AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Trent Richardson and No. 2 Alabama have convinced Nick Saban that they’re worthy of competing for college football’s top prize.
They’ll have to wait a while before for the final decision is rendered.
Richardson rushed for a career-high 203 yards and AJ McCarron threw three first-half touchdown passes to lift Alabama to a 42-14 victory over rival Auburn on Saturday in what amounted to a statement game.
Let the lobbying begin. Saban said he thinks the Tide is one of the nation’s best two teams, Richardson’s the top player and ‘Bama deserves a second shot at LSU.
"This team lost one game in overtime to a very, very good team who’s No. 1 right now," the Tide coach said. "And we lost in overtime. Everybody’s got to make their choices and decisions about that.
"But I think we’ve got a great football team and a great bunch of young men who have done a wonderful job and played some really dominant football on both sides of the ball. I think they deserve an opportunity, the best opportunity that’s out there for them."
The Tide (11-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) has a week before finding out if its resume is good enough to secure a shot at a second national title in three years. No. 5 Oklahoma State, fourth in the BCS standings, and No. 1 LSU have big games remaining against No. 12 Oklahoma and No. 13 Georgia, respectively.
"That’s out of our hands but I think we’ve proven we should be there without a doubt," said Alabama tight end Brad Smelley, who had six catches for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Richardson ran 27 times and caught a 5-yard touchdown pass in his final chance to impress Heisman voters. He had runs of 35 and 57 yards to set up second-half scores.
"To me, Trent’s the best football player in the country," Saban said.
The thousands of ‘Bama faithful in the stands seemed to agree.
Fans began chanting first "Heisman" and then "LSU" in the fourth, with a sizable contingent wearing crimson and white remaining in the stands afterward clamoring for a rematch. By then, there wasn’t all that much orange and blue left.
The Tide fell to LSU 9-6 in an overtime game that ‘Bama fans at least feel didn’t settle the matter of which one is better.
Richardson said he’d already gotten a call from LSU star Russell Shepard saying "See you in New Orleans" for the title game.
Even if the national picture remains fuzzy, it’s pretty clear which is the best team in the state.
In the end, the win might have given the Tide enough style points to hold onto No. 2 in the BCS rankings whatever happens next week.
"We knew coming in that, hey, if you want to be in the national championship again — we deserve to be in it — we had to take care of business," McCarron said. "And that’s what we did."
The Tide dominated statistically but didn’t put Auburn (7-5, 4-4) away until Dee Milliner’s 35-yard interception return early in the fourth quarter. Alabama entered the quarter with a 309-44 advantage in total yards but also gave up touchdowns on a fumble recovery and a kick return.
McCarron completed 18 of 23 passes for 184 yards but only attempted five second-half passes. Richardson handled the rest. He gained 142 yards on 13 carries in the second half against a defense ranked 98th nationally against the run.
"Any time you’ve got No. 3 in your backfield, a team’s going to challenge you," McCarron said.
The result was more than enough to end Auburn’s streak of 14 straight wins at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"I’ve got a locker room full of guys right now and coaches that are hurting and a lot of fans that are hurting as well," Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. "So this is a tough day.
"We wanted to keep the game close in the fourth quarter and have a chance to win the game. We got to the fourth quarter and felt like we were somewhere in that ballpark, and the fourth quarter got away from us. We kind of self-destructed."
The Tigers’ biggest offensive weapons were mostly nonfactors. Tailback Mike Dyer, the SEC’s No. 2 rusher, had three carries at the half and finished with 13 for 48 yards.
Clint Moseley completed 11 of 18 passes for a paltry 62 yards and the pick-6. Freshman backup Kiehl Frazier played much of the game but didn’t complete either of his two pass attempts.
"It was the best defense we’ve played against this year," Moseley said. "I feel pretty confident saying that."
The Tigers did threaten an offensive touchdown in the fourth but stalled on downs after getting it to the 5. Then Richardson scampered down the left sideline and sprinted to the other side of the field for the 57-yarder.
Auburn managed to hang around for three quarters. Then Milliner intercepted a badly overthrown pass by Moseley, who has now had three passes returned for TDs in Auburn’s three biggest games against LSU, Georgia and Bama.
All those were blowouts but Chizik said his team wasn’t having flashbacks.
"It wasn’t here we go again," he said. "It was just let’s keep fighting and let’s keep playing and let’s get this thing in the fourth quarter and keep it close enough where we could win it."
The two-point play made it 35-14, and Auburn couldn’t come close to a second straight huge Iron Bowl comeback.
Like last season, Alabama led 24-7 at the half. This time the Tigers didn’t have Cam Newton pulling the trigger on a comeback en route to a Heisman and a national title.
Auburn struck instantly in the second half. Onterio McCalebb returned the opening kick 83 yards for a touchdown, the Tigers’ first score on a kick return in Iron Bowl history.
The Tigers then held Alabama to a field goal and converted a fourth-and-1 near midfield but couldn’t sustain the momentum change.
Auburn followed it up with a fumbled pitch for a 10-yard loss, a penalty and a lateral to Frazier, who badly overthrew a receiver deep.
Alabama outgained the Tigers 397-140 and held Auburn to 3 of 15 on third downs.
"Our goal today was to play our best football game," Saban said. "We went out and played the best we could play. I’m satisfied with what our players did from that standpoint."