Tide dream of perfection dashed at Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. -- Rolled up in a trash can outside the visitor's locker room was a sign that read "Roll Tide." Wrapped around it was another: "ATL Bound."

No, No. 1 Alabama will not be going to Atlanta to compete for the SEC championship. An improbable 34-28 loss on the road at Auburn swallowed up that dream and left nothing behind. All hope of an undefeated season disappeared as Chris Davis weaved down the sideline and ran back a missed field goal 100 yards for the winning touchdown as time expired. And that third straight national championship? Alabama now sits far off the fringe of the title conversation.

Auburn fans rushed the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium while Alabama's players and coaches looked on in stunned disbelief. Their title run was over on a play that no one could have foreseen. It was a game that featured jabs back and forth throughout, but ended on what felt like a sucker punch to the Tide. Kevin Norwood, Alabama's most veteran wide receiver, called the touchdown "lucky" after the game, his eyes glazed as he reflected on what he just witnessed.

"The chances of that happening in college football are rare," he said, "and it happened tonight. They got it by luck, but whatever. It happens."

Norwood said he'd experienced the pain he felt then just once before: 2010 against Auburn, when Alabama let a 24-point lead disappear in a failed bid to knock the Tigers out of the championship picture. Instead, it was Alabama seeing its lead and its championship aspirations snatched away by Auburn on Saturday night.

It very well could be the final thing Norwood and his fellow seniors remember about their time at Alabama. Painful memories have a way of overtaking the good like that. They'll have two championship rings to look back on years from now, but the spot where a third should have rested will weigh heavily.

"It's sad," said Anthony Steen, a senior and three-year starter at guard for Alabama. "It's really hard to explain. I haven't felt this way in a long time and hopefully I won't ever have to feel this way again."

"It was quiet," said fellow veteran Jeoffrey Pagan of the atmosphere in the locker room after the game. "There were a couple of guys in tears just because of how hurt they were from the game. There was just a dull atmosphere. Coach called it up and just told us to move on from here."

But how do you do that? How do you go from having championship reservations to sitting idly by waiting for whatever bowl game calls your name?

AJ McCarron and others did their best to answer that question, but their body language betrayed them. Lost looks and listless platitudes did little to express optimism for what's left of the season. There will be one more game, but not the one anyone wanted.

"Sometimes luck just isn't on your side," McCarron said. "But like I told the guys, 'Hold your head high and be thankful for everything you've got.' Football is just a game at the end of the day, it's not life."

Nick Saban did his best to give off that same calm demeanor. Alabama's head coach took the podium after the game and told reporters of missed execution and missed opportunities. He looked down often, his voice raspy, his hands on his hips as he lamented going for it on fourth down and less than a yard, the chance of a field goal in his grasp.

Those three points could have been the difference in winning and losing. So could have a dropped touchdown pass by Amari Cooper, two missed field goals by Cade Foster and so many others mishaps. It wasn't the sloppiest game Alabama played all season, but the mistakes added up. Failing to stop Davis' returned field goal was the sour cherry on top.

"That was not a great way to lose the game, especially for a team that I have a tremendous amount of respect for," Saban said. "It's my responsibility."

Later, Saban used harsher tones, calling it a "comedy of errors" in the fourth quarter.

But no one was laughing.

Deion Belue, Alabama's senior cornerback, was the last player to leave the locker room on Saturday night. He said nothing on the walk to the bus, passing up the food cart without so much as a look at the spread. Four women hugged him, but he didn't break stride for their embrace. He was in too much of a daze.

Even the volunteers cleaning up the players' mess in the locker room said nothing. Heads down, they picked up discarded gloves, cleats and towels. They loaded trunks full of equipment into buses without a word, bracing their hands against the No. 15 stickers on the corners of all the luggage.

There will be no trip to Atlanta. There will likely be no 16th national championship this season. Any fairytale run for Alabama this time around will need serious help.

Those dreams and those hopes were all but wadded up and left behind in Auburn.