For the better part of three quarters in Tuscaloosa Saturday night, it appeared the SEC was very likely on the verge of being shut out of a spot in the College Football Playoff. And then Amari Cooper happened.
In yet another instant Iron Bowl classic, Cooper fueled a furious second-half comeback that pushed top-ranked Alabama to a 55-44 win over No. 15 Auburn in a game that was the highest-scoring in the history of the storied rivalry. The 99 points scored easily surpassed the previous high of 75 in 1969, while the Tide’s 55 points tied the most points by one team in the series (Alabama, 55-0 in 1948).
Early in the third quarter, Auburn had actually stretched its lead to 33-21. A 34-3 run to close out the game, however, set the postseason table for the Tide.
Alabama had already clinched the SEC West title before taking the field thanks to Mississippi State’s Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss; the win ensured there would be no co-champions, as well as kept its CFP hopes very much alive.
Were it not for Cooper, however, the Tide would’ve been licking their wounds over a loss that could very well have fatally wounded any shot at a playoff spot.
Trailing 33-21 midway through the third quarter, Alabama’s All-American wide receiver got behind Auburn’s secondary for a pair of scores totaling 114 yards to cut the lead to 36-34. The mere threat of Cooper helped lead to a Blake Sims‘ 11-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that, with the two-point conversion, gave the Tide a 42-36 lead, its first since late in the first half.
Cooper finished the game with 13 receptions for 224 yards and three touchdowns, a performance that could very well have sealed a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. The yardage, incidentally, set an Iron Bowl record, and was one yard shy of his school record set Oct. 25 of this year against Tennessee.
Blake Sims ‘ fourth touchdown pass of the game, this one to DeAndrew White, with 8:05 remaining in the fourth quarter pushed it to a two-score game. In addition to the four touchdown passes, Sims completed just over 70 percent of his 27 attempts for 312 yards. He did, though, become the first Nick Saban quarterback to throw three interceptions in a single game.
The Tide’s defense also deserves plaudits, as does whoever it was that made the halftime adjustments. After getting gashed for 383 yards and 26 points in the first half, the Tigers’ high-powered offense was limited to 182 and 10 in the second half before AU’s final drive with the game in hand. They also held on a critical fourth down late in the game, with Auburn inside the ‘Bama 15-yard line and on the verge of pulling to within five points with a touchdown.
On the ensuing possession, a pair of Derrick Henry runs — one for 49 yards, the other a 25-yard touchdown jaunt with 3:46 left on the clock — proved to be the dagger.
The Tide now turns their attention to the SEC championship game next Saturday night against Missouri. A win there would ensure ‘Bama a spot in the playoff — something that looked less than certain just a couple of hours ago.