No. 2 Alabama found its championship form in the nick of time.
Outplayed most of the game, the Crimson Tide stayed unbeaten with a 26-21 victory Friday over Auburn, taking the lead with a nearly perfect drive that was capped by Greg McElroy's 4-yard touchdown pass to Roy Upchurch with 1:24 left.
Alabama (12-0, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) completed a second straight perfect regular season in the Iron Bowl, but did it the hard way against its bitter rival. The Tide fell behind in the opening minutes, but came out ahead to do its part to set up 1 vs. 2 showdown with top-ranked Florida in the SEC championship game.
But forget the national and league championship, the state title almost slipped away.
Auburn (7-5, 3-5) pushed the ball to the Alabama 37 on the final drive, but Chris Todd's pass to the end zone was batted down by the Tide defense.
For the second straight day, one of the three teams at the top of the BCS standings and in control of the national title race was knocked woozy, but did not fall. Much like No. 3 Texas, which held off Texas A&M 49-39 on Thanksgiving night, Alabama found out being a big favorite against an archrival sometimes doesn't matter much.
TCU and Cincinnati, the unbeaten teams behind Florida, Alabama and Texas in the BCS standings, are left to hope Florida State can pull an upset against Florida on Saturday that might open the door for them to reach the national title game.
The Tide survived a shaky effort by it's usually stellar defense and a sub-par game from Heisman Trophy contender Mark Ingram.
The SEC's leading rusher was held to 30 yards on 16 carries and was on the bench for most of the game-winning drive apparently having his left arm checked out by trainers.
McElroy and Julio Jones took over without him, aided by five runs and a 17-yard catch by freshman Trent Richardson on the 15-play, 79-yard drive that consumed more than seven minutes.
McElroy, who has been criticized at times as a weak link in an offense with a powerful running game, completed his final seven passes for 62 yards on the climactic drive after opening with an incompletion. Jones made four catches, three for first downs.
Auburn fans remained in the stands for several minutes when it was over, some seemingly stunned and others applauding a closer-than-expected game, while a sizable crimson-and-white contingent celebrated. A handful of 'Bama players later returned to the field briefly.
Until the final minutes, Auburn had supplied most of the big plays and its maligned defense largely outplayed the nation's top unit.
Auburn outgained Alabama 332-291 and, more surprisingly, dominated on the ground 151-73. McElroy was 21 of 31 for 218 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was sacked three times.
The Tigers stunned the Tide by rocketing out to a 14-0 lead in the first 9:18 when every trick seemed to work. Alabama hadn't allowed a touchdown in the previous two games.
Alabama tied it up by halftime but then Todd pump faked and hit Darvin Adams for a 72-yard touchdown on the Tigers' first drive of the second half to make it 21-14.
Alabama had three straight trips across midfield, ending with two field goals by Leigh Tiffin and Ingram's failed fourth-and-1 run. Tiffin had earlier had a 42-yard attempt fall well short, another unfamiliar sight this season for the Tide season.
That left Auburn nursing a 21-20 lead going into the fourth.
The Tigers had a solid chance to extend the lead after taking over at Alabama's 44 following yet another defensive stand. But the Tide defense tackled Ben Tate for a 7-yard loss and then buried Todd for another 10-yard loss.
That set the stage for McElroy, who must have won over even his most ardent doubters with the poise and precision he displayed as the clock wound down.