AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, staring his own date with destiny and a third straight national championship in the eye, didn't think to throw a Hail Mary pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the odds of AJ McCarron heaving a touchdown in that situation were 2 percent. Better to give Adam Griffith a shot at splitting the uprights from 57 yards out, Saban thought. He'd seen his freshman kicker hit it from 60 yards plenty of times, and Cade Foster, Alabama's regular place-kicker, had already missed three field goals.
Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.
"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.
"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.
Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.
"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.
Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.
"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.
Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.
"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."
Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.
Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.
"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."
Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.
"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"
It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.
"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"
"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."
Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."
The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.
"I don't think I've ever been part of a sequence like that with so much on the line in that part of the game," Malzahn said, not realizing he had won the Western Division until the moment he shook Saban's hand after the game.
Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.
"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."
"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."
It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.
When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.
Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.