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Auburn Pulls Off Implausible Comeback

Down 24 Points, Cam Newton and the Unbeaten Tigers Rally to Stun Rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — We all know who won here Friday. Now let's take stock of who lost.


Getty Images Auburn's Emory Blake catches a second-quarter touchdown pass from Cam Newton in the team's 28-27 victory over Alabama.

Texas Christian. Boise State. Small schools. No-name conferences. Chaos. And every fan who's been lusting for it.

For some time now, college football has been inching toward an apocalyptic moment: the time when a team outside the sport's traditional power structure is in position to reach the national-championship game. It seemed for sure that time had arrived Friday afternoon, as Alabama raced out to a 24-point lead over undefeated, No. 2 Auburn.

But as it turned out, the game stood instead as a testament to what teams in power conferences have to endure—and to how resilient Auburn and its controversial star quarterback Cam Newton are.

In coming back to beat archrival Alabama, 28-27, Auburn—in no particular order—proved it has a defense; cemented Mr. Newton's grip on the Heisman Trophy (so long as pay-for-play allegations regarding Mr. Newton's recruitment don't cost him his eligibility); improved to 12-0 and, most important, remained on track to reach the national-title game.

"This was a game that will certainly go down in history," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.

The Tigers, who face South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference title game next Saturday, are now a win away from reaching the Bowl Championship Series title game. Likewise, No. 1 Oregon, which played Arizona later Friday night, also was firmly in control of its future.

No. 3 TCU and No. 4 Boise State, meanwhile, may have to wait yet another year. Although South Carolina is capable of upsetting Auburn—the Gamecocks played the Tigers tough in a road loss Sept. 25—this was the best opportunity for either Oregon or Auburn to go down.

The environment at Bryant-Denny Stadium was as hostile as any in recent memory. Derisive references to the scandal surrounding Mr. Newton were everywhere. Fake dollar bills were tossed at Mr. Newton as he came off the field following the pre-game walk-through.

Even the guy operating the stadium sound system got in on the ribbing. The song "Take the Money and Run" by the Steve Miller Band blared over the stadium speakers about an hour and a half before game time. Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" also played. (Mr. Newton's father, Cecil, who is pastor of a small church in Georgia, has been at the center of the allegations. Cam Newton was unavailable for comment.)

Then things really got rough. Alabama scored touchdowns on its first three possessions, eventually leading 24-0. That Alabama was scoring at will wasn't surprising—Auburn entered the game ranked 50th in total defense—but the shock was how lost Auburn's offense looked.

The game was a test of Auburn's perseverance. Besides the animosity surrounding Mr. Newton, Auburn star defensive tackle Nick Fairley received a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for celebrating a sack in the first half. Alabama capitalized to score again.

At halftime, though, Auburn pulled itself together. The Tigers recognized that Alabama was trying to take away its inside running game, said offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, so Auburn went to the air. Mr. Newton connected with Terrell Zachary on a 70-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter, narrowing the score to 24-14. The comeback was on.

It figures that Auburn's time in the spotlight would be so difficult. Despite having been a major player in college football for decades, the Tigers have a tortured history.

Auburn has just one national title all-time—1957, which it split with Ohio State. Auburn's last great team, in 2004, won the SEC and went undefeated but didn't get invited to the national-championship game. Auburn's timing was bad: Such an exclusion would never happen today because of the respect the sport now holds for the SEC, which has produced the last four national champions.

But there may yet be a fifth, thanks to Auburn's defense and its quarterback. "Cameron Newton is physically and mentally as tough as anyone I've ever been around," Mr. Chizik said. "Period."

Write to Darren Everson at darren.everson@wsj.com

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