Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 1, 2013

In The End, One Second Was All Auburn Needed

Regular readers know that I never tire of reminding those who find their way here that there is a reason why they actually play the games. The point of my favorite sports maxim is that no matter the opinions of the odds makers or the relative strengths and weaknesses of the competitors on paper, once the contest starts anything can, and often does, happen. The obvious corollary to that adage is that there is likewise a reason to play the entire game. Every period, inning or round, every shift, at bat, or play, must be seen to its conclusion; for fate can intervene even in the final minute of competition. Or even, as sports fans saw in such dramatic fashion early Saturday evening, in a game’s final second.

I don’t particularly follow and seldom write about big-time college sports, for the simple reason that the stench of the NCAA’s hypocrisy keeps me at a distance. College football at the Bowl Championship Series level, and to only a slightly lesser degree Division I men’s basketball, are powerful economic engines, generating millions of dollars in annual revenue for schools and conferences. Yet the players who boosters and fans pay to see are treated like virtuous virgins in some medieval fairy tale, shielded from reaping any financial gain by essentially meaningless blathering about the nobility of amateurism and the honor of being student athletes.

When rules are broken, as is virtually inevitable given the amount of money pumping through athletic programs at major universities, officials from the school or conference or NCAA launch into their best impersonation of Captain Renault in Casablanca, shocked to learn what has taken place. It is a tiresome routine that, for me at least, saps much of the joy out of college sports.

Mine is a minority point of view, as evidenced by the millions of dollars generated by major football and basketball programs, and the packed stadiums and arenas at colleges all across the land. Nowhere is support for college athletics stronger than in the Deep South, home to most of the schools that make up the powerful Southeastern Conference. USA Today reported that in 2012 the thirteen public universities that are SEC members generated revenues of more than $2.2 billion and profits in excess of $100 million from all sports (Vanderbilt University is private and was not included in the data).

The SEC is especially strong in football. Of the fifteen national champions crowned during the BCS era, nine have come from the SEC. Alabama with three BCS titles, and LSU and Florida with two each, are the only schools in the country to have won the BCS title game multiple times. The only time an SEC representative lost the championship game was when Auburn was defeated in 2012. But since the Tigers were playing Alabama, one of the two teams had to spoil the SEC’s otherwise perfect record in the BCS championship.

On the surface all of that money and the record of accomplishment it has purchased is exactly what I dislike about college sports. But sometimes something can happen on the field of play that is both so pristine and so unlikely that it rises above the financial squalor. They played the Iron Bowl on Saturday, the annual rivalry game between #1 ranked Alabama and #4 Auburn. I was a half-interested television viewer, up until the final second.

Nearly 88,000 fans were packed into Jordan-Hare Stadium on Auburn’s campus in the eastern part of the state. The favored Crimson Tide, winners of four of the last five Iron Bowls, made the 160 mile trip across the state from Tuscaloosa for what they hoped would be a victory to cap a perfect regular season and a spot in next week’s SEC Championship game. A victory there and Alabama would be on its way to the BCS title game for the third year in a row and fourth time in five years under head coach Nick Saban. If professional dynasties in the age of free agency are hard to come by, a collegiate dynasty in an era when top players often enter the NFL or NBA drafts early rather than spend four years on campus is almost unfathomable. But that was the label the Crimson Tide players were ready to call their own. First though, they had to beat Auburn.

On the opening drive Alabama moved quickly down the field, but a 44-yard field goal attempt curled to the left of the uprights. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall then put his team on the board with a 45-yard touchdown scamper late in the first quarter. Alabama responded like the favorites they were, racking up three second period scores. Then just before halftime Auburn narrowed the gap when running back Tre Mason barreled into the end zone from one yard out.

The Tigers opened the second half with a nine-play, 69-yard scoring drive to knot the score at 21-21. It stayed that way until early in the final quarter, when Alabama scored on a 99-yard pass and run from AJ McCarron to Amari Cooper. But the Crimson Tide couldn’t add to the lead. Place kicker Cade Foster had already missed a second attempt, and Saban passed on another field goal try with just over six minutes remaining. A fourth down run failed and the lead remained at seven points. With just over two minutes remaining yet another attempt at kicking for three points was blocked, giving Auburn the ball. After handing off to Mason six straight times, Marshall rolled to his right and found Sammie Coates for a 39-yard scoring strike with just 32 ticks remaining on the clock. Alabama then sandwiched two runs by Yeldon around a timeout, with the running back going out-of-bounds at the Auburn 38 at the end of his second scamper.

At first it appeared that time had expired, but Saban argued that one second remained. It was an argument that he no doubt wishes he had lost, or better yet not made at all. But one second was restored, and the Alabama coach sent backup place kicker Adam Griffith out to attempt a 57-yard game winner. Almost as an afterthought Auburn coach Gus Malzahn sent Chris Davis back into the Auburn end zone.

On television the camera angle was from behind the end zone, as is usually the case on field goal tries. At first the kick looked promising, but then it was clear that it was going to be short and perhaps wide of the mark as well. The football settled into Davis’s arms nine yards deep in the end zone. He raced straight forward to the 5 yard line, then cut to his left. At the 20 and near the sideline he turned up field as one Alabama player lunged futilely for him. At about the 30 he performed a brief tap dance with the out-of-bounds chalk even as blue-shirted teammates formed a blocking patrol around him. At the 45 a second member of the field goal unit turned defender missed; and suddenly, faster than the announcers could describe it, Chris Davis was in the clear. With only teammates anywhere nearby for the second part of his sprint from one end zone to the other, Chris Davis ran for glory.

Twenty-nine Thanksgiving weekends ago, in a scene every New England football fan can instantly visualize, Doug Flutie scrambled away from a defensive lineman, all the way back to his own 37-yard line, some 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Flutie then hurled a football as far as he could throw, even as the game clock showed no time remaining. Far down the field, the ball came to rest in the arms of Gerard Phalen in the end zone, giving Boston College a 47-45 win over Miami. Thirty-nine Thanksgiving weekends from now and beyond, anyone who happened to see it will be able to visualize Chris Davis racing into history, upending the BCS rankings and driving a stake into the heart of a would-be dynasty. Because there is a reason why they play the entire game, even down to the final second.


  1. Excellent article. And I whole-heartedly agree with you regarding the stench of college football. I moved down here to S.C. nearly five years ago, and I can verify that college football is a virtual religion down here. Last week, the kids in Pickens County were let out of school two hours early one day due to a college football game at Clemson. This past weekend, when Clemson played U. of S.C., even though it was the big Christmas shopping weekend, virtually every T.V. set in my neighborhood (for those unlucky enough to land tickets to the actual game), was turned to the BIG Clemson vs. U. of S.C. game. Nothing else in sports down here is nearly as big a deal as college football.
    It would be interesting to see some statistics about the unemployment rate for former college football players who “attended” college vs. those college grads who never played college football or basketball at the degree mills in those conferences you mentioned.
    Fine work, as always,

    • Thanks Bill. Your accounts of recent activity in Pickens County is certainly consistent with everything I have ever heard, read or seen about the devotion to college football in the south. In contrast, last weekend just a few miles from here the UNH Wildcats won their first round game in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs (leave it to the NCAA to come up with a cumbersome and forgettable name). They travel to Maine next weekend, and in the unlikely event they string together three more wins before Christmas, they will play for the national championship on January 4th. All of that has barely generated interest in Durham, and what little passion exists there has certainly not made the short trip down Route 4 to my place in Portsmouth. What a difference a little geography makes! Thanks again, and if we don’t communicate before then my best wishes for a happy holiday season for you and your family!


  2. Thanks for the Christmas wishes, Mike, and please accept my early Merry Christmas as well. I had somehow forgotten that you live in N.H. Funny hearing about Durham, as my wife graduated from UNH around 20 years ago. I actually met her in Dover, NH. I know the UNH-Maine Black Bear hockey game was a reasonably big deal when I lived up there, though not quite on the level of the college football rivalries down here.
    Thanks again,

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