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November 29, 2008

Alabama ends streak, emphatically

Nick Saban has Alabama on top again.

The national rankings and SEC West? That's old news.

Already No. 1 in the nation, Alabama emphatically reclaimed the premier spot in the state by overwhelming bitter rival Auburn 36-0 on Saturday to end a six-year Iron Bowl losing streak and fashion the biggest margin in the series in 46 years.

This is what it feels like to beat the Tigers, 'Bama. Even the normally stoic Saban promised he was celebrating inside -- and in the privacy of the locker room with players and wife Terry.

"I'm happy, I really am happy," said Saban, smiling to prove it. "I was happy and dancing in the locker room. Miss Terry gave me a big kiss coming up here. I was real happy about that."

The dominant win set the stage for Alabama (12-0, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) to face No. 2 Florida in the league championship game with a berth in the BCS national title game on the line.

Of more immediate concern for Tide fans, the state belongs to them again. And there was little question of that by the middle of the third quarter when a 10-0 game turned ugly -- or beautiful, depending on the perspective.

"Our seniors didn't want to leave without beating Auburn," quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "We don't have to hear about it anymore. We beat them good. We left no doubt. It's a good way to finish them off."

The loss left Auburn (5-7, 2-6) shut out of a bowl game for the first time in nine years and cast another shadow on the decade-long tenure of coach Tommy Tuberville. Auburn, which had been 7-2 under Tuberville in the rivalry, has lost six of its last seven games after starting the season ranked in the top 10.

"Well, all good streaks come to an end, and it came to a screeching halt," said Tuberville, who is expected to meet with university president Jay Gogue early next week. "It was a tough night for us."

Tuberville expressed confidence he could get the program back on track while accepting the blame for an aborted attempt to switch to a spread offense.

"I'm committed to getting this thing turned around," he said. "I have total confidence we can get this thing turned around."

Saban's already managed that feat for 'Bama, which will play for the SEC championship for the first time since 1999.

The Tide scored three touchdowns in the third quarter to let the fans start the celebration early and complete its first perfect regular season since 1994.

Auburn had been 6-0 in Tuscaloosa and allowed only 35 points in those games. Yet another streak crushed into oblivion with the one-sided performance. It was the most lopsided Iron bowl since Bear Bryant's 1962 group won 38-0.

The game was also 'Bama's first Iron Bowl shutout since a 17-0 win during the 1992 national championship season. None of the Tigers' six straight wins had been decided by more than 10 points and the collective margin was 47 points.

It was the kind of result the Tide was looking for upon hiring Saban two years ago: Somebody to wrest control of the state from Auburn and put the Tide back in the national title hunt. The coach ran around most of the stadium waving his hand.

"I was thanking our fans," Saban said.

Glen Coffee ran for 144 yards and a touchdown, and Mark Ingram had 64 yards rushing and two touchdowns for the Tide. Wilson was 8-of-16 for 134 yards and a touchdown in his final home game. He drew a standing ovation when trotting off the field midway through the fourth quarter for backup Greg McElroy.

The stands at Bryant-Denny Stadium remained mostly full for a while after the game, with fans finally able to savor a state title again. A number of players came back to celebrate with them, heading across the field to the student section.

For Auburn, it was a dreary end to a dreary season. Asked if he had ever had a tougher loss, Tigers defensive end Antonio Coleman said: "I can't imagine it. Probably a death in the family would be the closest thing to that."

Kodi Burns faced frequent pressure and completed just 9 of 23 passes for 113 yards in his first Alabama game.

The Tigers were outgained 412-170 in total yards and lost three fumbles as their offensive struggles continued and even the normally tough defense was pushed around.

They had allowed just four rushing touchdowns in their first 11 games, but were manhandled for 234 yards and three scores on the ground this time.

"We just pounded them up front, just changing the way they thought," Wilson said. "They just caved in."

The Tide turned a 10-point game into a blowout with a series of big plays and Auburn gaffes in the third quarter.

Rolando McClain recovered Brad Lester's fumble, then Wilson rolled right and hit Nikita Stover for a 39-yard touchdown on the next play two minutes into the second half.

Burns then fumbled a snap and Terrence Cody fell on it to set up another score. Wilson converted third-down plays with passes of 27 and 15 yards.

Then, Cody, Alabama's 365-pound nose guard, came in and helped pave the way for Ingram's 1-yard touchdown plunge to make it 22-0 midway through the third quarter.

Ingram scored on a 14-yarder late in the quarter.

Alabama failed to score a touchdown in the opening quarter for the 12th consecutive Iron Bowl, but it hardly mattered this time.

Coffee made a nice cut at the line, then raced 41 yards untouched down the right sideline for a touchdown five minutes into the second quarter to give Alabama 10-0 lead.

The Tide's Bobby Greenwood then blocked Morgan Hull's 40-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the half, and Auburn wouldn't mount much of a threat after that.


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