TUSCALOOSA _ No matter what may happen in the coming weeks and months, this one hurt.
Granted, losing such an intense rivalry game is never pleasant, but the University of Alabama football team was absolutely crushing Auburn on Friday afternoon. When a 20-yard field goal put the Crimson Tide ahead by 24 points midway through the second quarter, it had outgained the Tigers by a whopping 314 yards to two.
It was moving the ball at will, senior quarterback Greg McElroy had yet to miss a pass while his counterpart Cam Newton had just one completion and was in negative territory rushing.
Yet, Alabama ended up on the wrong side of the 28-27 final, with the No. 2 Tigers (12-0, 8-0 SEC) keeping their BCS Championship Game hopes alive and celebrated at Bryant-Denny Stadium while stunned Crimson Tide fans filtered out in silence.
"You have got to give Auburn's team a lot of credit for coming back in the game and doing a great job in the second half," Coach Nick Saban said.
"We just didn't finish the game today."
But a 24-point lead?
"Just can't explain it," sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower said after the 20-game home winning streak was snapped.
Although coming in No. 9 Alabama had outscored opponents 95-43 in the first quarter, it hadn't recorded a first-quarter touchdown against the Tigers since 1996.
That streak ended quickly. With the same kind of diverse play-calling that Alabama enjoyed during last year's SEC Championship victory over Florida, it needed just seven plays on the opening drive to reach the end zone on junior running back Mark Ingram's 9-yard run up the middle, and just two snaps on its subsequent possession when junior wide receiver Julio Jones took advantage of botched coverage for a 68-yard score - his longest of the season.
After Newton took back-to-back sacks (including one of Courtney Upshaw's three) the Tide struck again, going 61 yards on 10 plays with junior Darius Hanks making a 12-yard touchdown catch for what seemed a blowout that had the 101,821 stands rocking.
But then things started to turn the other way, with costly mistakes made by the most unlikely of players.
It began with Ingram, last year's Heisman Trophy winner who might soon be followed Newton. Despite having lost just one fumble during his career (to Tennessee in 2009), he stumbled at the end of a 41-yard reception only to be caught by Antoine Carter, who swatted the ball from the 19 into the end zone for a touchback.
"I was trying to keep my balance," Ingram said. "The guy came up behind me and made a great play."
Then it was junior safety Mark Barron's turn, by hesitating on a Newton fake, with Emory Blake beating him for a 36-yard touchdown that was more costly than anyone initially realized. Not only did it get Auburn on the scoreboard, but while trying to knock the ball loose Barron tore a pectoral muscle.
Alabama's offense immediately countered, driving 65 yards just before halftime, but on second-and-goal standout defensive lineman Nick Fairly finally caught McElroy for a sack, and then recovered the fumble.
Instead of being up by possibly two touchdowns more, Alabama's 24-7 halftime lead became precarious just two snaps into the second half when Newton connected with Terrell Zachery for a 70-yard touchdown after Barron got into position for both the interception and tackle only couldn't get his arm up to do either.
"I thought the difference in the game was the big plays," Saban said. "The big play on the second play of the second half, we had it defended and misplayed the ball. Explosive plays are something they do extremely well."
Auburn also made adjustments, and with Alabama focused on containing Newton got others into the mix and attacked the edges. A 20-yard carry by sophomore running back Onterio McCalebb set up another touchdown while Alabama could only manage a field goal in the second half, the result of a forced fumble on a punt return by junior linebacker Courtney Upshaw that sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick recovered.
"They saw our game plan, what we were trying to do and they mastered it, took it over and were able to capitalize on it," Hightower said.
The defense, which sacked Newton four times _ three by Upshaw to go with 10 tackles _ and yielded just 39 rushing yards to him, finally gave way early in the fourth quarter when the quarterback completed a 7-yard touchdown pass to Philip Lutzenkirchen, giving Auburn the only lead it would need.
"We did what were supposed to do the first half," junior defensive end Marcell Dareus said. "We couldn't keep it going the second half. We lost contain, lost focus, they were able to run it. There were a lot of little things that came into it. It's hard."
Things only got worse for Alabama. Hanks was sidelined by bruised ribs, Jones took a shot to the knee on a kick return, and on third-and12 at the Auburn 36 Alabama's chances vanished for good when McElroy, who had thrown for a career-high 377 passing yards, was sacked and sustained a concussion.
It was lights out for both the senior in his last home game and the Crimson Tide.
"Greg's had some amazing performances in this stadium, had some huge games," senior tight end Preston Dial said. "He was ready to play and he was having a lot of fun. I hate to see him go down."
McElroy is expected to return for Alabama's bowl game, with its eventual destination heavily influenced by Saturday's LSU at Arkansas game in Little Rock. Everything between the Capital One Bowl in Orlando and the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta remains a possibility.
But the Crimson Tide (9-3, 5-3 SEC) will still be hurting from this loss no matter where it plays.
"We left a lot of points out there," sophomore running back Trent Richardson said.