Until further notice, they are still Alabama
We asked, and they answered. We wondered as they wandered between invincibility and vulnerability until they discovered that victory can be an unexpected party, not a routine box checked on a machine-generated to-do list.
Those men in the crimson helmets, bequeathed a rich legacy by the best team in school history? Who exactly are they? Thanks to Alabama 24, Auburn 22, now we know.
They are the reigning champs in hot pursuit of a repeat, all Bryce the Baby-Faced Assassin and Will "The Terminator" Anderson swapping highlights and Heisman votes. They are the occasionally discombobulated collection of five-stars who couldn't overcome the 12th Man and barely outlasted the last stands of Dan Mullen and Ed Orgeron.
They are not always what their fans want them to be, but with one exception, they've been precisely what they needed to be. Flawed but fearless, with division and state titles secured and two more championships to pursue, those young and old men smiling and dancing in the locker room have shown us exactly who they are.
They are Alabama. After four quarters and four overtimes over four excruciating, exhilarating hours in the place that's been their head coach's worst nightmare, they are STILL Alabama.
That means something. It meant everything Saturday as day turned to dark, local printers prepared "Honk If You Sacked Bryce" bumper stickers and hopes of another national title dimmed. Auburn was doing it again, refusing to subscribe to Alabama's supposed superiority, rising above its own month-long morass of injury and mediocrity, leading 10-0 as the fourth quarter dawned. The shutout in progress was even more shocking than the margin as a 20-point underdog.
And then something happened. Gradually and then suddenly, Alabama happened. The defense channeled 2009 and 2011 before and after Auburn backup quarterback TJ Finley went from inconsistent to immobile thanks to a third-quarter ankle injury. Someone owes perennial pincushion/defensive coordinator Pete Golding an apology. For the second time in a month, his defense saved the Crimson Tide's season.
The often-unstoppable offense, without deep threat Jameson Williams after his second-quarter targeting foul on punt coverage, found just enough rhythm to end the shutout with a field goal with 8:44 left. Workhorse Brian Robinson Jr. jump-started that drive with a 37-yard run, then exited for the night with a re-injured ankle.
Injury and adversity aside, you could feel it then, the gravity of the dynasty. With the greatest upset in Iron Bowl history looming, when Auburn failed to get a first down on its final possession of regulation to drain the clock, it was more than a feeling. You just knew. Despite all the uncertainty this team had generated through 11 games, 58 minutes and 25 seconds, Alabama was going to be Alabama when nothing less would do, and there was nothing Auburn could do to stop it.
The inevitable game-tying drive took 12 plays and 71 of the final 95 seconds to cover the 97 yards necessary to catapult Young into legend status. His third-down, 28-yard dart through Auburn's heart to the sure but seldom-used hands of five-star freshman Ja'Corey Brooks forced the first overtime in this rivalry that always finds creative ways to take your breath away. Second, third and fourth overtimes would follow until the gutsy Finley misfired and the zen Young connected on the last of the alternating two-point tries.
Auburn should forever wonder why it got to that point. After matching Alabama's opening touchdown in the first extra session, Iron Bowl newcomer Bryan Harsin came to a crossroads. Kick the point to tie or go for two and glory. With the better team beginning to act like it, with his wounded quarterback a threat to go down and stay down on every hit, the moment screamed for the underdog to end the game, not extend it, to take the chance that would give Alabama no chance to respond.
Harsin chose discretion, and you knew again right there and then how this would end.
It didn't matter that, in the place where their persistent pursuit of perfection often comes to die, the crimson helmets were not close to perfect. Or that, for the longest time, they couldn't run, throw or block, let alone score. Or that they breathed life into a reeling rival and looked nothing like a team ready for a game-of-the-century date with unbeaten Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
Their uncommon shortcomings only served to make this great escape, this season-long dance on the edge of a razor, all the more memorable. Despite every star that departed for the NFL from last season's unrivaled champions, they've lost only once. Despite repeatedly putting themselves in peril of early playoff elimination, they are one game away from the national semifinals. Despite their inability to consistently play to the standard their coach demands, they make Nick Saban smile.
Who are they? The answer should be obvious by now. Until further notice, at heart, they are Alabama. Still.