Auburn’s Shaun Shivers and Alabama’s Xavier McKinneyButch Dill/Associated Press
What’s the only thing twice as ridiculous as an Iron Bowl ending on a kick-six?
How about one in which the deciding moment was Alabama having 12 men on the field?
It was an all-timer of a roller-coaster ride that led to No. 15 Auburn’s 48-45 victory over No. 5 Alabama on Saturday. There were nine lead changes, two defensive touchdowns, one incredibly reliable kicker, one less so and a whole lot of Jaylen Waddle, but the end result was that we can eliminate Alabama from the College Football Playoff discussion for the first time since the tournament’s inception in 2014.
Finishing in the Top Four was a long shot in the first place. Regardless of what happens in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, the Crimson Tide (10-2) were probably going to get leapfrogged by a 12-1 Utah and/or a one-loss Big 12 champion. Two-loss Wisconsin also might have jumped ahead of Alabama if it exacted revenge on Ohio State in the Big Ten championship.
Thus, even with a win over the Tigers (9-3), the Crimson Tide might have ended up at No. 8 in the final CFP rankings.
Still, No. 4 was feasible, and much stranger things have happened in this sport. To borrow a poker term, at least Alabama had a chip and a chair to start the day. Maybe Clemson would lose in the ACC championship. Perhaps Utah would lose in the Pac-12 title game. And if Oklahoma lost in Bedlam before defeating Baylor in the Big 12 championship, voila, you’ve got Alabama in the Top Four.
But we’ll never know, because despite four Waddle touchdowns, the Crimson Tide were sent to the rail after they were forced to go all-in with Mac Jones.
Mac Jones and Nick SabanButch Dill/Associated Press
Tua Tagovailoa’s replacement was solid against an excellent defense. Jones was 14-of-19 for 138 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in the first half. He had a similar line of 12-of-20 for 197 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in the second half. And let’s not forget that 18-yard scramble he had on 4th-and-7 on Alabama’s final possession.
Aside from Tagovailoa in last year’s Iron Bowl, Jones became the first quarterback to throw for four touchdowns against Auburn since 2014. He also tied Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond for the most yards (335) thrown against Auburn this season or last.
Not too shabby for a largely unknown commodity making his first start against a bowl-bound opponent.
But those two interceptions were absolute backbreakers.
Not only did Auburn take both of them to the house, but the second one came on 1st-and-goal from the 2, effectively marking a 14-point swing in what was a one-point game.
Why was Jones even put in that particular situation, though?
In a head-scratcher on par with the Seattle Seahawks throwing from the 1 at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, it was absurd that Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian dialed up a pass play. If you still have Tagovailoa, fine, ride or die with your Heisman Trophy candidate. But Najee Harris rushed for nearly 100 yards in the first half and would have punched it in if given three or four tries. He would have hurdled the entire defense if necessary.
Instead of just handing Harris the ball, though, Jones threw a pass behind his unsuspecting back. It ricocheted to Zakoby McClain, who took it 100 yards in the opposite direction.
The first pick-six was all on Jones, though. No fluky bounce or questionable decision on that one. He simply sailed a third-down pass well over Jerry Jeudy’s head and right into the breadbasket of Smoke Monday.
Despite throwing those two touchdowns to Tigers defenders, Jones kept his composure and kept the Crimson Tide in the game, marching them down the field in the final eight minutes to set up what should have been the game-tying 30-yard field goal.
However, Alabama’s decadelong history of missing chip shots at the most inopportune times reared its ugly head with a doink that definitely knocked it out of the playoff picture and may even knock it out of the New Year’s Six bowls altogether.
Alabama kicker Joseph BulovasVasha Hunt/Associated Press
Keep in mind, with a Group of Five team destined for the Cotton Bowl and—assuming Clemson reaches the playoff—some undeserving, possibly unranked ACC team headed to the Orange Bowl, there will be only 10 other spots available for those six best bowls.
The selection committee probably won’t penalize the Crimson Tide that harshly for losing a back-and-forth road game against its No. 15 team, but it’s feasible it could drop Alabama to No. 11 behind 10-2 Florida and 10-2 Penn State. The Nittany Lions have several wins better than anything Alabama can boast, and at least Florida beat Auburn.
Even if Alabama doesn’t drop out of the Top 10, perhaps it will slip far enough to land in the Cotton Bowl against either Memphis or Boise State.
Suffice it to say, that would be quite the change of pace after five straight trips to the playoff.
But whether it’s the Cotton, Orange, Sugar or Citrus in Alabama’s future, one thing is certain: This is Nick Saban‘s most disappointing season since 2010, the last time the Crimson Tide lost three games in one season.
Not only has Alabama lost multiple regular-season games for the first time in 10 seasons, but the defensive-minded guru also manned the sideline while one rival (LSU) scored 46 and another (Auburn) put up 48 against his depleted front seven. Things probably would have gone differently if not for season-ending injuries suffered by linebackers Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon in August, but dreaming about what might have been is all the Crimson Tide have left now.
With that, let the “Mac Jones or Taulia Tagovailoa in 2020?” debates begin.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.