AUBURN, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban noted in the wake of the Tide’s stunning comeback win at Auburn that epic editions of the Iron Bowl typically are bestowed with a nickname.
Should the 2021 version, an improbable four-overtime Alabama win, be known as the Saban Smiles game? It’s not as catchy as the Kick Six (2013) or the Pick Six (2019), but it may be the best way to note the surreal nature of this most unusual Alabama win.
Relentlessly stoic and noted curmudgeon Nick Saban gushed like a preacher on Easter about No. 3 Alabama’s 24-22 four-overtime victory over the unranked Tigers. In the postgame, he sounded downright Ted Lasso-like, channeling a 30-something Sun Belt coach clinching the school’s first-ever league title. “Wow, what a game,” Saban gushed.
The outpouring of emotion was jarring, refreshing and revealing. It offered a window into his raw joy and a peek at just how haunted Saban has been by other games in Jordan-Hare Stadium that earned iconic names. “Most of the time I remember the ones we lose,” Saban said. “I think I’ll remember this one because of the way our players competed in the game. It was a great comeback.”
An impossible Alabama comeback is a paradox, like the scrappy Yankees, underdog Amazon or coupon-clipping Elon Musk. When you’ve been playing out ahead of the field the past 15 years, including all of last season, the repertoire of memorable comebacks is inherently limited.
While this year’s team isn’t a vintage edition of Alabama’s robotic dominance, it’s still a program that prides itself on emotionless execution and relentless precision. And that’s why what unfolded for the first 59 minutes against Auburn was so striking, the three-hour emotional roil that provided the prelude to Saban’s outburst of joy.
Alabama was a sputtering mess for most of regulation — bad snaps, muffed holds and eye-popping numbers for sacks allowed (seven for 37 yards) and penalties (11 for 129 yards). Alabama executed like a giraffe on roller skates, got pushed around up front in a very un-Alabama manner and the program’s College Football Playoff hopes appeared destined to disappear in the same vortex that swallowed top-ranked teams in 2013 and 2017 and a potential playoff team in 2019. “There were many times those guys could have thrown in the towel,” Saban said.
Alabama went scoreless through three quarters, didn’t score a touchdown for more than 59 minutes and got stuffed on a fourth-and-2 with two minutes remaining in a stand that appeared likely to end the game in an impotent 10-3 loss. But after a quick Auburn three-and-out, and a gaffe by Auburn’s Tank Bigsby stopping the clock by running out of bounds, Alabama set up its First-and-97 Miracle Drive.
Sophomore quarterback Bryce Young minted a hallmark moment of his young Alabama career, kickstarting the magic with a third-and-10 conversion from his own 3-yard-line by scrambling to find John Metchie. (It shouldn’t be a surprise Metchie was the target, as he was targeted an astounding 24 times.)
From there Bama marched, and Young converted a fourth-and-7 pass to Jahleel Billingsley for 14 yards to push Alabama to the Auburn 28-yard line.
One of the day’s most punitive mistakes amid the comedy of Alabama errors set up the type of quintessential unlikely hero that tends to emerge in these types of rivalry games. A targeting call on star Alabama receiver Jameson Williams, who was attempting a tackle on special teams, got him ejected in the second quarter. That led to Metchie becoming Young’s Linus blanket and allowed freshman receiver Ja’Corey Brooks to become an Iron Bowl folk hero.
Young lobbed a breathtaking 28-yard parabola to the corner of the end zone, and Brooks hauled in both the first touchdown of his career and the Tide’s first touchdown of the day with 24 seconds remaining.
Three overtimes ensued, which were most notable for Auburn coach Bryan Harsin deciding not to go for two and try to walk-off win the game after a one-handed Landen King touchdown grab in the first overtime. Harsin’s decision will be second-guessed loudly throughout the offseason, as a largely listless first season ends at 6-6 with four straight SEC losses. The late collapse and lack of overtime onions will amp up the volume on Harsin’s underwhelming recruiting class (ranked No. 11 in SEC) and certainly increase the attention on what’s already been viewed as an awkward fit since arriving from Boise State last year.
After Auburn played it safe, gravity did its work. Metchie’s final catch of the day — he finished with 13 for 150 — came on a sweet in-and-out route that smoked potential first-round NFL pick Roger McCreary to end the game in the fourth overtime. Metchie deflected any credit on his big day to Young. “The kid is the GOAT,” he said.
It sparked bedlam on the Alabama sideline and silence from a raucous crowd that spent the day hoping Auburn’s year could be made by ruining Alabama’s. Instead, sweet silence filled Saban’s ears and emotions.
“It’s the feeling of being on a team,” he said. “The feeling of togetherness of everyone making a commitment to support each other and be positive and trust and believe in each other enough to go out there and make these kinds of plays that makes it a special win.”
Alabama will conjure up both the location and opponent of the program’s most notable improbable comeback under Saban — the overtime title game against Georgia after the 2017 season. That was another improbable comeback after an initial impotent offensive performance. Alabama is 11-1 and headed to the SEC title game as a significant underdog against top-ranked Georgia (12-0).
A repeat of a happy ending appears unlikely, as Alabama was shuffling offensive linemen because of injuries and incompetence. If moving the ball against Auburn was this hard (1.9 ypc), just imagine what it will be like against Georgia’s historically stout defense.
Perhaps this win keeps two-loss Alabama a more vibrant part of the College Football Playoff conversation? Especially if Iowa upsets Michigan in the Big Ten title game. But those postseason prognostications appeared far from Saban’s mind Saturday night.
Unlike so many other Iron Bowls — from Cam Newton to Chris Davis to the Trojan Horse Punter in 2019 — Alabama’s postseason hopes remain alive. And for Saban, the sheer giddiness after the comeback stood out like a comet at midnight.
“This is something,” he told his team after the game, “that you should always remember.”