Alabama’s offense returned to form in the Iron Bowl as changes began to emerge

This Iron Bowl lacked the drama and lasting moments of others in the past decade, but in few of the rivalry’s previous 86 games has Alabama’s offense played out like it did on Saturday night.

The Tide trotted into the dressing room at halftime with 348 yards and 35 points, then rolled out in the second half to finish with 49 points — the fourth-highest all-time in series history. The only times Alabama scored more points against Auburn were in 1948 and 2014 with 55 and 2018 with 52.

Looking at the scoreboard, you couldn’t have realized that this was the same offense that seemed to have hit rock bottom at Ole Miss two weeks earlier.

The kickstart moment came on Saturday when Bryce Young uncorked a 52-yard heve on Jermaine Burton after an early 7-0 lead from Auburn that took the Tide to the 10-yard line. Three games later, it scored and began a streak of four possessions with one touchdown that were among the most efficient offensive football plays Alabama has played this season.

Just in time for the end of the season, of course.

Alabama still has a slim chance of making the college football playoffs — you’ll hear a lot about that in the coming week — but the likely outcome remains that it will play in either the Sugar Bowl or the Orange Bowl. Two of the core pieces of Alabama’s offense, Young and running back Jahmyr Gibbs, didn’t shake hands Saturday night when asked if they would qualify for a non-playoff bowl game.

The offense might look different for a bowl game, and it sure will look different next season — especially if there’s a new coordinator calling games from Nick Saban’s playbook. There will be a new quarterback, tight end, and left tackle, along with some possible changes to the running back, wide receiver, and elsewhere along the offensive line.

That’s the nature of college football during most offseasons, but the turnover will be especially pronounced for Alabama this winter. It will lose its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and will likely turn to the transfer portal again to refuel its historically unavailable roster externally.

“I think what we did offensively tonight was really, really good,” said Nick Saban after the win. “We always want to improve. We always want to get better. I think we want to continue to highlight the players we have in a very positive way and try to include as many players as possible. But we’ve had a really good production in the last two games and hopefully we can continue to build on that.”

Alabama’s offense ended its regular season much like it began. Back on September 3, Alabama scored on his first eight drives against Utah State to build a 55-0 lead. Young threw for five touchdowns and ran for another. Burton, who had two touchdowns, had a strong debut after moving from Georgia. Gibbs averaged more than 10 yards on his runs.

But little seemed to work the next week in Texas, then Young injured his shoulder three weeks later in Arkansas. That kept Young out of practice for about a month and disrupted offensive growth even as he returned to play Tennessee and Mississippi State.

“Tell you what, it really was an example of his courage, determination, character and commitment to the team,” Saban said. “Because he wanted to play for the team, even during the weeks when he wasn’t really able to throw much in training. For the other players on our team it might have hurt our development a bit, but he still came out and played really, really well.”

Alabama used Jase McClellan and his ground play to fight back to victory two weeks ago and presented McClellan again last week to finish off Austin Peay 34-0. Saturday’s Iron Bowl shifted the focus back to the passing game. Young finished 20 of 30 for 343 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in the fourth quarter before waving to the crowd and possibly ending the run of one of the most accomplished players in program history.

Young’s QBR, ESPN’s advanced statistic, was 97.8 out of 100 – his best game of the season. His second-highest was a 96.9 against Utah State, the bookends of a season that bogged down the center for both offense and the team as a whole.

“Actually, I was very proud of our team throughout the season,” said Saban. “Winning 10 games, going through a rough patch when Bryce got injured. Now he is healthy again, which makes us a different team.”

It showed in the Iron Bowl, but next season without Young? Alabama could be a different kind of team again.

Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @micerodak.