AUBURN — By the end of Auburn's 24-22 Iron Bowl loss to Alabama on Saturday, everyone was so wrapped up in the four overtimes of it all that quite a few critical moments from earlier in the game were overlooked.
That's a natural symptom of games with classic endings: Think about the 2013 "Kick Six" Iron Bowl, remembered almost entirely for the eponymous last play. In the 2021 edition, Auburn (6-6, 3-5 SEC) left insurance points off the board numerous times and was one play away from beating No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1) in regulation.
Here are the biggest what-if moments.
The sack that injured TJ Finley
It was third-and-5 from the Alabama 20-yard line. Auburn already led 10-0 early in the third quarter and had a chance to capitalize on a rare Bryce Young interception. But quarterback T.J. Finley was sacked for a loss of 13 yards that signified the first turning point: the transfer was injured, affecting his mobility, and Auburn was dragged to the edge of field-goal range.
Coach Bryan Harsin elected to take an intentional penalty then punt, rather than try a 50-yard field goal with backup Ben Patton, who later made a 49-yarder, though. Two what-ifs here: What if Auburn had tried the field goal, and what if Finley hadn't taken the sack? A 13-0 lead requires Alabama to score two touchdowns.
Auburn's only turnover
It was the first play of a possession starting near midfield after Alabama's turnover on downs, a gift to Auburn. The Tigers led 10-0 with 11:50 left. Finley fired a high dart toward Kobe Hudson, and it bounced off his hands for an interception. Then it was game on. The Tide took advantage of its second chance with a field goal to break the shutout.
Backward again in Alabama territory
After an Alabama roughing the passer penalty negated another interception, Auburn had first down at the Alabama 35. But Brodarious Hamm missed a block and Tank Bigsby lost four yards on a run, leading to another punt with less than five minutes remaining.
Dragged out of bounds
The most talked about what-if was hardly Bigsby's fault. He had space outside, and a first down would have clinched the game. Alabama safety Jordan Battle made a heads-up play to intentionally pull a resistant Bigsby to the sideline. It gave Alabama a free clock stoppage and set up the dramatic game-tying drive after Auburn failed on third-and-1.
Two moments stand out before the touchdown. Alabama had an early third-and-10 in which Young was pressured in the end zone. But Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary (who had a near-perfect game) lost receiver John Metchie III in coverage. Young connected.
"We're going to make mistakes, and that was my little mistake right there," McCreary said. "I'm happy that happened to me, because I know that's what I need to get better at."
Then tight end Jahleel Billingsley beat Auburn's Chandler Wooten in coverage on the fourth-and-7 that could have ended it.
Why not go for the win in OT?
When the game turned into a two-point conversion battle in triple overtime, Auburn was ready with a gutsy play call for tight end John Samuel Shenker. It worked to perfection. What if Harsin had decided to go for two and called that play in the first overtime? Shenker could have won it, not tied it. Underdogs more traditionally take the risk in those situations; a heavy favorite can afford to be more patient. And Auburn was more worn down. It had a great play design ready. Why not go for the win and end the madness?
"What do you think of the game?" - Joshua Leclair
It was the best sporting event I've ever covered. And second place is not particularly close. (Sorry, Mizzou.)
Auburn's press box is rather insulated from crowd noise, so I abandoned my seat during the second quarter to watch from the corner ramp. I wanted to soak in the atmosphere for a few minutes, and it was electric. The stadium was in mass hysteria as Auburn piled on the sacks, but it was also surprisingly intimate; the fans stationed on the ramp were mostly strangers, but they were hugging, high-fiving, dancing. I could feel how every person was hanging on to every play, every detail.
I was also happy to spend the overtimes stressing next to my coworker Nick Kelly, who covered Missouri with me. Even on murderous deadline, we were in awe at how compelling it was. The stakes felt higher than anything I've witnessed in person.
Auburn's player and play of the game
So many options. I'll go with Derick Hall for his three sacks. Or Roger McCreary for his four pass breakups. Or Oscar Chapman for his clutch punts. I don't know. The play that wowed me most was the overtime game-tying catch by freshman Landen King. Could have been remembered as one of the great Auburn moments in Iron Bowl history.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn football's Iron Bowl loss: The biggest what-if moments