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Shi: Auburn-Alabama and the new Big Bang

Auburn 34, Alabama 28.

Auburn is the Big Bang and it has created something we have never seen.

“Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again,” wrote Grantland Rice about Notre Dame, and the names Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden passed into eternity. “He sent his sacrificial lambs out to slaughter the butcher,” wrote John Underwood about Miami, and so carved Howard Schnellenberger into living marble. This game deserves a better epitaph than the one I will give it. It calls for some grand pronouncement of an almost sacrilegious flair.

But it is the box score of the game that is truly heretical in its ignorance of the moment. Fourth quarter, tie game, one second left on the clock, Chris Davis, 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown. Auburn 34, Alabama 28. The score doesn’t do this game justice. It never tried, and it never will.

Stanford beat Notre Dame, but all we can talk about is the SEC and its raucous finale of Auburn-Alabama. And for once, I have no problem with that.

Even as a West Coast man, I cannot tear my eyes away from the Southland drama that exploded into being on Saturday night. It was the single most unlikely play in football unfolding at the absolute perfect moment. It remains wondrous and unknowable, some quantum shiver in nature slowly solidifying in our minds. As I write, the eyes of a thousand sportswriters still flicker desperately across the ghostly pages of history, searching for some apt comparison or even just something to describe what happened — even just words.

Now, more than ever, there are no words.

Auburn reminds us that the limitations of language are nothing new. “Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean,” an old teacher once told me. He was correct. And though we understand that sports is ultimately irrelevant to the active work of life, Saturday’s game is like any moment of true, visceral significance; we revisit it again and again because each time we try to express it we come up short.

This game will never leave us, if only because we will never understand it. History was made on Saturday night, and all history is simply conjecture of various degrees. No matter what he says in the decades to come, we won’t understand why Nick Saban ordered Alabama to attempt a delusional 57-yard field goal. We won’t understand why Stanford Stadium, of all places, erupted in cheers as Davis’ run for the ages unfolded on the screen. We won’t ever truly understand why a single football game meant so much to Auburn, or to anybody else. The answer is different for everyone, even if the outcome is the same.

We do know, however, that we appreciate the dramatic.

Put aside the fact that last season Auburn finished 3-9 and lost to Alabama by seven touchdowns. After winning three national championships in four years, Alabama was invincible.

People talk about how losses to Stanford and Arizona shattered Oregon’s aura of invincibility. The shadow of Alabama was infinitely more terrifying than that. Oregon merely ran up the score. Alabama was perpetual motion in the guise of a football team, an endlessly reloading death machine that strangled teams day in and day out.

Nick Saban called his achievement a “process,” and it seemed as though all of college football was being processed through the world’s most soul-crushing meat grinder. Every time Alabama lost a game, it was as if the world had turned upside down and decided to spin the other way for good measure.

The feeling still persists. Alabama is not gone. Saban is still one of the greatest coaches of all time. The Crimson Tide is still loaded with NFL talent across its entire roster. But that only magnifies Auburn’s glory.

On the biggest stage in the South, with the finest team of the decade coming to town, every legendary play was accompanied by an equally legendary moment. Even if we consider how well Auburn played on Saturday night, we’re never going to divorce it from its context, nor should we.

Against Stanford, Oregon blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown, something I had never seen before in-person. Even so, at the end of the day it was all for naught. Oregon will remember its crushing defeat, not its abortive comeback and certainly not that play. Oregon lost, and so the Ducks will remember the touchdown for its flukiness, not for the greatness that it nevertheless required.

Auburn slew the giant of all giants on the very last second of the game, and whether the play was fluky or not is irrelevant. Auburn actually won.

But even if we choose to focus on Auburn’s opportunism instead of Alabama’s blunder, could such a victory be bittersweet? Possibly. After Auburn beat Oregon to win the national championship in 2010, the Tiger faithful celebrated by rolling toilet paper over the trees at Toomer’s Corner. It was a tradition that Tigers had celebrated for half a century and that, it seemed, would last for centuries more. Then, an Alabama fan poisoned the trees and they died. The trees are gone now. After such a great victory, the men and women of Auburn must have been reminded of that.

Tradition died. Tradition also remakes itself.

We celebrate tradition as a way to hold on to our history, and our rituals immortalize those that came before. As the unlikeliest of all plays defeated the unlikeliest of all opponents, Auburn gained a piece of history that it will never lose.

The Four Horsemen rode once and they still ride now, long after they were gone. On Saturday, they welcomed Chris Davis to the Elysian Fields. History will remember this moment. History never dies. History will always be here. Even if we cannot explain what happened, the shadows of past greatness will linger in the air, and that is good enough.

They say that at the Big Bang, all that has ever existed was compressed into a single point in space. On Saturday, America converged on a small town in eastern Alabama, and for a moment, Jordan-Hare Stadium held a country inside its walls. As sports fans, this game is part of who we are. We are here to witness the impossible brought to life in pads, a leather ball and freshly mown grass, and on Saturday night, all the vast expanse of college football lay before us — terrifying and compelling, obvious and unknowable, transient and immortal, and all at the same time.

Winston Shi’s editor felt like a vandal defiling a work of art as he edited this column. Send Winston some much-appreciated feedback at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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