AUBURN, Ala. -- Their pain exiting the visitor's locker room was obvious. Far-off looks and muted responses told their story. Alabama's players had just endured the most heartbreaking, debilitating loss of their careers. And to make matters worse, it happened at Auburn on an improbable finish that Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood couldn't help but call "lucky."
But it wasn't luck that led to Auburn's win. That's a hard pill for Alabama fans to swallow so soon, but the game was tied with one second remaining. That was no fluke. Nick Saban then went for a long field goal, didn't have his players properly prepared to defend the return and paid the ultimate price. The gates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium flooded into a blue and orange sea of joy, and Alabama had no one to blame but itself.
Was it a likely scenario? Of course not. According to NCAA records, it was only the fourth time that a missed field goal was returned for 100 yards. But the answer to that most timeless of questions -- Did they win the game or did the other team lose it? -- doesn't apply here. Forget Cade Foster's missed field goals. As a matter of fact, get off his back already. You'd do well to remember the litany of missed opportunities Auburn had as well. The Tigers dropped passes, fumbled the football and committed penalties.
It's been more than 24 hours since the best, craziest, wildest Iron Bowl ever, and that's more than enough time to realize what we witnessed on Saturday night: Both teams played like champions, both coaches were among the best in the game and this rivalry is going to be the most compelling in college football for years to come.
As one SEC head coach told me prior to Saturday's game, "Alabama is at the top Auburn is still trying to get there." Well, whether Auburn wins the SEC championship and advances to the BCS title game is beside the point now. They proved that coach wrong. By beating Alabama, Auburn showed it’s more than just a team on the rise, it's an equal. The upstart Tigers are ready to compete with the likes of the vaunted Tide for championships today, not somewhere off in the future.
And the Iron Bowl rivalry is better off for it. Why? Because competitive games are good games, and rivalries are healthiest when both teams are playing well. What we saw from Alabama and Auburn over the past two seasons was sickly, predictable and no fun to watch.
Gus Malzahn, instead, has the Tigers back less than a year after walking into what was, by all accounts, a dumpster fire. Players quit, recruits jumped ship and the entire coaching staff was fired two seasons removed from a national championship. Rebuilds of that variety are supposed to be measured in years, not months. Winning Iron Bowls wasn't supposed to happen right away. Look at it this way: Nick Marshall's touchdown run in the first half Saturday was the first offensive touchdown by Auburn against Alabama since 2010.
Sound familiar, Alabama fans? It should. Saban walked into a similar mess in 2007. He took a little longer to recover from what NCAA probation and Mike Shula left behind, but in 2008 he and Alabama snapped Auburn's six-game Iron Bowl winning streak with a 36-0 win in Tuscaloosa. A year later the Tide won a national championship.
Try to separate Saban and Malzahn all you want, but their similarities are striking. They're both singularly focused coaches with a public personality that, to be put kindly, is often lacking. They eat, sleep and breathe football. They don't hype games and they don't regale the media with humorous stories. And they're both geniuses at what they do. Saban has established himself as the best defensive coach in college football and Malzahn is quickly making his case to become the best offensive coach in the game. One pushes the tempo like a maniac while the other does everything he can to slow it down.
It's brilliant. You couldn't draw up a better foil than Saban to Malzahn and Malzahn to Saban. They're even in the same state. They're practically neighbors. They'll cross each other's path on the recruiting trail, nod, smile and silently plot ways to ruin one another's existence. Just think of the weeks and months the Alabama staff will spend in the dark scouring Auburn's film this offseason, trying to find some place to exploit, some soft spot in the read-option to destroy.
Get ready, Alabama. Prepare yourself, Auburn. You're both lucky because this is going to be a fun ride for the next few years. With these two coaches, the Iron Bowl should continue to be a competitive back-and-forth like we saw Saturday every year.