AUBURN, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban looked tired as he sat down for a postgame interview on Saturday night. The 68-year-old's eyes were heavy as a celebration roared just outside his locker room's doors in Jordan-Hare Stadium. He put a hand to his face and kept it there for a moment, rubbing his forehead as he attempted to explain a bizarre, procedural penalty that cost his team one last possession and one last chance to tie the game against Auburn.
He called the penalty for too many men on the field "unfair," wondering aloud whether his team was given enough time to substitute during a pivotal fourth down. Later, he questioned another decision by officials to put time back on the clock before halftime, allowing Auburn the chance to attempt a field goal. He said a side judge told him not to worry because the clock would run when the ball was set and with only one second on the play clock, "They won't be able to get it off anyway."
But they did. One second was somehow enough, the kick split the uprights and a game filled with bizarre moments continued to break against Alabama. Saban's usually disciplined team committed a record number of penalties (13) and an untold number of mistakes. He pointed to one of his players slapping an opponent, a roughing the quarterback penalty and five crucial false starts. "When you play good teams," he said, "those things bite you."
Losing the Iron Bowl 48-45 and dropping out of playoff consideration was bad enough. But to give up more points in a game than at any time during Saban's tenure in Tuscaloosa, despite allowing only three offensive touchdowns, spoke to something larger. It spoke to a team whose foundation was suspect from the very beginning and only continued to crumble throughout the course of the season.
This wasn't some fluke loss. In a lot of ways, it was a long time coming.
Afterward, Xavier McKinney was asked whether he saw the slew of penalties and mistakes coming in the week of practice leading up to the game.
"Well," the junior safety said sarcastically, "we had it all year. It shows up every time we play a good team. So that's on us."
What about Jared Mayden? Did he think the youth on defense might have played a role?
No, the senior defensive back said, shaking his head and refusing to make excuses.
But what about those who would say star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was injured and we should have expected this?
"Nah," he said. "You shouldn't have expected this. We have enough good players here -- five-star players, four-star players, good players -- that if Tua went down, then the next guy would step up."
In years past, he would have been right. That was the mentality at Alabama for years and years under Saban. Like clockwork, they would find a way to overcome injuries and adversity to stay in the championship hunt.
But this year, it was all too much, the issues too deep, to keep the streak alive. For the first time, the playoff will have to go on without Saban and the Crimson Tide, and we're left wondering why.
Go back to the summer. Back before the Iron Bowl, before Tagovailoa's injury and before the loss to LSU.
Return to preseason practice and an injury that didn't send up alarm bells at first but ultimately proved to be the first domino in deconstructing a dynastic defense. If you don't remember the name Joshua McMillon, then you should.
McMillon was a fifth-year senior who was penciled in to become a starter at inside linebacker. And while he wasn't some otherworldly talent, his experience and leadership was expected to be an important stabilizing force on defense in light of Mack Wilson's early and somewhat surprising exit for the NFL draft, where he wasn't selected until the fifth round.
That is, until McMillon went down during a scrimmage in August. He injured his knee and would miss the remainder of the season.
Which was bad enough until a few weeks later, on the Tuesday before the season-opening game against Duke, another inside linebacker had to be helped off the field during practice. Dylan Moses, a junior who was a Butkus Award finalist a year earlier, a projected first-round draft pick and the unquestioned leader of the defense, suffered a season-ending knee injury, as well.
What Saban told ESPN during the offseason -- "We can't afford to lose a lot of guys on defense, especially at linebacker" -- felt like a premonition. Instead of having two upperclassmen to anchor the defense, he would be forced to rely on two true freshmen in Shane Lee and Christian Harris.
"Certainly, this is a character check for our team," Saban told reporters following Moses' injury.
For a while, it looked as if the defense would answer the call. Veteran defensive lineman LaBryan Ray went down with a season-ending injury in Week 3 against South Carolina, and for some reason, no one blinked as Alabama continued to roll to eight straight wins.
But with four true freshmen starting on defense at the time -- DJ Dale was a starter at defensive tackle from day one, and Justin Eboigbe started in place of Ray -- those early results were, in part, fool's gold. Giving up 31 points at home to Ole Miss was a red flag despite winning the game.
Then came LSU, as Alabama suddenly went from facing mediocre to below-average offenses all season to facing perhaps the most potent passing game in all of college football.
The Tide's secondary, which was thought to be a strength, was exposed by Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. And Lee and Harris could do nothing to stop Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who ran for 103 yards and three touchdowns.
Those same issues -- namely, players missing assignments -- crept up at Auburn.
Maybe McMillon and Moses wouldn't have been enough to stop it. But their experience certainly would have helped, calling plays and directing traffic at inside linebacker.
Mayden said a next-man-up mentality should have taken care of that. But at what point do injuries become too much to overcome?
To be fair, it's hard to pin Saturday's loss on Mac Jones. The first two starts of his career were at home against Arkansas and Western Carolina. Going on the road against a top-10 defense in Auburn could have been a shock to his system.
But he didn't play that way. He laughed and smiled and appeared to be loose throughout the game.
He managed the pocket well, ran when he had to and generally found the open man.
Those two pick-sixes were rough. He hit running back Najee Harris in the numbers, but they were the numbers on the back of his jersey, and the ball somehow bounced into the hands of an Auburn defender, who took the ball 100 yards the other way for the score.
"Ten times out of 10, I throw that ball away in practice," Jones lamented afterward, "and this was the one time I try to squeeze it in there, which wasn't a good decision by me."
But in general, getting 335 yards and four touchdowns passing from your backup quarterback can't be anything other than a positive.
"Overall," Saban said, "he did a really, really good job."
Such is the difference between really, really good and really, really great.
If you're an Alabama coach or fan, you have to wonder whether Tagovailoa would have been the difference in the game. He was on his way to being a Heisman Trophy finalist before he landed awkwardly against Mississippi State and separated his hip.
Without him at quarterback, making the kind of pinpoint passes we'd become so accustomed to the past two seasons, this wasn't the same offense or the same team. The game plan was different, the ability to generate big plays was different and what it did to the defense was different, as well.
"We definitely were not going to put the game on Mac in terms of just throwing the ball all over the yard," Saban said. "And we wanted to have balance in the offense, and I think [offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian] did a great job of that. So, we moved the ball well enough on offense to win the game. Obviously, you can't give the other team 14 points, so that's a problem."
The moment Tagovailoa was sidelined for the season, the season changed. Even with a last-second field goal and a win in overtime against Auburn -- which wasn't close to a guarantee -- it might not have been enough to pass the eye test and earn a fourth spot in the playoff without a conference title.
Without their star quarterback and without a top-notch defense, what was Alabama really going to accomplish, anyway?
This wasn't a championship team before the Iron Bowl or after. Too much had already happened leading up to Saturday afternoon in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The pick-sixes, the lack of discipline and the missed field goal were only window dressing surrounding a much larger problem. That so-called "unfair" penalty and that extra second were just the final bad breaks in a season that began going off the rails before it ever started.