Despite Friday's 28-27 loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the University of Alabama football team still appears destined for a bowl game played Jan. 1 or later.
With Auburn and South Carolina set to place the final pieces of the conference's postseason puzzle when they meet in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday, the Crimson Tide is likely down to three possibilities: the Cotton Bowl in Dallas (Jan. 7), the Outback Bowl in Tampa (Jan. 1), or the Capital One Bowl in Orlando (Jan. 1) could decide that the Alabama fan base is too good to pass up.
Here's the exact wording from the SEC on how bowl slots are selected, followed by a brief explanation:
The winner of the SEC Championship Game will automatically participate in the Bowl Championship Series comprised of the Sugar, Rose, Orange and Fiesta Bowls.
If Auburn beats South Carolina it will play for the national championship. The president of the Sugar Bowl is already on the record as saying should that happen Arkansas will receive an invitation for the Sugar Bowl.
If South Carolina wins, it will receive the SEC's automatic bid, with one-loss Auburn almost certainly landing a second BCS invite for the conference.
The Capital One Bowl has the second selection, making its pick following the BCS selections. The bowl must select the team with the next best overall record or a team that is within one win of the team with the next best overall record.
LSU is the team with the next best overall record (10-2), but it played in Orlando last year against Penn State. Whether that's enough to go with Alabama remains to be seen, but the conference is usually involved in the selection process and prefers as little deviation from the standings as possible.
The other option is Arkansas, should it not land a BCS spot.
The AT&T Cotton and the Outback Bowls share the third and fourth selections from the SEC. The Cotton Bowl has the first preference of teams from the Western Division and the Outback Bowl has first preference of teams from the Eastern Division. The Cotton or Outback Bowl can select teams outside of its divisional preference, but must not select them before the opposite bowl selects from its divisional preference.
Both would like Alabama if given the opportunity. A trickle-down scenario that could have the Crimson Tide in Tampa is South Carolina beats Auburn, Arkansas to the Capital One Bowl and LSU in the Cotton Bowl.
Probably the only way Alabama falls to the Chick-fil-A Bowl would be if the SEC doesn't land a second team in the BCS bowls.
The official announcement of the bowl pairings will be next week.
On to the game awards:
Players of the game: Junior receiver Julio Jones made 10 receptions for 199 yards and one touchdown, junior linebacker Courtney Upshaw had 10 tackles, three sacks and forced two fumbles, and senior quarterback Greg McElroy had a career-high 377 passing yards and broke his own school record for consecutive completions.
Play of the game: Take your choice among the mistakes, but Auburn's 70-yard touchdown pass, which under normal circumstances probably would have been an interception, gave the Tigers the momentum at the start of the second half.
Hit of the game: Although sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick made the initial hit, Upshaw's crushing blow on punt-returner Quindarius Carr knocked the ball loose and gave Alabama an opportunity to regain the momentum.
Stat of the game: When it pulled ahead 24-0, Alabama had outgained Auburn 314-2. However, the Crimson Tide managed just 34 total offensive yards in the third quarter and 33 in the fourth.
Did you notice? Despite having converted 53.3 percent of its third-down opportunities, Auburn didn't notch a first down until the second quarter when Alabama already had 11. The Tigers converted 3-of-8 third downs in the first half, but were 1-for-5 in the second half.
Here are 10 other notable things from Friday's game:
Missed opportunities: Fans looking for one specific thing to point to regarding the loss will be disappointed because the breakdown was pretty much team-wide. Offensively, if Alabama didn't have to settle for two field goals, didn't fumble in the red zone near the end of the first half, or junior running back Mark Ingram didn't have his second career lost fumble, and the Crimson Tide had scored more points on any of those four possessions it probably would have won.
Stopping Cam Newton: Coming in the Auburn quarterback was averaging 117.9 rushing yards (307.9 as a team) and was the only player in the country with five 170-yard performances this season. Alabama focused on stopping him on the ground, where it was hugely successful, and took its chances in the air. Newton completed 13 of 20 passes for 216 yards (70 on one play) and while he struggled on third downs converted two big fourth-down opportunities. Overall, the Tigers averaged just 2.6 yards per carry while Alabama tallied four sacks, nine tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles.
Mark Barron's injury: The junior safety got beat on a 19-yard slant, but tore a right pectoral muscle on the 36-yard touchdown when he hesitated after Newton faked a run. With Emory Blake bobbling the reception Barron tried to knock the ball loose, only to sustain the injury as the two fell. Considering he's essentially the captain of the secondary and the position's depth was all but wiped out during the offseason, coaches decided to roll the dice and keep him in the game. On the second snap of the second half he overran the deep pass to Terrell Zachery, and with little arm strength couldn't make the play, resulting in the 70-yard touchdown. Surprisingly, Auburn didn't throw in his direction again.
The receiving corps: Alabama went after cornerback Neiko Thorpe in the first half, with Auburn's other cornerback 5-foot-9 Desmond Washington, but the real key was having time to hit Jones in man coverage. The Tigers cheated the safety to help in the second half, but with linemen Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc returning after serving fighting suspensions during the first half they had a much better pass-rush and blitzed more. Jones' 122 yards after the catch in the first half were more than any Alabama player totaled in a game this season, and he unofficially finished with 135 while the Tide had a season-high 245. Jones appeared to aggravate his hand injury midway through the first quarter and he sustained the bruised knee on a low hit by Demetruce McNeal during the final kick return. Junior Darius Hanks sustained his bruised ribs on the play he got waffled while running a crossing route early in the second half.
Explosive plays: Alabama had five, three by Jones, but none by the running game. As a reminder, Coach Nick Saban defines a big gain as a run of 16 yards or more or a pass of 21 yards or more, and an explosive play a run of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more. Auburn had seven explosive plays, but just three big plays _ fewer than Alabama gave up to Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU or Mississippi State.
Who was thrown at? Three of Auburn's four biggest passing plays came against Barron, the other being a 20-yard gain when a tight end split the zone. The only other player who gave up more than one reception in coverage was junior DeQuan Menzie when a 13-yard gain beat a blitz and the other he stopped for no gain. The only reception caught with freshman DeMarcus Milliner in coverage was the 9-yard sideline catch on fourth down to set up the final touchdown. Incidentally, Auburn went after strongside linebackers Chavis Williams and Alex Watkins on its third touchdown drive, but hit the other edge on final scoring possession.
McElroy's concussion: With blitzing cornerback T'Sharvan Bell quickly getting around the corner on redshirt freshman tackle D.J. Fluker, the quarterback didn't have a chance and basically got his head thrown into the ground. It was a clean hit and Bell effectively used his leverage to get McElroy down. However, it was the third nasty shot he took on that drive. On the play he stepped up and got the pass off at the last moment to sophomore running back Trent Richardson for a 9-yard gain, McElroy took a blow to the neck that probably should have drawn in a penalty. A few plays later on the quarterback sneak linebacker Josh Bynes delivered a head shot and then bent McElroy's neck and back both backward.
The rest of McElroy's day: McElroy completed his first 12 passes (the first miss was one he threw away and the second was Richardson's drop near the goal-line) and the 335 passing yards at halftime were a career best. On the red-zone fumble defensive lineman Nick Fairley cleanly beat redshirt freshman guard Anthony Steen, who was filling in for injured Barrett Jones (ankle), off the line for the sack and then made the recovery. McElroy had a much tougher time in the second half, with his longest completion a 15-yard sideline pass to Jones, and despite being 3-for-5 on third downs didn't convert any for a first down. As for redshirt freshman A.J. McCarron, he was pressured on first down, made a bad decision on second down (Marquis Maze was open), his pass was dropped on third down and threw short of the first down on the final play.
The running game: One has to wonder if something was wrong with Ingram because he had trouble holding on to the ball and had just 10 carries and four receptions, while Richardson (knee) didn't appear to be running with the most confidence. Only two of Ingram's carries were between the tackles, while Richardson had five for just 4 yards, and both running backs had some problems keeping their footing. Alabama ran four plays out of the wildcat, with gains of 7 and 12 yards on a reverse and end-around, and two carries for a yard.
Penalties: Of Alabama's seven penalties, four were for substitution infractions while trying to counter Auburn's hurry-up offense _ although on one the officials didn't give the defense time to set. On another Alabama was called not for having just 10 men on the field, but Will Lowery racing back on too late. Sophomore guard Chance Warmack's false start nullified a play when Auburn would have been called for pass interference in the end zone. On special teams Jonathan Atchison was flagged for being offside on a kickoff and Menzie for a block to the back. The final penalty was an illegal shift. Fairley being called for excessive celebration was from his being closely watched due to past transgressions. The pass Kirkpatrick tipped but may have been caught along the sideline should have been reviewed.