Tide can’t close out Iron Bowl
Le'Ron McClain's white skull cap on his head said it all.
Drenched in sweat as he walked off the field, his eyes welling up, the white piece of cloth read "not this year."
For the group of Alabama seniors who had never beaten Auburn, it was "this year" once again Saturday in a 22-15 loss to the Tigers.
And for McClain, he will have to go through the rest of his life, thinking about his five years at Alabama without a victory over his state rival.
"I played my heart out," McClain said. "You saw me playing lights out, but it still came up short and that's what stinks about it."
When the Crimson Tide walked into Bryant-Denny Stadium before the game, there was a feeling that this was the game that would heed McClain's prediction.
A large group of Alabama fans were waiting in pockets across the stands of the stadium, cheering for the team as they walked in.
Injured receiver Tyrone Prothro was even dressed in his familiar No. 4 jersey.
He was seen the whole game motioning to the fans, asking them to get loud.
Before kickoff, he limped out of the tunnel that Alabama uses to take the field and delivered the game ball.
It was expected, but his appearance still gave the crowd and the team a lift.
A win would made for a storybook ending to a mediocre season, but it was not to be.
"If you win this game, there's a lot of good that can come out," Tide coach Mike Shula said. "You think back to those games earlier in the year and wonder where this football team would be at."
As with most rivalry games, passion was not a problem Saturday. Each hit was that much harder, each celebration that much more poignant.
Every week, the Tide has said the right things. The players and coaches always talk about playing hard and putting together four good quarters. They talk about balance on offense and stinginess on defense.
Yesterday, Alabama had a lot of those things and then some, but somehow could not deliver the win.
Two sacks and subsequent fumbles gave the Tigers two opportunities that they turned into two touchdowns, and suddenly Alabama was down 14-3 midway through the second quarter.
"If we do one thing right on one play, we win," running back Kenneth Darby said. "I'm not going to make any excuses. They were a good ball team. They just capitalized and took advantage of everything we did wrong."
And that was the main difference. Guts can get you so far before talent finally takes over.
Alabama gutted its way to carving up Auburn's defense to the tune of 109 yards in the first quarter. And it gutted its way to being down by just seven points near the end.
But the lack of depth kept entering the picture, while Auburn continued to pound the Tide with a deeper roster and fresher players.
"It varies from game to game," said Alabama linebacker Juwan Simpson, an Austin High graduate. "I don't think we've played a complete game in a big game.
"That's what we were really looking forward to, playing a complete game. At times we looked great today and at times we didn't look so well."
A win against Auburn could have cured so many things. Fan unrest. Negative storylines. Confidence for a young team heading into another season.
Now, Alabama's future is even more unsettled. The Tide isn't even assured of a bowl game with nine SEC teams vying for eight bowl slots with SEC tie-ins.
"Well, you kind of deal with it the way you tell your players to deal with it," Shula said. "The only way you don't get criticized is if you win football games. When you don't win that's what's going to happen."
Sounds like déjà vu all over