The Comeback Kids


Photo by Pete Pajor, Photo Illustration by Sloane Arogeti

Sean Landry

Blake Sims was floundering. All the doubts about the fifth-year senior were coming home to roost after three interceptions in a little over half of the Iron Bowl. Backup quarterback Jake Coker, favored in the summer for the starting job that now belonged to Sims, was warming up on the sideline, and Auburn held a 26-21 advantage with with 14:10 left in the third and seven more points soon to come. 

After so many games as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, after being so dependable for the entire season, after leading several desperate drives to bring his team to victory, Alabama’s quarterback was failing his team.

“Blake didn’t really seem to be having his best stuff,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I talked to him about he needs to respond and do a little better. We didn’t really think about making a change, but if things kept going the way they were, we probably would have given Jake a chance. Blake has made a lot of plays for us and I have a lot of confidence in Blake. I really wasn’t anxious to pull the plug on him. I wanted to give him every opportunity, as a senior and a leader on this team, to bring this team back.”

From that point on, Sims was unbeatable, going 10-12 for 168 passing yards and three passing touchdowns, rushing for 23 yards and another score. Sims lead 5 consecutive touchdown drives to end the game, leading No. 1 Alabama to a 55-44 comeback victory over No. 15 Auburn in the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in the rivalry’s 121-year history.

“When Blake is Blake and he’s just a calm guy who’s out there taking what the defense gives and making good decisions, he gets in a comfort zone,” Saban said. “Sometimes, when it’s a big game, he starts to put a lot of pressure on himself and gets a little anxious, and I don’t think he really processes and makes as good decisions when he gets like that. But when he plays with his instincts and executes our offense and goes through his reads the way he’s supposed to, with confidence, he plays extremely well. I think in the second half he kind of got that way.”

Since he secured the starting position, Sims has been a revelation for Alabama. In his first season as a starter, he needs just 75 yards to break AJ McCarron’s single-season passing yardage record. His season-long quarterback rating is the second best in the nation, behind Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota. Before the Iron Bowl, Sims had thrown only four interceptions and his 9.1 yards per attempt ranks fourth in the nation.

While Sims has been an unexpected success story after four years of languishing low in the depth chart, Amari Cooper’s junior season has been just another order of business for one of the most accomplished receivers in Alabama history.

Cooper put in yet another record performance, breaking the Alabama record for career receptions with his 195th reception on his first of the game. The record now stands at 207. Cooper also equalled his own record for yards in a single game. The Biletnikoff finalist finished with 224 yards and three touchdowns on 13 receptions. Cooper’s performance helped kickstart the Alabama comeback, with Sims finding Cooper on the first play of one of those scoring drives for a 75-yard touchdown pass to cut Auburn’s lead to two.

“Coop has been great for us all year,” Saban said. “He certainly had a great game today. The guy played through a lot of injuries today. He was really kind of hurt, and he did a great job competing out there. He had 13 catches for [224] yards and made some extremely big plays in the game.”

Whether this season or next, Cooper will leave Alabama with nearly every receiving record in the books. Over three Iron Bowls, Cooper has racked up 511 yards against Auburn, the most by any receiver at either school. His 224 yards on Saturday night was another series record, as is his career mark of 22.9 yards per catch against Auburn and his 13 catches. With his 75-yard touchdown catch, he owns the two longest touchdown plays in series history. This December, Cooper could become the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard in 1991.

“Just positive thoughts, working really hard,” Cooper said of his season. “I have to give a lot of credit to Coach [Lane] Kiffin. He’s a great offensive coordinator. He draws up a lot of plays to put his playmakers in position to make plays.”