Will Alabama's Iron Bowl Heroics Spark a Championship Run?
NCAA Week 13 - Trailing 10-3 with only two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Alabama's Trey Sanders was stuffed by Auburn's defense on a fourth-down rush attempt up the gut, and the Tigers took over on downs with the ball in Crimson Tide territory. The home crowd in Jordan-Hare Stadium was primed to explode and rush over the sideline hedges in celebration of an Iron Bowl victory. Per ESPN's win probability game chart, the Tigers had a greater than 99% chance to win the game.
All Auburn's offense needed was one first down to ice the game, but three straight Tank Bigsby carries netted only 5 yards and burned less than 30 seconds off the clock. Auburn punted, pinning Alabama on the 3-yard line, 97 yards from the end zone with 92 seconds remaining.
I don't know precisely how ESPN's win probabilities are calculated, but I don't have reason to dispute the severity of Alabama's predicament on this final opportunity. Prior to the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl, FBS offenses had started a second-half drive from at or inside their own 5-yard line and trailing by seven points on only 18 occasions this season, and they failed to score all 18 times. Alabama's turnover on downs with two minutes left on a drive that started at its own 2-yard line made it 19 failures in 19 attempts. The Crimson Tide weren't facing an impossible situation, but they certainly weren't likely to pull it off.
This was Alabama, of course, and the wealth of offensive talent clicked and produced from that point forward. Quarterback Bryce Young engineered a 12-play, 97-yard touchdown drive, connecting on a critical completion to Jahleel Billingsley on fourth-and-7 and a 28-yard touchdown pass to Ja'Corey Brooks to send the game to overtime. Slade Bolden hauled in a touchdown in the first overtime to grab Alabama's first lead of the game. John Metchie III grabbed two-point conversion receptions from Young in both the third and fourth overtimes, finally sealing the victory and slapping a giddy grin on Nick Saban in the postgame interview.
Alabama remains very much alive in pursuit of a potential seventh national championship under Saban's leadership in Tuscaloosa, but unlike previous seasons, there has been no feeling of inevitability with this year's unit. The Crimson Tide have struggled to move the ball offensively for significant stretches in several games, even as they continue to rank among the most efficient offenses overall this season. The Alabama defense hasn't shut down opponents with consistency either, but again, ranks well overall. Combined, Alabama has performed less like an untouchable juggernaut in 2021 and more like a dangerously talented team susceptible to upsets.
Alabama isn't redefining offensive efficiency like they did last year, nor completely smothering opponents defensively as they did while dominating the first half of Saban's tenure. But their overall net efficiency is still well above average, and they have proven themselves against more above-average opponents than any other team in the nation. Alabama is 8-1 against FEI top-60 opponents and only two other teams (Georgia and Ole Miss) have more than five such wins.
This week, in the SEC Championship Game, Alabama will be the underdog against Georgia. This is only the 10th time in 15 seasons under Saban in which an opponent was favored against the Crimson Tide, and the first time in over six years. Alabama faced Georgia as a 1.5-point underdog on the road on October 3, 2015, and dominated the game with a 38-10 win. They followed that up by storming through the remainder of the SEC for a conference title, then beating Michigan State and Clemson to claim their first national championship of the playoff era. That team finished the season with a 1.10 overall FEI rating, better than an average team in terms of opponent adjusted efficiency by just over a point per possession. This year's team currently has a 1.15 overall FEI rating. Flawed, yes, but still very good.
Do the Crimson Tide have another championship run in them yet, or will Georgia officially supplant them at the top of the college football universe this season with a dominant win of their own and a run to a national championship? If you had asked me when Sanders was stuffed with two minutes left against Auburn, I would have confidently said Alabama doesn't have what it takes this year. But this is Alabama, and I'm not ready to count them out yet.
2021 FEI Ratings (through Week 13)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage each team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantages for each team unit against an average opponent.
Preseason projected ratings are progressively phased out over the course of the season. Expanded ratings for all teams include overall, offense, defense, and special teams efficiency ratings. Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.