TUSCALOOSA _ There was still a lot of time left on the clock when the University of Alabama got the football at its own 21-yard line, down by a point. It was unfamiliar territory for the Crimson Tide, but not because Friday's game was at Jordan-Hare Stadium, rather it had hardly trailed all season, especially in the fourth quarter.
Fifteen plays, 79 yards and seven minutes and three seconds later, senior running back Roy Upchurch was holding up the football in the end zone as Greg McElroy and the rest of the offensive players raced to him in celebration. The junior quarterback had completed 7-of-8 passes on what's being called "The Drive," successfully navigating probably the most important possession of the season thus far.
"As you see, he's a cool customer when the pressure was on against Auburn," senior tight end Colin Peek said.
Consequently, not only did Alabama pull off the 26-21 road victory against rival Auburn, the Crimson Tide now knows it can do that - make a key drive to win a game.
"It has to help the players' confidence and believing in themselves, especially in the situation they were in," Coach Nick Saban said. "I know it can't hurt.
"I just hope that everyone understands when you don't play your best and you still have success, you still have to have a willingness to learn and grow from the mistakes that you made. Hopefully our team will not only gain confidence from the way they came back and won the game, but also will gain knowledge from some of the things we didn't do well in the game so we can continue to improve."
Ironically, or maybe thankfully, the No. 2 Tide pulled it off one week before its highly-anticipated rematch with No. 1 Florida in the SEC Championship Game.
The same Gators essentially did that very thing to the Tide last year, with quarterback Tim Tebow leading an 11-play, 62-yard drive to give Florida the fourth-quarter lead, and when Alabama didn't have an answer added a 65-yard drive to complete the 31-20 victory.
"We always pride ourselves on dominating the fourth quarter," junior linebacker Rolando McClain said. "We didn't dominate the fourth quarter last year when we played Florida and consequently they won the game. And I guess this whole offseason we prided ourselves on the fourth quarter, the fourth quarter program. Everybody just wanted to finish.
"We obviously want everyone to finish, but I think what changed in the fourth quarter was guys … we got too caught up in the moment. Coach said if you can do what makes a great player is somebody who is capable of doing what he's been doing even when things get tough, and I think our guys got caught up in the pressure and they wanted to be the hero and make the extra effort play instead of just doing what we had to do and doing what our job was and just let our defense take care of itself."
Perhaps it was a lesson that the Tide first had to learn being that Alabama had finished 7-6 and 6-7 the two previous years, fitting into the old sports adage that usually a team first has to get there before it can win it.
So regarding the biggest question facing the team heading into this season, "Can Alabama finish?" has at least a partial answer.
"So it was important for us as an offense, because most times people will sit back and say, 'Ok, if our offense is put in charge of winning that, shoot, we're going to be out of luck,'" McElroy said. "But it was nice for all of us to kind of be able to put together a drive and give them a memorable moment. The fact that everybody in the huddle seemed very confident and seemed very willing, and I think everybody felt strongly that they were going to do exactly what we did and take it right down and score.
"I think that was definitely a positive for us on offense and obviously going into a great defensive matchup. This upcoming week against Florida, we're really going to have to have a good week after having, putting that long and critical drive together, I think that should allow us to go a long way."
Maybe 79 yards again. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. Maybe Florida will get that chance again. Maybe Tebow will fall short against the school he didn't choose in recruiting, or a Heisman Trophy will be won. Maybe McElroy will suffer his first loss as a starting quarterback at the high school or collegiate level or lead the Tice to the BCS Championship Game.
Either way, the offense's chances of pulling off a clutch victory appear to be better than a week ago, after a year of dwelling about last year's loss.
"Right now, they're the defending SEC champs," McElroy said. "We're the defending runner-up. Who wouldn't be excited? This is why you sign up at Alabama. You don't come here to win the Davey O'Brien Award. You don't come here to play in front of a big crowd. You come here to win championships. You come where to win games. That's why they recruited me and that's why I'm here, because that's the tradition that's established here and that's what I want to be a part of.
"We're looking forward to obviously building our own legacy. We're twelve games in on our own storyline and our own chapter in our Alabama legacy, in our Alabama novel, I guess, for lack of a better term. It's going to be a good game. It's going to be competitive. In order to be considered the best team in the SEC you have to beat the defending champion. That's what is in front of us right now. We're going to have to come ready to play in order to do that."
1-10 UA 21: Richardson rush over right guard for 7 yards to the UA28 (Stevens).
2-3 UA 28: McElroy middle pass incomplete to Hanks (Ricks).
3-3 UA 28: McElroy middle pass complete to Jones for 9 yards to the UA37 (McFadden).
1-10 UA 37: McElroy sacked for loss of 4 yards to the UA33 (Coleman).
2-14 UA 33: McElroy right flat pass complete to Ingram for 9 yards to the UA42 (Stevens; Fairley).
3-5 UA 42: McElroy middle pass complete to Jones for 6 yards to the UA48 (McFadden).
1-10 UA 48: Richardson rush up middle for 2 yards to the 50 (Bell; Clayton).
2-8 UA 50: McElroy LSL pass complete to Jones for 11 yards to the AU39 (Thorpe).
1-10 AU 39: Richardson rush over left end for 4 yards to the AU35, out-of-bounds (Thorpe).
2-6 AU 35: McElroy middle pass complete to Jones for 7 yards to the AU28 (Thorpe).
1-10 AU 28: Ingram rush up middle for 1 yard to the AU27 (Fairley).
2-9 AU 27: McElroy right flat pass complete to Richardson for 17 yards to the AU10 (Bates).
1-10 AU 11: Richardson rush up middle for 4 yards to the AU7 (Evans).
Timeout Auburn, clock 01:34.
2-6 AU 07: Richardson rush over left guard for 3 yards to the AU4 (Washington; Carter).
Timeout Auburn, clock 01:29.
Timeout Alabama, clock 01:29.
3-3 AU 04: McElroy right flat pass complete to Roy Upchurch for 4 yards, touchdown, 01:24.