AUBURN, Ala. -- Pushed to the limit and outplayed most of the game, No. 2 Alabama found its championship form in the nick of time.
The Tide stayed perfect with an imperfect 26-21 victory Friday over Auburn, taking the lead with a tenacious drive that was capped by Greg McElroy's 4-yard touchdown pass to Roy Upchurch with 1:24 left.
The Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0) didn't get much help from Heisman Trophy candidate Mark Ingram but still completed a second straight perfect regular season in the Iron Bowl.
Alabama did it the hard way, falling behind in the opening minutes, but ultimately did its part to set up a 1 vs. 2 showdown with top-ranked Florida in the SEC championship game.
Forget the national and conference championships, the state title almost slipped away.
"The strong do survive but the strong do get their [butts] kicked," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "That was my message to the team."
Auburn (7-5, 3-5) pushed the ball to the Alabama 37 on the final drive, wasting lots of time and gaining not nearly enough yards. Chris Todd's final pass to the end zone was batted down by Rolando McClain.
For the second straight day, one of the three teams at the top of the BCS standings as knocked woozy but did not fall. Much like No. 3 Texas, which held off Texas A&M 49-39 on Thanksgiving night, Alabama found out being a big favorite against an archrival sometimes doesn't matter much.
TCU and Cincinnati, the unbeaten teams behind Florida, Alabama and Texas in the national title race, are left to hope Florida State can pull an upset against Florida on Saturday that might open the door for them to reach the national title game.
Alabama needs one more win to get to Pasadena, Calif., for the Jan. 7 BCS title game.
Needing one more score to take the lead against Auburn, the Tide called a timeout and switched out of a running play and went to a senior back without a touchdown catch in his career.
"I was yelling at everybody, 'Put me in! Put me in!'" Upchurch said. "No one was hearing me. I just had the feeling that I'd be wide open in the end zone. They changed the play.
"Patience pays off and today I've got a story to tell," he said.
The Tide survived a shaky effort by its usually stellar defense and a sub-par game by Ingram.
The SEC's leading rusher was held to 30 yards on 16 carries and was on the bench for most of the game-winning drive. Saban said he believed Ingram had a bruised hip.
"Something like that," Ingram said. "I'll be all right."
McElroy, who has been criticized at times as a weak link in an offense with a powerful running game, completed his final seven passes for 62 yards. Jones made four catches on the winning drive, three for first downs.
"We didn't play a great game today," Saban said. "It's a great win. I've never been prouder of them."
Auburn fans remained in the stands for several minutes when it was over, some seemingly stunned and others applauding a closer-than-expected game, while a sizable crimson-and-white contingent celebrated. A handful of Bama players later returned to the field briefly.
Until the final minutes, Auburn had supplied most of the big plays and its maligned defense largely outplayed the nation's top unit.
"You have to love games like this," Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes said. "It comes down to the end and you find out who the man and who the boy is."
Auburn outgained Alabama 332-291 and dominated on the ground 151-73. McElroy was 21-of-31 for 218 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was sacked three times.
The Tigers were shellacked 36-0 by Bama last season to have a six-year Iron Bowl winning streak snapped.
"I just told them that we're not walking out of here with heads down," first-year coach Gene Chizik said. "We're a family. We're a family when we win. We're a family when we lose.
"Everybody in that locker room that played did what we asked them to do. They fought for 60 minutes in that game. I'm not disappointed with anybody on our team. Nobody," he said.
The Tigers stunned the Tide by rocketing out to a 14-0 lead in the first 9:18. Alabama hadn't allowed a touchdown in two games.
Receiver Terrell Zachery raced 67 yards for a touchdown on an end around on Auburn's opening drive. It was the longest play Alabama's defense had given up all season by 15 yards.
Then the Tigers recovered an onside kick to set up another score.
Alabama regained its footing. Richardson scored on a 2-yard plunge and McElroy hit tight end Colin Peek for a 33-yard touchdown that tied it at 14 at the half.
"You have to pick your medicine," Ingram said. "If you want to stop one thing, we have to execute other aspects.
"Coming on the road, down 14-0 in a hostile environment, we weathered the storm," he said.
On the first drive of the second half, Todd pump-faked and hit Darvin Adams for a 72-yard touchdown to make it 21-14.
Alabama had three straight trips across midfield, ending with two field goals by Leigh Tiffin and Ingram's failed fourth-and-1 run.
Auburn was left nursing a 21-20 lead going into the fourth.
"We didn't play with a lot of passion, and I don't understand that," Saban said.
That changed late.
The Tigers had a solid chance to extend the lead after taking over at Alabama's 44 following yet another defensive stand. But the Tide defense made its best stand of the day, tackling Ben Tate for a 7-yard loss and sacking Todd.
That set the stage for McElroy, who must have won over even his most ardent doubters with the poise and precision he displayed as the clock wound down.
Afterward, Saban headed off the field with his right index finger raised toward Bama fans. A fan in an Auburn orange shirt said, "Undefeated, right?"
Saban tilted his head, expressionless, and walked into the tunnel, undefeated again.
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