How an ‘unfair’ special teams substitution cost Alabama a playoff shot

AUBURN, Ala. – Six years after Auburn’s Kick-Six crushed the souls of the Alabama football program with an ending that defied credulity, a new nickname can be added to the Auburn victory vernacular. The Trojan Tiger – an exercise in punter-substitution subterfuge – proved the final salvo in a 48-45 Auburn victory that felt more like a Netflix series.

This riveting, undulating and spectacular Auburn victory should be immediately stored in the cellar among the finest vintage of the Iron Bowl’s 84 editions. And on a night when Alabama’s mistakes ultimately undercut their bursts of brilliance, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn delivered a coaching wrinkle that outfoxed Alabama’s Nick Saban. While No. 15 Auburn completed a disappointing regular season at 9-3, they ultimately squashed any argument for No. 5 Alabama (10-2) reaching the College Football Playoff. The Brinks trucks to lure Malzahn to Arkansas can remain at Walmart headquarters, as he’ll be the toast of the state for the next eight months.

With 1:17 remaining, Auburn lined up to punt on its own 26-yard line and gave Alabama one last chance to either tie or win the game. The Auburn coaches desperately wanted to keep the ball out of the hands of Alabama star Jaylen Waddle, who had already burst to near the front of 2020 Heisman Trophy lists with a transcendent four-touchdown performance.

So Auburn left quarterback Bo Nix in the game and also substituted in punter Arryn Siposs, the Trojan horse who lined up at wide receiver. The plan was to sneak him in the game and then motion him over to punt, which in theory would have kept Waddle off the field.

Instead, chaos ensued on the Alabama sideline. The coaches sent Waddle in the game to return the punt the moment they identified Siposs on the field. But then Saban sent in the defense when he saw Nix still in the game. Word didn’t get to Waddle quick enough on the other end of the field, where he awaited the punt. The penalty for having too many men on the field, Alabama’s 13th of the day, turned the fourth-and-4 punt play into a first down and Auburn victory formation. “We caught them,” said defensive back Smoke Monday.

After the game, Saban looked the part of a hoodwinked coach who’d guzzled a gallon of sour milk. “I really feel it was a pretty unfair play at the end of the game.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban disagrees with a call in the second half against Auburn on Saturday. (AP)Alabama coach Nick Saban disagrees with a call in the second half against Auburn on Saturday. (AP)
Alabama coach Nick Saban disagrees with a call in the second half against Auburn on Saturday. (AP)

How to sum up the 2019 Iron Bowl? There were two Auburn pick-sixes, four Waddle touchdowns and the angriest we’ve seen Nick Saban complaining to the officials in many moons. (And that was on a different play.) There was Najee Harris running like a human projectile (146 yards), Mac Jones alternately committing blunders (the pick-sixes) and atoning for them (four touchdowns). The game was a searing jolt of energy for nearly four hours, played out amid the backdrop of the desperation and hatred at Jordan-Hare Stadium that comes with watching your hated rival having historic success for more than a decade. In the end, fans waded on the turf at Jordan-Hare Stadium singing “Don’t Stop Believin’” after a game that defied belief.

After all that action – the 3.5 TFLs from Derrick Brown, the crafty Nix draw plays and JaTarvious Whitlow’s 114 rushing yards – the final twist was wildly unpredictable: The game’s final talking point would come down to the nuances of punt substitution. Saban was already steamed at the officials for putting time back on the clock and allowing Anders Carlson to kick a 52-yard field goal before halftime. (He said a sideline official admitted to him they shouldn’t have been able to get the kick off, prompting his outburst.)

But after the game, Saban was more focused on wanting more time to substitute on the Trojan Tiger play.

“I thought they should have given us a little more time to substitute and get Waddle out as a returner,” Saban said. “We get called for 12 guys on the field. So it was very disappointing. We’re responsible for that as coaches. But it was a very unusual circumstance, to stay the least.”

The ghosts from the Kick Six game popped up everywhere. Who couldn’t help but conjure up the image of Chris Davis running down the home sideline for the victory back in 2013, when he returned a missed Alabama field goal for a touchdown in the most improbable ending in the history of college football. On Saturday night, there was Auburn defensive back Zakoby McClain snaring a pass in the endzone that bounced off Harris’ back and sprinting 100 yards down the visitor sideline to flip the game’s momentum and give Auburn a 37-31 lead. (The special teams ghosts, a running Saban nightmare, appeared at the end of the game when Joseph Bulovas doinked a potentially game-tying 30-yard field goal off the upright with two minutes remaining.)

The twin 100-yard dashes will be seared together in Auburn lore. While Davis’ dash propelled Auburn to the SEC title and a near-miss in the BCS title game, this one will linger for the damage to Alabama’s place in college football’s world order.

The Trojan Tiger kept Alabama out of the national title game for the first time since the 2014 season and out of the College Football Playoff for the first time in its six-year history. It means Alabama won’t win a title over a two-year stretch for the first time since 2013-14, which qualifies as a drought under Saban-era standards.   

While those who’ve written obituaries for the Alabama dynasty the past few years have ended up in the Old Takes Exposed buffet line, there are real questions to whether Alabama will be favored to win the SEC next season. Jones looks capable at quarterback, but he’s a drastic drop from Tua Tagovailoa. But the thing that stood out tonight was just how un-Alabama this all felt. NFL scouts have pointed out that Alabama doesn’t have the same type of athletes in the front seven on defense that it’s accustomed to. And a team that commits five false starts, gives up 5.3 yards per carry and racks up 96 penalty yards just feels like a cyborg has invaded the Alabama machine we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

Saban’s summation of the game stretched the syntactical boundaries of the word disappoint.

“It’s very, very disappointing,” he said. “I know our fans are disappointed. I can promise you our players are disappointed and we’re all very, very disappointed. It’s my responsibility to get our team to do these things better.”

As Saban monotoned out that directive, fans danced on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium. They took final-score selfies, belted out DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” and treasured the role of playoff spoiler. And for years, they’ll be able to brag that they were in the stadium the wild night that Gus Malzahn tricked Nick Saban.

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