Saban-less Alabama Whips Auburn, Wins 85th Iron Bowl
In a season marked by adversity and irregularity, having to put its undefeated record and No. 1 ranking on the line against its biggest rival while playing without its head coach for the first time since 2006 might have been Alabama’s most adverse and irregular challenge yet.
But, like it so often does, the Crimson Tide more than passed the test, knocking off Auburn 42-13 in the 85th Iron Bowl on Saturday afternoon.
With head coach Nick Saban missing his first game in 47 years of coaching due to a positive COVID-19 test, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian stepped in as the acting head coach.
But aside from the odd look of someone other than Saban leading the team through the Walk of Champions and onto the field while “Thunderstruck” blared, it was business as usual.
“Obviously not having Coach Saban is difficult, and I think he obviously did a great job preparing all of us for a situation like this to happen,” quarterback Mac Jones said. “But at the same time, Sark did a really good job. I mean, it’s not easy to go in there — you’re calling plays, you’re managing a rivalry game — and I think he obviously did a really good job too. Kudos to him.”
Meanwhile, Saban, on a Zoom call with reporters from his “recruiting room” in his home, complimented the “marvelous” job done by the coaching staff, but said he noticed a few mistakes, as well.
“I sat here and felt a little helpless that I could see things and yell at things and listen to Miss Terry cheer downstairs. It’s a little different,” Saban said. “[I yelled] a couple times when we made some mistakes in coverage, a couple times when we missed some tackles, a couple times when Mac didn’t throw the ball to the guy I thought he should’ve thrown it to. So I guess it was more than a couple.”
Senior wide receiver DeVonta Smith made few mistakes in what was almost certainly his final game in Bryant-Denny Stadium, catching all 7 of his targets for 171 yards, the fourth-most of his career.
He also scored touchdowns of 66 and 58 yards. The 66-yarder came in the first quarter when Auburn safety Smoke Monday bit on a pump fake by Jones, leaving Smith with no one within 10 yards of him.
“When I seen the coverage, I kinda figured it was gonna be a touchdown,” Smith said. “I know Mac’s gonna put it where it needs to be, and I knew the offensive line’s gonna give him time to put it up.”
The 58-yarder was a crafty fake screen that gave Smith plenty of room to weave through defenders the rest of the way to the end zone.
It was just the second time in Smith’s career that he had multiple touchdowns of more than 50 yards in the same game, following the LSU game last November.
If he does declare for the NFL draft after this season, he will finish his career with 25 receiving touchdowns in Bryant-Denny.
To put that into context, the all-time SEC record for receiving touchdowns before Smith broke it last week was 31. Over the course of his career, he nearly matched that number just in his home stadium.
“Honestly, it really didn’t hit me until after the game. Before the game, it just felt like a normal day,” Smith said. “Then after the game all the seniors went back on the field to take a picture, and it hit me then, like, ‘Dang, this is my last game in Bryant-Denny.’”
Alabama’s defense, which hadn’t allowed a touchdown since the Tennessee game five weeks ago, didn’t allow one to its cross-state rival until the final five minutes of the game when it had a 42-6 lead.
The Crimson Tide held the Tigers, who averaged 403 yards and nearly 29 points per game, to 347 total yards and 13 points,
Freshman defensive backs Malachi Moore and Brian Branch each intercepted Auburn quarterback Bo Nix once. It was Moore’s team-leading third pick of the season and Branch’s first.
The defense also limited the big-play opportunities for big-bodied Auburn receiver Seth Williams and speedster Anthony Schwartz, holding them to a combined 77 yards on eight catches.
Alabama got consistent pressure on Nix throughout the game, tying its season high with three sacks and generating a “hurry” on five other plays.
Nix’s 60.5% completion percentage and 100.2 passing efficiency were both his lowest in his last four games, continuing the progression of Alabama’s defense.
“I feel like it all comes from our communication,” sophomore linebacker Christian Harris said. “I think we improved week by week since that Ole Miss week, and it’s starting to show. Everybody’s getting more confidence and we’re playing a lot faster, so I think that’s the reason why.”