Who cares whether or not it was the biggest Iron Bowl of all time? By the time Saturday's game was over, and by the time it was reverberating through the SEC West and the BCS Championship race and the psyche of the two teams and the two fan bases that met on the field, it was clear that everyone who watched it had probably seen the best Iron Bowl of all time.
This was a back and forth slugfest, the kind of game that the winning side writes and talks about for years and the losing side tries to forget as quickly as it can -- but dwells on for decades. It was almost a magical game, intense and unpredictable, full of joy and agony and an odd mixture for both Alabama and Auburn at different times. It is, in short, one of those games that reminds you why 22 young men on a grass field fighting for an oddly-shaped ball is so gripping, so compelling, so addictive.
There was a Nick Saban team, getting gashed for the kind of long gains on the ground that Alabama almost never gives up. There was the 21-point run that we've become all too accustomed to seeing from the Tide, the one that surely puts the other team away, the one that prompts some commentators to say the game is out of reach.
But Auburn, contrary to conventional wisdom, didn't go away. They reeled off a seven-play, 81-yard drive in a little more than two minutes to close the half down by only one touchdown. The Tigers came right back after halftime to score again, tying the game at 21-21 and beginning a nervous stalemate that would hold into the fourth quarter.
It looked, though, like Auburn was running out of chances to make this a game. They pinned Alabama down at its own 1-yard line. And then the offense went to work, driving down to the Auburn 11 before stalling out and preparing to attempt the field goal. The field goal was made -- but Alabama was flagged for a questionable false start and forced to back up five yards. The second kick missed, and Auburn had new life.
Another Auburn drive came up empty and was followed by another punt that put Alabama inside the Tide's 1. The offense didn't leave anything to chance that time; A.J. McCarron hit Amari Cooper on a 99-yard touchdown pass that gave Alabama the lead. Maybe for good? Maybe that was enough?
You would think so, when Auburn decided on the following drive to go for it on 4th-and-1 at its own 35-yard line -- and failed to make it. Before long, Alabama faced its own 4th-and-1, this one on the Auburn 13. But, perhaps haunted by the two missed field goals to that point or perhaps worried about whether even a ten-point lead would hold against Auburn with almost six minutes left, Saban decided to go for it -- and was denied.
Auburn went three-and-out again, followed by Alabama moving deep into Auburn territory again -- and this time opting to take the field goal. But the kick was blocked, Alabama was hit with a personal foul after Ryan Smith returned it, and Auburn was back in business with the ball at the 35-yard line. Then, after the Tigers drove to the Alabama 39, quarterback Nick Marshall rolled to his left on what looked like a designed run, only to pull up at the last possible moment and throw the ball to Sammie Coates for the game-tying touchdown.
Overtime seemed certain, but the Tide had 32 seconds left on the clock, and they were determined to use it. They moved the ball down to the Auburn 38 and decided once again to go with the field goal, this time with Adam Griffith instead of Cade Foster. The ball came up short and to the right, into the waiting hands of Chris Davis. And then Auburn, this Auburn team that has seen such miraculous finishes as "the Prayer at Jordan-Hare," the same team that was supposed to be in the bottom tier of the SEC West or at best a marginal bowl team -- Auburn saw lightning strike once more.
And that was it for the game, but not for the fallout. For Alabama, the dream of a third consecutive national title and a fourth in five years is gone; the dynasty is dead, at least for a year, and the Tide seems mortal again. Barring a series of events even more improbable than the circumstances that produced Alabama's 2011 title, there will be no rematch. The national championship, the SEC championship and everything except perhaps a Sugar Bowl is gone.
For Auburn, the rebuilding job seems a lot easier all of a sudden. Gus Malzahn has won an SEC West title in his first season as the Tigers head coach, and will be favored to take the conference crown when his team collides with Missouri or South Carolina in Atlanta. While the season finale ended up being the end of a dream for the Tide, the Tigers need an encore next week to make it matter.
As for the BCS picture -- and what this game means for the SEC's title streak -- that's a little more complicated. Some number of human voters are likely to keep Auburn behind Ohio State this week no matter what, and could very well continue to do so if the Buckeyes beat Michigan State next week. Florida State will play a very good Duke team that is still probably not much of a match for the Seminoles. Depending on how many voters keep Ohio State ahead of Auburn, and depending on what the computers have to say if it's close, Auburn (or even Missouri) could need one more upset to even get a shot at the BCS championship.
Then again, this is an Auburn team that has spent the last few weeks coming up with improbable finish after improbable finish, all of them combining to get the Tigers this far. Is it really too much to expect one more surprise, this one giving them the opportunity to play for the biggest prize in college football?