there – no white jerseys, no impediments, nothing to do but run, nothing to feel but sheer shocking joy.
"I was thinking overtime, really," offensive tackle Greg Robinson said, then shook his head. "But the amazing happened."
The amazing only happened because the last second was put back on the clock after a replay review – and that came at the insistence of Saban, who made a series of calamitous decisions in this game. The clock had run out after a T.J. Yeldon run to the Auburn 39, but on review it was ruled Yeldon stepped out of bounds with one second left.
The last second. Setting up the last play.
At that point, Saban had three options: take a knee and go to OT; throw a Hail Mary pass to the end zone; or send his cataclysmic field-goal unit out one final time. He opted for the last of those options, a decision the four-time national champion coach will regret for a very long time. He gave Auburn a slim chance to win on a runback – and that slim chance turned into reality.
"That was not a great way to lose the game..." Saban said. "It is my responsibility."
The kicker who took the field for the final play was not Alabama's first-stringer. Cade Foster had been benched after missing three field goals already – one from 44 yards, one from 33 (after a false start negated a made kick from 28), and a blocked one from 44. Foster's fragility also led Saban to go for a fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 13-yard line in the fourth quarter, with a seven-point lead, when a field goal may have iced the game.
So the last-second kick would go to Griffith, who had tried two previous field goals in his brief career. But before he could attempt it, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn called timeout to ice him. It also gave him a chance to switch return men in case the kick came up short – swapping out safety Ryan Smith for his roommate, Davis, who is Auburn's regular punt returner.
"Ryan was mad when he switched us," Davis said with a smile.
Ryan would be very happy a few seconds later, when he and others piled onto Davis in the North end zone. They were joined by thousands of fans who spilled spontaneously onto the field, as ecstasy rippled through Jordan-Hare Stadium.
A man who appeared to be in his 50s skipped like a child down the concourse, swinging orange pompons in the air. Two women were in tears, embracing each other. This is the most intense rivalry in sports, an all-consuming passion play that simmers all year long. To win it this way is beyond even the wildest dreams of Auburn fans.
"Unbelievable!" a man shouted to no one in particular as he descended the winding concourse. "Un-be-lievable!"
In its remarkable turnaround from 3-9 last year to 11-1 and SEC West champions, Auburn has cornered the market on unbelievable. In their last game, the Tigers beat Georgia on a fourth-down, tipped-ball, 73-yard Hail Mary reception by Ricardo Louis with 25 seconds to play. In this game, Auburn tied the score on another last-minute shocker: a 39-yard pass from Nick Marshall to an all-alone Sammie Coates after a convincing run fake.
"The corner [Cyrus Jones] did not stay with the guy," Saban said. "We made a mental error in coverage that cost us a touchdown."
Ten minutes earlier in an absolutely riotous fourth quarter, Alabama seemed to have won the game on a spectacular touchdown pass of its own. With the ball at its own 1-yard-line, quarterback AJ McCarron dropped back into the end zone and heaved a bomb to Amari Cooper, who ran past corner Jonathon Mincy and broke the tackle of safety Jermaine Whitehead.
The play went 99 yards and was immediately hailed on Twitter as A) McCarron's Heisman Moment and B) the greatest play in Iron Bowl history.
It turned out to be neither. What was to come would render that play a mere footnote.
"You just look at the magnitude of the game," said Auburn defensive end Dee Ford. "The way we won it, with our backs to the wall. … This has to be one of the greatest wins."
And now it sets up one of the greatest debates in the dysfunctional history of the BCS. In its final year of existence, we could have the Mother of All Arguments about who will play for the national title on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif.
Undefeated Florida State seems assured of moving into the No. 1 spot in the BCS standings. But should No. 2 go to unbeaten Ohio State, which has played a soft schedule in an uninspiring Big Ten, or one-loss Auburn?
Auburn linebacker Robenson Therezie has an opinion.
"No doubt," Therezie said. "The whole world seen it. We should be up there. We beat 'Bama. We're the only team that beat 'Bama."
It took the most amazing ending in college football history, but Auburn did it. The last second of this Iron Bowl shall be first in the memories of everyone who witnessed it.