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Saban outcoached, Alabama loses shot at title

Alabama head coach Nick Saban watches the scoreboard along with quarterback AJ McCarron, left, and tight end Brandon Greene (89) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Auburn in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013. Alabama appealed the final play and officials put 1 second on the clock. Alabama missed a field goal that Auburn returned 100-plus yards for the winning score. Auburn beat Alabama 34-28.  (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Alabama head coach Nick Saban watches the scoreboard along with quarterback AJ McCarron, left, and tight end Brandon Greene (89) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Auburn in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013. Alabama appealed the final play and officials put 1 second on the clock. Alabama missed a field goal that Auburn returned 100-plus yards for the winning score. Auburn beat Alabama 34-28. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

AUBURN, Ala. — Nick Saban threw his hands in the air and disgustedly tossed his headset aside.

Too bad he didn’t have a mirror, so he could see who was to blame for this Miracle on the Plains.

The Alabama Crimson Tide was denied a shot at an unprecedented third straight national title because the greatest coach in America got outcoached.

No one could’ve seen that coming.

With one of the most stunning plays in college football history, No. 4 Auburn returned a missed field goal the length of the field with zero on the clock, giving the Tigers a 34-28 victory over the top-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday night.

Auburn moves on to the Southeastern Conference championship game, its national title hopes still alive.

Alabama, in all likelihood, was eliminated from the race. Hard to see the Tide getting another mulligan like it did two years ago.

But, while the celebration in this little hamlet went on into the night, Saban was surely taking a cold, hard look at some of the decisions he made that sent the Tide back to Tuscaloosa with the most improbable of Iron Bowl defeats.

“It is my responsibility,” he said.

First and foremost, why hasn’t he recruited a reliable field goal kicker?

Alabama missed four field goals — FOUR! — and passed on a chip shot that could’ve given the Tide a 10-point lead with 5 1/ 2 minutes remaining. It’s not like this is a mystery to Saban, whose team nearly squandered another national title during the 2011 season because his team missed four field goals in an overtime loss to LSU.

The Tide got lucky that year, working its way back into the No. 2 position in the BCS standings even though it didn’t even win the SEC West. Alabama totally stifled the Tigers in the national championship game, ensuring there was no need for any clutch field goals.

Saban, who essentially has the pick of whatever high school players he wants each year, has clearly never made kickers much of a priority.

Thus, the perfectionist who treats his college football program like a business, who talks endlessly about a “process” that leaves no stone unturned, left Alabama vulnerable against a clearly inferior team. Nothing against Auburn, but there’s no way a squad that went 3-9 last season and has one of the lowest-ranked passing games should’ve beaten a team that claimed three of the last four national titles.

“They’re usually beating teams by a lot,” said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead. “Maybe they don’t work on (kicking) much in practice.”

Then, he took the ultimate dig at Saban and the Tide.

“They always get the best players in the country,” Whitehead said. “I guess they don’t get the best kickers.”

Zing.

Senior Cade Foster had actually been quite reliable this season, making 11-of-12 field goals including a 53-yarder. But none of those kicks came in the pressure-cooker of Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the bitterest of rivals went at it in a game for the ages.

“It’s hard to find ways to win when the pressure’s on,” said first-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who was coaching high school ball just eight years ago but schooled Saban on this night. “And no doubt, there was unbelievable pressure out there.”

Auburn thrived in that environment. Alabama didn’t. And here’s how the Tide threw it away:

• The Tide raced to a 21-7 lead in the second period before Malzahn put his fast-paced offense into overdrive, which seemed to catch Alabama off guard. An 81-yard touchdown drive included nothing but running plays and took barely 2 minutes. Down 21-14, Auburn took the second-half kickoff, quickly went 69 yards in nine plays (six runs, three short passes) and, voila, the game was tied.

• Alabama had plenty of scoring chances, but Foster kept missing. A 44-yarder on Alabama’s opening possession was wide left. He knocked through a 28-yarder early in the fourth, but a false start penalty moved the Tide back five yards. Then, seeming to tighten up, Foster shanked a 33-yarder, the ball wobbling far left of the upright.

• The Tide reclaimed the lead on a 99-yard touchdown pass and could’ve iced it on fourth-and-1 at the Auburn 13. But Saban decided to go for it instead of attempting a 30-yard field goal for a 10-point lead. Auburn stacked the line and stuffed T.J. Yeldon for no gain.

• Foster got one more chance, but was surely a basket case when Saban sent him on for a 44-yarder with 2 1-2 minutes remaining. Trying to get more distance, Foster kicked the ball too low. The Tigers blocked it simply by sticking up their hands.

• Still down by only a touchdown, Auburn kept running its read option in the middle of the line, the clocking ticking down under a minute. Finally, quarterback Nick Marshall gave Malzahn a look, and the Auburn coach knew it was time. He called for a play where Marshall ran to the left, the ball tucked under his left arm, and Saban’s defense bit on it just as expected. Suddenly, just before the line of scrimmage, the quarterback switched it to his right hand and flipped a pass to Sammie Coates, all alone behind the secondary. The 39-yard touchdown tied the game with 32 seconds remaining.

• Overtime loomed, but Alabama wound up with one more play after a video review showed one second left on the clock at the end of Yeldon’s 24-yard run. Instead of a Hail Mary into the end zone, Saban sent on Adam Griffith, a freshman with a stronger leg than Foster’s, for a 57-yard attempt. On the opposite sideline, Malzahn pondered going for a block, then sent Chris Davis deep into the end zone.

“With the field goal team out there, I knew they had a lot of big guys on the field,” the Auburn coach said. “I knew that Chris would only have to make a couple of guys miss.”

Miss they did. Davis returned it from 9 yards deep in the end zone for the winning score.

With that, the greatest coach in America had been thoroughly outcoached.

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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