By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
TUSCALOOSA — With state bragging rights and Gene Chizik's job on the line, Auburn had every chance to upset No. 2 Alabama Saturday in Tuscaloosa.
And then came the kickoff.
The Tide scored six touchdowns by halftime, added one more in the third quarter and cruised to a 49-0 massacre to win the Iron Bowl and clinch the SEC West.
“I feel great about our seniors being able to close our their career here with a pretty memorable victory,” coach Nick Saban said. “This is a great rivalry game, and for our players to be able to win is always a big thing for our fans, our players and all of our supporters.”
With second-ranked Bama (11-1) sporting only one loss and Auburn (3-9) bumbling to nine, the state's hottest rivalry was seen as an epic mismatch long before either team took the field for its 77th rendition.
The Tide still somehow managed to exceed expectations, scoring on their first seven possessions, converting their first seven third-down attempts and keeping the Tigers from staging a single threat to put points on the board.
Even FCS Western Carolina appeared to be as much or more of a challenge for Alabama the week before than Auburn ever was on Saturday.
Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon started the scoring early with respective 2-yard touchdown runs in the first quarter before AJ McCarron took over the offensive reins, finding the end zone three times in the second quarter.
His first was a snazzy 37-yard strike to Amari Cooper one play after a 32-yard run from Lacy, while the next came on a 7-yard toss to a wide-open Kevin Norwood in the back of the end zone.
Cooper again reached paydirt less than a minute before the half, breaking loose from two defenders and scampering past the goal line on a 29-yard play.
Norwood and Cooper's six-point plays sandwiched a second score for Lacy, this time from 1 yard out.
The bruising back amassed triple-digits in just 30 minutes and concluded the contest with 131 rushing yards and the two touchdowns on 18 carries.
McCarron made the most of his only second-half appearance, capping off the Tide's first drive of the third quarter with his fourth and final score, a perfectly placed 38-yard beauty to Norwood.
The quarterback completed 15 of 21 passes for 216 yards. Cooper and Norwood both accounted for five receptions and two touchdowns, but the former edged the latter in yardage, 109-65.
Alabama's defense was every bit as masterful as its counterpart in the unit's fourth shutout of the season. Robert Lester and HaHa Clinton-Dix both had interceptions, while Nico Johnson forced a fumble that Dee Milliner managed to scoop up.
After failing to meet the team's goal of picking up at least three turnovers a game the last couple of weeks, Johnson was pretty psyched about the Tide D reaching that total on Saturday.
“I feel like when we create turnovers and everybody is flying around and hitting and knocking the ball off people, then we're having fun,” he said.
From McCarron to Lacy to Cooper to the D, Saban couldn't pick just one player who stood out more than the others.
“I think this is a great team victory, how everybody sort of contributed,” he said. “We asked everybody to play their best game today. When you make a commitment to something, it really comes from the heart, and I really thought our players did a good job of that.”
The disastrous defeat epitomized Auburn's 2012 campaign, which proved to be a far cry from the Cam Newton-led 2010 version that brought the school its second national championship.
The Tigers' lone bright spot in the latest Iron Bowl was a fumble recovery coughed up by third-string running back Kenyan Drake in garbage time.
The struggling program is all but guaranteed to have a new coach at the helm next year after finishing 0-fer in SEC play for the first time in school history. Their three wins came against inferior foes in Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State and Alabama A&M.
Lester, a Bama senior who's been around for back-to-back beatdowns, as well as Auburn's historic 28-24 Iron Bowl comeback two years ago, chose not to add any salt to his in-state rival's wounds following their season-ending loss.
“Auburn is a great team,” the defensive back said. “They're very competitive. They play extremely hard, and they did tonight. The scoreboard just happens to be in our favor.”
The Tide, meanwhile, will head to Atlanta next week for the SEC championship game against Georgia. Saban never likes to take his foot off the pedal and doesn't plan to start as his team prepares for a top-three battle that will likely determine a spot in the BCS title game.
“It's great for our team that we won the West. This is a really competitive division with a lot of really good teams," he said. "I think our focus is on trying to get our team ready to play the best game that they possibly can against Georgia who has a really good team, a lot of good players and is solid all the way through.”
Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.