AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Auburn fans blanketed the field from end zone to end zone just like the last time they got to celebrate a stirring Iron Bowl win.
This time, Jarrett Stidham, Kerryon Johnson and No. 6 Auburn didn’t need a miraculous final play to unleash the celebration. It was a build up to the crescendo as the Tigers beat top-ranked Alabama in a dominating 26-14 win Saturday. Auburn earned a berth in next week’s Southeastern Conference title game against No. 7 Georgia.
The Tigers, an afterthought earlier this season, now have their sights set on one of the four playoff spots. And Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made it clear his two-loss squad deserves a shot. One of his team’s two defeats was to defending national champion Clemson, No. 3 at the time.
“We’ve got to win next week and that’s going to be a handful,” Malzahn said of his upcoming rematch with Georgia. “I don’t know, them experts got it figured out. I don’t think anybody else has played two No. 1 teams and a No. (3) team. Put up our schedule against anybody.”
Auburn fans covered the field in orange and blue after the final play, creating a scene similar to 2013 when the fourth-ranked Tigers beat No. 1 Alabama on a last-play, 109-yard return of a missed field goal. The Tigers went on to the national title game but had lost the three Iron Bowls since. This was Auburn’s biggest margin of victory in the Iron Bowl since winning 49-26 in 1969.
Stidham passed for 237 yards and ran for a fourth-quarter touchdown to set up a rematch with Georgia in the SEC championship game Dec. 2 with a playoff spot almost certainly on the line.
Auburn (10-2, 7-1 SEC, No. 6 CFP) mostly shut down the league’s top scoring offense for their second win in three weeks over the top team in the playoff rankings. They won the Western Division a week after dispatching the Bulldogs with similar precision.
The Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1) made a rare assortment of mistakes for a team that had appeared to be headed toward a shot at a fourth consecutive SEC title and playoff berth .
Alabama coach Nick Saban said his team still deserves a playoff shot after playing for the national title the past two years and scarcely getting challenged this season.
“I don’t think one game defines who you are,” Saban said. “It certainly doesn’t define this team for who they are. I’m sorry that I could not do a better job as a coach and as a leader.”
Auburn’s Johnson delivered a jump pass for a touchdown and ran 30 times for 104 yards before leaving in the fourth quarter with a right shoulder injury.
Malzahn said after the game Johnson has “a shoulder issue,” but didn’t elaborate on his status for the rematch with Georgia in Atlanta. Johnson had earlier appeared hurt on a run toward the pylon but stayed in for a 1-yard touchdown run on the next play.
The SEC’s leading rusher crumpled to the ground after a carry and walked off the field holding his right arm close to his body with a towel draped over his head. Fans chanted, “Kerryon!” “Kerryon!”
With No. 2 Miami losing Friday night to Pittsburgh, it’s the first time the top two teams in the AP poll have fallen on the same regular-season weekend since Nov. 17, 2012.
Then, No. 1 Oregon lost to No. 14 Stanford and No. 2 Kansas State went down to Baylor.
Stidham completed 21 of 28 passes and ran for 50 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown scamper early in the fourth quarter. Ryan Davis caught 11 passes for 139 yards.
“I think we’re pretty darn good,” Stidham said. “Coach Malzahn told us it’s never been done in three weeks beating two No. 1 teams, so I think this team is pretty good.”
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts passed for 177 yards and a touchdown while running 17 times for 80 yards, but neither he nor the Tide offense ever really seemed to get going.
Alabama had a devastating sequence after Auburn took the lead late in the third on Johnson’s 1-yard run.
Trevon Diggs’ 55-yard return set the Tide up for a potential go-ahead score, and a pass interference against Auburn helped. Hale Hentges nearly caught a tipped pass in the end zone but replay overturned the touchdown call.
Then the Tide botched a field goal attempt with a bad snap.
Alabama had two straight botched snaps on a promising drive in the fourth quarter, failing to make good on a do-over after an Auburn penalty on the second.
Alabama: Didn’t play with its normal poise in big games despite the return of three injured linebackers . Failed on its first six third-down attempts and finished 3 of 11 while allowing Auburn to convert on half of its 18 attempts. Tailbacks Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs each had only six carries.
Auburn: Continued its revival from early and midseason struggles. Held onto the ball for 36 minutes and 78 plays.
Alabama players figured they could have solidified a playoff spot with one more win. Now they have to wait and hope for an invite that’s far from certain.
“We’re going to learn from this,” Hurts said. “It’s humbling. The unfortunate thing about that (playoff) is it’s not in our hands. You win out and you win games, you know you’re in. We’ll see what happens.”
Alabama must hope for help to make another playoff trip while waiting to learn its bowl destination.
Auburn faces the Bulldogs in a rematch of its 40-17 win on Nov. 11.