AUBURN

Rat poison didn’t cause what happened on Saturday.

Alabama’s problems, and they were many in a 26-14 loss at Auburn that shut the Crimson Tide out of the SEC Championship Game and made its playoff hopes problematic at best, didn’t seem to come from overconfidence, or an inflated sense of ego.

All week, in fact, there were warnings Alabama might not be the better team. Yes, the Crimson Tide was ranked higher. Yes, it was favored by the Las Vegas oddsmakers. But there were also plenty of people that were impressed by Auburn’s improvement and even more that were aware of Alabama’s injury issues and other struggles. If anything, the game seemed to present Alabama with the rarest of opportunities in Nick Saban’s tenure: a chance to be the underdog, the hunter rather than the hunted, a team that could take control of its own destiny that would silence its critics rather than simply confirm a chorus of praise.

Alabama had that chance — and didn’t take advantage of it at all.

Saban said afterwards that one game shouldn’t define a team. That’s true. But a loss in a major rivalry does go into the overall definition and this one certainly didn’t enhance Alabama’s image as the alpha dog, either.

Memories are short. Alabama has lost games under Saban. Most of the losses have included their fair share of self-inflicted wounds, like the five-turnover defeat against Ole Miss in 2015. But in terms of a game slipping out of control, with the other team looking more poised and prepared, this time was different.

From a certain viewpoint, this was as disconcerting a loss as Alabama has suffered since Louisiana-Monroe in Saban’s first year. That’s not a comparison of the opposition — Auburn is a national championship contender, not some forlorn mid-major program — but of the sense of bewilderment that the loss caused.

For the large part of a decade, Alabama has taken the fight to the opponent with ferocious defense and an offense that steadily eroded its opponents’ resistance. None of that happened on Saturday, which seemed to have the same strategy but not the same swagger. For instance — and this is admittedly with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight — why not go for fourth-and-one on the very first drive of the game at midfield? Yes, the punt pinned Auburn at its 6-yard line — and they proceeded to go 94 yards.

In the unusual game where Alabama might have needed to risk something, it didn’t.

The fourth-quarter implosions were worse, triggered by small things like those pesky unpoisoned rats gnawing at the underpinnings that usually lead Alabama to victory. How small? Consider the sequence after Auburn scored to take a 20-14 lead. Trevon Diggs returned the kick into Auburn territory, a pass interference penalty put Alabama in the red zone and then, on a third-and-four, Alabama fails to get the snap off in time.

Yes, it’s loud. Yes, there’s pressure. Those are precisely the moments you have to execute. Instead, Alabama went from third-and-four at the AU 12 to third-and-nine. Hurts then threw a wild, almost-interception, almost-touchdown pass that wound up incomplete, and the ensuing field goal attempt was botched. Auburn seized all the momentum it needed. The fourth quarter was no better.

An aura of dominance is a hard thing to build and an easy thing to lose. Alabama will have to live with the endless commentary on this game, largely deserved and fueled by the long, long Alabama fatigue across the nation. There might be a chance Alabama will get a lucky break and a chance at vindication in the playoffs — but the direct route ended on Saturday in a rare, ugly train wreck.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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