Philadelphia, PA – There are a lot of seasons where the last weekend fails to deliver from an entertainment standpoint, as conference races are usually over and teams are just trying to maintain their position heading into the postseason.
Last week however, was anything but anticlimactic, highlighted by one of the greatest games in recent memory.
Taking a trip back a few months to the start of the season, no one outside of the state of Alabama thought much about the 78th Iron Bowl and its BCS relevance in late November.
The Alabama Crimson Tide came into the season with two straight national titles and were certainly the odds-on-favorite to win a third. Folks in Tuscaloosa were preparing for yet another party in early January.
The Tide returned tons of seasoned veterans on both sides of the ball and perhaps the best quarterback in school history in A.J. McCarron. The senior signal caller may not have the gaudy numbers of some other greats, but is a terrific field general that is unflappable in even the harshest of environments. Add to that, a monster offensive line, a deep and talented receiving corps, a couple of stud tailbacks and of course a defense as good as any in the country, and anyone picking against Alabama to "three-peat" seemed foolish.
Nick Saban's squad did its part, steam-rolling most of the competition, entering last weekend with a flawless 11-0 record.
Across the state, expectations were much more subdued in Auburn. Gus Malzahn was starting his tenure with the Tigers, who were coming off a 3-9 campaign the year before. It was supposed to take time to rebuild a program steeped in tradition.
Malzahn was no stranger to Auburn, having served as offensive coordinator from 2009-11 and winning a championship with the team after earning the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant in 2010. It wasn't hard to pry him away from his head coaching duties at Arkansas State last year and become Auburn's 27th head coach.
Malzahn plucked a talented quarterback from the junior college ranks to come in and run his offense. Nick Marshall, a former cornerback at Georgia, who was dismissed from the program, transferred to Garden City in 2012 and excelled under center before getting the call to return to the FBS ranks.
What Marshall provides for Malzahn, is a multi-talented quarterback in the mold of Heisman winner Cam Newton. A perfect fit for an offense heavily predicated on the run.
The Tigers opened the Malzahn era with three straight wins before suffering a tough 35-21 loss at LSU in late September. Auburn has not lost again and has knocked off four ranked opponents, including slaying the dragon this past weekend at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Who would have thought that a finish to a game could top the one Auburn pulled off with its Hail Mary against Georgia two weeks ago to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Tigers came in with a definite gameplan against the mighty Tide. Alabama was ranked fourth nationally against the run. However, the Tigers came in with the nation's second-best rushing attack. Something had to give and when all was said and done, it was the Alabama defense, which was gashed for 296 yards on the ground. led by Auburn tailback Tre Mason (164 yards, 1 TD) and Marshall (99 yards, 1 TD).
After a slow start that saw the defending champs get down by seven early, Alabama regained its composure, like championship teams do, and re-established its dominance, scoring 21 straight points in the second quarter to take a 21-7 lead. However, Auburn cut the lead in half before intermission and tied things up in the third quarter.
Alabama answered in the fourth with an amazing 99-yard TD pass from McCarron to Amari Cooper to put the Crimson Tide back up and quiet the Auburn crowd. However, the resilient Tigers responded with a game-tying touchdown with just 32 seconds left, setting up an unbelievable finish.
The Crimson Tide moved the ball quickly down the field and the officials put a second back on the clock when it appeared that T.J. Yeldon ran out of bounds as time expired to send the game to overtime. With the one tick left, Saban opted for a 57-yard field goal attempt.
Adam Griffith just didn't have enough leg, as the attempt fell short, right into the hands of returner Chris Davis, who took the ball nine yards deep in the end zone and raced up the left sideline for a shocking touchdown return for the win.
"The way we won the last two weeks was really unbelievable. Our guys believe," said Malzahn. "They weathered the storm. They backed us up. We held them. They missed a field goal. The offense steps up. The defense steps up, and the special teams. This has just been an amazing year so far. It's not over with. It's a huge win. Our program is going in the right direction."
That direction is toward Atlanta, where Auburn will battle Missouri for the SEC crown this weekend and then with some help, Malzahn and company could be making travel plans for Pasadena in early January.