What If…Tank Bigsby stays inbounds


(This is Part One of a series centered on “What If”s from the 2021 College Football season.)

It really is cliche, but football truly is a game of inches.
Think about how easily one decision – whether it be a play or a penalty – can alter a game. One false start is the difference between a game winning 45 yard field goal and a game losing 50 yard miss. One dropped touchdown that is held onto could completely alter the fates of two teams. It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s true. Every play could have a Butterfly Effect. So I wanted to take a look at some of the major events from the 2021 season and how easily a different outcome might have affected the landscape of college football.
First up, let’s look at how things are different if Tank Bigsby stayed inbounds against Alabama.
There’s no need to rehash the Iron Bowl in too much detail, as most readers of this here website are college football savvy enough to remember the game. But for those who need a refresher, here is the Cliff Notes version:
In one of the most shocking developments of the season, Auburn was leading Alabama 10-3 late in the fourth quarter. As Auburn attempted to run the clock out in the final moments of the contest, Auburn running back Tank Bigsby was driven out of bounds on a third down run, giving an Alabama offense that had no timeouts an extra 40 seconds to try to make a comeback. Of course, we know that they did, cementing Bryce Young’s Heisman campaign and leading the Tide to a 24-22 victory in four overtimes. The rest, as they say, is history.
But what if it wasn’t? What if Bigsby goes down inbounds, essentially clinching Auburn’s victory? How different would each team look heading into 2022?
From Alabama’s perspective: Barring a miracle the likes of the Kick Six, the Crimson Tide was going to lose if Bigsby stays inbounds. Alabama got the ball with 53 seconds left on their own 3-yard line when that infamous drive began, so Bigsby was forced out with about a minute to play. Subtract 40 seconds from that and Auburn is running a fourth down play with about 20 seconds to go. Again, stranger things have happened, but for all intents and purposes, the game was over.
That outcome would leave us with a two-loss Alabama and a very interesting college football debate. Alabama had clinched the SEC West prior to that game, so their match-up with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game was going to happen regardless of the outcome of the Iron Bowl. Assuming that outcome of that game doesn’t change, you have a two-loss Alabama as the SEC Champs. Would that team have gotten into the CFP over a one-loss Notre Dame (because Georgia, Michigan and Cincinnati are still in) that has been smoked multiple times in recent years, including the year prior by Bama? I tend to think so, despite ND’s only loss being to a playoff team. (By the way, if you want to see a human head explode, lock me in a room where the national media is debating a one-loss Notre Dame and a two-loss Alabama getting the fourth and final CFP spot. That’ll do it.)
Beyond how the team finishes, what about Alabama – and college football’s – best player. Does Bryce Young win the Heisman without that drive, his signature moment? If not, he is a quarterback with great numbers for a team potentially outside the CFP. That sounds a lot like CJ Stroud from Ohio St., who probably had better numbers. Young would still be a conference champion, and a thorough domination of Georgia is a nice “Heisman moment”. So Young probably still wins the Heisman…but it’s close.
So while it is possible Alabama’s season could have looked very different, the reality is, it could also look a lot like it did. Theoretically, they could have been the #4 team in the playoff instead of #1, likely playing a #1 Michigan (because the committee clearly didn’t want Georgia vs. Alabama as a semifinal). No matter how you slice it, Georgia and Alabama were head and shoulders better than Michigan and Cincinnati, so they were likely on a collision course to the Title Game.
The real interesting question is…how does that game change the perception of Auburn?
From Auburn’s perspective: Right now, the Tigers are a bit of a mess. Bryan Harsin is arguably on the hottest seat in all of college football, prognosticators are picking them to finish last in the SEC West, assistant coaches are leaving, so are players. It’s not a good scene.
But if Tank stays inbounds? It’s likely the perception of Auburn football changes.
Now, as it is, Auburn was a bowl team, so the game didn’t make or break their season. But if they win the Iron Bowl, instead of a middling 6-6, they are 7-5 with a win over Alabama. That looks far more appealing to a bowl. At that point, they are playing with house money. Worst case scenario, they are 7-6, thought along the same lines of Mississippi St. or maybe even LSU, in the SEC hierarchy. But if they play a team other than Houston, maybe they win, finish the season 8-5 and are a team on the upswing. That sure looks better than the 6-7 they ended up with.
Then there’s Harsin. He would be 1-0 against Nick Saban. Think about the God-like status he would have in Auburn, Alabama based on that fact. One has to believe all these rumors about his unhappiness in The Grove stays beneath the surface. Sure, maybe Nix still transfers, but he is probably viewed as an arrogant malcontent rather than a disgruntled prodigal son.
And what about Bigsby? Right now, he is thought of as a good running back who made a costly mistake. The best player on a bad team. Some people may even think Jarquez Hunter deserves to start over him. But if he stays inbounds? Then he is likely thought of along the same lines of Bijan Robinson and TreVeyon Henderson as a top tier running back and darkhorse Heisman candidate.
This may feel like an attack on Bigsby. It shouldn’t. If I am being honest, I like him as much as any running back (including Robinson and Henderson) in college football. I think him and Hunter are the top tandem in football. He’s still all those things that he may have been perceived as had he just, you know, did the thing.

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