Commentary

Iron Bowl loss still motivates Tide

Originally Published: August 15, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The sign hangs near a mirror in Alabama nose tackle Josh Chapman's bedroom at an off-campus apartment in Tuscaloosa.

[+] EnlargeGreg McElroy
AP Photo/Butch DillGreg McElroy and Alabama were stunned by Auburn's comeback in the 2010 Iron Bowl.

It reads: "Never Again."

Every time Chapman sees the sign, he's reminded of the final 38 minutes in last season's Iron Bowl, in which the then-No. 11 Crimson Tide blew a 24-0 lead against No. 2 Auburn.

The Tigers came back to defeat Alabama 28-27 at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 26 in one of the Crimson Tide's most deflating losses in Iron Bowl history. Auburn won an SEC title the next week and then defeated Oregon 22-19 in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10.

Chapman and his teammates know history would read differently now if they'd simply finished off Auburn.

"It's a lot of motivation," Chapman said. "It's something you don't want to see ever happen around here again."

Alabama coach Nick Saban and his coaches are trying to make sure it doesn't happen again. The "Never Again" signs started showing up in the Tide's locker room this past winter. The Tide's strength and conditioning coaches played video highlights of South Carolina, LSU and Auburn -- the three teams that defeated Alabama last season -- over and over again in the weight room during offseason workouts.

"Finishing is a big thing for this team," Saban said. "I don't think we finished well last year whether it was plays, games, season or however you want to look at it. I think that's all about mindset. It doesn't really have anything to do with how fast you run or how high you jump."

More than anything else last season, the Crimson Tide didn't look very tough -- mentally or physically -- when games got tight, especially against Auburn.

After Auburn scored to make it 24-7 late in the first half, the Tide missed a chance at another touchdown when Tigers defensive tackle Nick Fairley caused quarterback Greg McElroy to fumble at Auburn's 12-yard line.

Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Zachery on the second play from scrimmage in the second half, and the Tigers were on their way to their remarkable comeback.

"The Iron Bowl game is a really big rivalry," Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "It's almost like the national championship, it's the next-best thing. For us to come out and play the way we did and then slip and not finish, it was like [that] our whole season. The South Carolina game, the LSU game, the Auburn game, it was just us not finishing."

[+] EnlargeAlabama fans
AP Photo/Dave MartinTide fans weren't happy with little brother's success last season.

Finding a way to finish games is Alabama's motivation heading into the 2011 season. The Crimson Tide are favorites to win the SEC again and to possibly compete for a BCS national championship.

"They are hungry because some of them were embarrassed," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said during Alabama's media day last week. "Some of them didn't play as well as they should have last year, and they want to play better this year. There were a lot of lessons that our guys learned last year, especially defensively, and we were a young team. I expect them to grow up. I assure you, if they're not hungry, that's our job to put an end to that."

The Auburn collapse, of course, is the defeat that still stings the most.

The Crimson Tide hadn't suffered such a devastating loss to their heated rivals since the infamous "Punt, Bama, Punt" game in 1972. In that game, Alabama blew a 16-3 lead in the final six minutes, after Auburn's Bill Newton blocked two Tide punts and David Langner returned both for touchdowns.

The 1972 loss to the Tigers cost the then-undefeated and No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide a chance at winning a national championship. The 2010 loss cost Alabama a chance to do something just as significant in college football's most heated rivalry: deny Auburn a national title.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Birmingham-based sports-talk radio host and columnist Paul Finebaum. "I really think it is the motivating factor behind so many other things, from Harvey Updyke to Cam Newton. There are a lot of reasons those things happened, but the main reason is because of what happened in the second half of that game."

Updyke, a self-described Alabama fan and former Texas state trooper, is accused of poisoning Auburn's beloved oak trees at Toomer's Corner, where Tigers fans have traditionally gathered to celebrate football victories. Updyke allegedly committed the act shortly after Auburn's dramatic comeback.

Newton, who won the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and was the No. 1 pick in April's NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers, was under investigation by the NCAA throughout his only season at Auburn. Most Alabama fans are still convinced Newton did something wrong, even though the NCAA ruled he didn't know his father, Cecil Newton, solicited $180,000 from Mississippi State boosters for his son to play for the Bulldogs.

After the Updyke incident, Saban and Auburn coach Gene Chizik tried to restore order and implored their respective fan bases to play nice.

"It lasted for a couple of days," Finebaum said. "I've never seen it like this or sensed it like this. There have been a lot of heated things said and done [during the history of the Iron Bowl], but it's boiling over now."

Finebaum said he senses the rivalry is heating up again as football season approaches.

"Once the summer started and people started talking about football again, the [2010 Iron Bowl] just parachuted back in," Finebaum said. "A lot of Bama fans are still coming to grips with a lot of things. If LSU had come back and won a national title, they would have survived that. But not little brother down the highway."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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