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Auburn, Agent of Chaos, Triumphs Over No. 1 Alabama

Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide were outplayed Saturday night, but the College Football Playoff may still come calling for the SEC powerhouse

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Be loud, fans. Don’t let the rational part of your brain tell you that highly trained athletes won’t be fazed by your noise. Because here’s Alabama, the closest thing to a machine the sport of college football has ever produced, turned human by the sheer sound of their biggest rival’s stadium:

When it’s loud, quarterbacks don’t use vocal cadences to call for the snap. They use claps, because the noise of a clap just travels better. And it was louuuuuud at Auburn on Saturday, because there’s nothing an Auburn fan would rather sacrifice their lungs for than the Iron Bowl. So when Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough walked up to his offensive line and clapped, the center assumed he was supposed to snap the ball, nearly costing the Tide an opportunity to convert on a fourth down as they trailed Auburn by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

As it turned out, that play didn’t count—Alabama had snapped the ball so early there were still 12 Auburn players on the field, giving them another fourth down. But it was one of many mental mistakes by no. 1 Alabama in their 26-14 loss to Auburn. There was the other time the ball was snapped when it wasn’t supposed to, which happened on the play before.

There was the time Alabama couldn’t get off a field goal. (An Alabama field goal screw-up in the Iron Bowl, what a stunner!)

There was the time a receiver ran 2 yards on fourth and 3, and thought, “This is fine.”

And there was the time the Tide gifted a critical late first down to the Tigers by going offsides on a punt. Perhaps we should also credit Auburn’s fans for screaming the sense out of Nick Saban, as he gave star running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris just six carries apiece in spite of the fact that they combined to average over 8 yards per carry, while giving Jalen Hurts 22 passes (for 112 yards, not counting a 65-yard, possibly illegal pass on the game’s meaningless final play) and 17 carries (for 80 yards).

The result was Alabama’s first double-digit loss since the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season, their second in their last 100 games dating back to 2010, and their first in a game in which a national championship was still a possibility. We’ve seen Alabama lose just 14 times in the last 10 years, and in those rare instances it doesn’t normally happen like this. Normally there’s some big fluke, like the Kick Six, or this Bo Wallace pass. Or a college football legend on the other team has the game of his lifetime, like Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, or Deshaun Watson. It’s hard to remember a game like this: No Auburn player did anything superhuman, the Tigers just outgained the Tide by 94 yards (if we eliminate that final play) while Alabama emptied a full clip into its own feet.

Auburn fans rush the field after their win over no. 1 Alabama
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Auburn and its fans have now screamed two no. 1 teams into submission. A few weeks ago it was top-ranked Georgia, who came to Auburn and got run off the field in a 40-17 whoopin’. Next week the Tigers will play Georgia again in the SEC championship game.

Auburn smiles at chaos, and their last month has been this season’s chaos scenario. The College Football Playoff has never included a team with two losses, has never included two teams from the same conference, and has never included a team with a loss to another team in the playoff field. Thanks to Auburn’s win, there is a serious threat for all three happening this year. We could have slept on Auburn’s chances after their second loss, a game in which the Tigers blew a 20-point second-half lead to LSU. With no margin for error, they haven’t let anyone stop them since. If Auburn wins the SEC title next week, they will deserve a chance to play for the national championship.

And Alabama, to be honest, could also have a chance to play for the national championship. Wisconsin is the only other major conference team left with zero losses, and the Badgers will be an underdog against Ohio State in next week’s Big Ten championship game. Both teams in the ACC championship game have a loss, both teams in the Big 12 championship game have a loss, both teams in the Pac-12 championship game have multiple losses. Last year, the committee took a one-loss Ohio State team that missed its conference title game due to a head-to-head loss on account of its strong résumé; even though Alabama’s best win is against a three-loss LSU team, it seems likely to get a friendly look from the committee. If we were still dealing with a lone national title game, Alabama would be out. Bama will have to tune into the next week’s conference championship games hoping for favorable results, and then nervously watch the following playoff reveal show. But Saturday’s loss isn’t a disqualifier.

Perhaps the possibility of Alabama redeeming themselves takes some of the oomph out of this for you. That’s understandable. But even if Alabama wins the title after this, don’t forget this night. We’re used to Alabama looking unbeatable. But Saturday night proved that a strong opponent and a whole lot of decibels can stem the Tide.

An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that Alabama's best win came against Mississippi State; the win came against LSU.