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NATIONAL REPORT: Auburn pulls off miracle finish to stun Alabama

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Updated: January 2, 2014 6:47AM



College football’s game of the year, in the most intense rivalry in the sport, on the best weekend of this and every season begged for a defining play, and No. 1 Alabama seemed to provide it.

Quarterback AJ McCarron, gunning for his third national title as a starter and the fourth in his five years in the program, took a fourth-quarter snap at his 1-yard line, dropped back into the end zone and heaved a ball down the right sideline to Amari Cooper. Ninety-nine yards later, the all-powerful Crimson Tide had a seven-point lead on No. 4 Auburn.

The Tigers — and their frenetic home crowd — were stunned. Twitter exploded with the question: Did McCarron just win the Heisman?

It was the ultimate tease.

With 32 seconds left to play, Auburn’s Nick Marshall connected on a 39-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. The extra point tied it at 28, and overtime seemed a given.

But the Tide quickly drove into Auburn territory and, with a single tick on the game clock, lined up for a 57-yard field-goal attempt by freshman kicker Adam Griffith.

The SEC West title and a spot in the league championship game was on the line. And the play of the year in college football — one of the most amazing endings in the history of sports — was about to unfold.

Griffith’s kick fell short and into the arms of Auburn’s Chris Davis, nine yards deep in the end zone. What else was Davis to do? The senior cornerback from Birmingham brought it out … and out … and out some more. Down the left sideline he went, all the way to a 34-28 victory and unthinkable glory.

“I knew when I caught the ball, I would have room to run,” he said. “I knew they would have big guys on the field to protect on the field goal.

“When I looked back, I said, ‘I can’t believe this.’ ”

Who in the world could?

The Tigers (11-1, 7-1 SEC) are Atlanta-bound to play East champ Missouri. Before then, they’ll wait on pins and needles for the BCS rankings to come out Sunday evening. Will they jump ahead of unbeaten Ohio State and find themselves in line to oppose new No. 1 Florida State for the BCS title in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6?

“An SEC team can’t get left out of the [championship game] with one loss,” Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs told USA Today after the game.

It’s certainly possible Jacobs is mistaken. CBS Sports BCS expert Jerry Palm, for one, believes the Buckeyes are safe. He, too, might be wrong.

And what happens now to the Tide (11-1, 7-1)? If the coming four-team playoff started this year rather than next year, they would be overwhelming favorites to raise the trophy. It’ll take a miracle for them to get that chance.

Florida State isn’t about to lose to Duke in the ACC title game. Ohio State, which hasn’t been beaten since 2011, will be favored over Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. And Auburn?

“We’re a team of destiny,” Davis said. “We won’t take no for an answer.”

HEISMAN WATCH

My top five if I were voting today:

1. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State. A rape allegation clouds his candidacy in uncertainty, to say the least. On the field, he is the obvious leader.

2. QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois. He’s coming off a 321-yard rushing game, the best ever for an FBS quarterback. There really isn’t anything more he can do.

3. RB Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona. There’s support out there for Boston College running back Andre Williams, but Carey is the non-QB who belongs in the running.

4. QB AJ McCarron, Alabama. Don’t pin the Auburn loss on him. In a huge moment, he had one of his best games.

5. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State. He never loses. That’s got to be worth something.

GAME BALL

Wayne Lyons, Stanford CB

With 5:15 to play and the Cardinal clinging to a 27-20 lead against Notre Dame, the junior cornerback (below right) picked off Irish quarterback Tommy Rees. Major exhale. Nearly three minutes later, with the Irish on the move again, Lyons grabbed another interception. This one was the back-breaker. Stanford was able to run out the clock and protect its reputation in a game that wasn’t going to impact its Rose Bowl chances, but still — sometimes rivalry business means even more.

GAMES OF THE WEEK/WEAK

Week: No. 9 Baylor 41, TCU 38. Very quietly, the Bears (11-1, 7-1 Big 12) stayed in the hunt for a conference championship — or an at-large BCS berth — on the strength of their much-improved defense. They got interception returns for touchdowns from Orion Stewart late in the second quarter and Eddie Lackey early in the third, and a final pick in the end zone by Terrell Burt with 11 seconds to play. Don’t anyone ever say Art Briles is an offense-only coach.

Weak: Southern Mississippi 62, UAB 27. Southern Miss won 12 games in 2011 under coach Larry Fedora. Nearly two full years later, the Golden Eagles had yet to win again. Somehow — two coaches later — they not only ended a 23-game losing streak Saturday but destroyed an opponent by 35. Todd Monken did what last year’s coach, Ellis Johnson, couldn’t: avoid 0-12. Yay.

POLLING

Up: No. 24 Duke. How about a little respect for an upstart team with 10 wins and the ACC Coastal crown?

Down: No. 14 Wisconsin. A lopsided loss to Penn State at Camp Randall? One of the more puzzling results of the season.

In: Texas. The Longhorns have been in, out, in, out — clearly, they can’t make up their minds. But they were really good in their ninth victory, a 41-16 rout of Texas Tech on ­Thanksgiving night.

Out: No. 16 Fresno State. That sweet little BCS dealio? So not happening.

EXTRA POINT

It sure would seem Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is the runaway winner for national coach of the year. It’s impossible to imagine a better first season than the man has had after he inherited a team that was 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play in 2012. But what Missouri’s Gary Pinkel has accomplished holds up by comparison. Mizzou was 5-7, 2-6 a year ago in its maiden voyage in the SEC. Worse, it was widely mocked as a soft team that couldn’t handle the rigors of the best league in the land, many said. Well, look at Pinkel’s team now — physical, tough and a huge challenge for Auburn next weekend in Atlanta.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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