For Alabama, it's what could have been

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A dynasty toppled by destiny.

That's how it ended for the previously invincible Alabama Crimson Tide last Saturday, falling to those charmed Auburn Tigers who stayed alive in the SEC West thanks to not one, but two last-second miracles. Chris Davis' fateful sprint to the end zone led to AJ McCarron's unceremonious jog to the locker room, one vaulting his team to the conference title game while another was sent silently away to ponder a future absent another championship ring.

This weekend won't be easy for Nick Saban, his coaching staff and his players. Watching the SEC championship game on TV wasn't part of their plans when they began the season ranked No. 1 and stayed that way through 14 weeks. Alabama, instead, won't fulfill its reservations in Atlanta, McCarron won't make a last-ditch effort to win the Heisman Trophy and any hope of a return trip to the BCS national championship game seems all but lost.

It's still hard to fathom that Alabama's run to Pasadena, Calif., was thrown off course so quickly. One second a game-winning field goal was within reach, the next Davis was racing out of Alabama's grasp and toward history. A sea of Auburn fans flooded the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium and moments later Alabama's players exited the visitor's locker room stunned, shocked that their dreams were dashed in such an unlikely fashion.

The look in their eyes: How could it have been?

Alabama had everything lined up to make history of its own this season. The quarterback was in place, the defense was unstoppable, and the coach was pulling all the right strings.

Hurdling Texas A&M in College Station and LSU at home in Tuscaloosa wasn't easy, but the Tide found a way. McCarron, with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions, led the offense back on both occasions. C.J. Mosley, who completed a second consecutive 100-tackle season, led the defense to stops when it needed them most. And Saban, despite being without some of the key parts from previous championship teams, guided the ship with a steady hand.

With some of the top talent in college football, would Alabama have beaten No. 1-ranked Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship? Saban might think so. He said after Saturday's loss that, "I still think we have one of the best teams in the country." Most Vegas oddsmakers agree, even today having the Tide as favorites over the Seminoles in a hypothetical matchup.

Alabama athletic director Bill Battle penned a blog on the school's website this week that began, "It's hard to win 12 games!" He later wrote, "There was never a time during the game that I didn't feel confident Alabama would win -- until we lost!"

In most instances, you'd call Battle's use of exclamation marks over the top. But in this case, it was well deserved. Battle, like the rest of the program, is still reeling from the collapse, the hard fall from championship hopes to longing for a shot at redemption that's at best a year away. He had the coach. He had the team. He just didn't have fate on its side. It's unclear whether any of those components will be on his side come 2014.

As Battle would write toward the end of his essay, "We're all counting on you to show up 'loud and proud' for our next game" -- whatever that game may be. It could be the Discover Orange Bowl, the Allstate Sugar Bowl or some other well-slotted bowl game, but it won't be the BCS title game.

Auburn and Missouri are now the SEC's best hope at reaching Pasadena and the chance of an eighth straight national champion from the conference. And even so, their résumés may not be enough to unseat Florida State or Ohio State. Alabama, for its part, would have had no such problem had it survived the final seconds in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

So while Saban and the Tide may watch Saturday's title game thinking, "what if?" the rest of the SEC might be thinking the same thing on Sunday when the bowl pairings are revealed.

If only Auburn -- and seemingly destiny -- hadn't interfered.