It was going to take a lot more than Nick Saban's absence due to a positive coronavirus test for top-ranked Alabama to lose this season's Iron Bowl.
With college football's premier coach watching from his Tuscaloosa residence, the Crimson Tide used five Mac Jones touchdown passes to rout No. 22 Auburn 42-13 before a socially distanced crowd of 19,424 Saturday afternoon at Bryant-Denny Stadium. DeVonta Smith caught two of the scoring tosses from Jones, including a 58-yarder at the 9:08 mark of the third quarter that made it 28-6 and extinguished the already thin hopes of Tigers eighth-year coach Gus Malzahn of squaring his Iron Bowl record at 4-4.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, a former head coach at Washington and Southern California, filled in for Saban and led the Tide to their most resounding Iron Bowl win since a 49-0 blanking in 2012 that served as the abrupt end of Auburn's Gene Chizik era.
"Obviously not having Coach Saban is difficult, and he obviously did a great job of preparing all of us for a situation like this to happen," Jones said. "It was clear that we were prepared for this type of situation. We all wanted Coach Saban to be out there, because, for me, talking to him always keeps me calm.
"At the same time, Sark did a really good job. It's not easy to go in there calling plays and managing a rivalry game, but he obviously did a great job. Before the game our energy seemed good, so everything seemed decently normal."
Jones completed 18 of 26 passes for 302 yards and the five scores to bolster his already stout Heisman Trophy candidacy. Smith tallied seven catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns, while running Najee Harris complemented Alabama's aerial attack with 11 rushes for 96 yards and a 39-yard touchdown with 4:28 left in the third quarter that continued the onslaught at 35-6.
Alabama improved to 8-0 while dumping Auburn to 5-3.
A year after Auburn captured a 48-45 thriller inside Jordan-Hare Stadium that denied Alabama from reaching the College Football Playoff for a sixth consecutive occasion, the vastly improved Tide defense limited Auburn to a pair of Anders Carlson field goals until a Bo Nix 1-yard quarterback keeper with 4:39 remaining. Alabama had gone 12 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown until Nix's run.
"I think everybody really stepped up and did a good job today," Saban said. "The energy was good. The offense made a lot of explosive plays out there, and the defense really played well. This was an unusual circumstance for me to be in, having to watch it from afar.
"Our coaching staff did a marvelous job today. We had a good plan, and they stayed with the plan and executed the plan. Sark did a nice job of managing things."
Alabama's first possession of the game started at Auburn's 34-yard line, but the Tide backtracked 5 yards and had to punt. The Tigers were not nearly as stingy on Alabama's second drive, as Smith blew past safety Smoke Monday and was all alone for a 66-yard touchdown reception and the game's first points at the 5:10 mark of the opening quarter.
"We double moved, and it worked," Jones said. "I just kind of threw it up to Smitty. He was wide open. To have a double move, you have to have great protection from your line and running backs, so it was pretty easy on my part."
Said Smith: "When I saw the coverage, I kind of figured it would be a touchdown. I knew Mac was going to put it where it needed to be."
The Tide made it a two-score game within the first minute of the second quarter. Harris broke free from Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe for a 25-yard reception to the Auburn 7, and on the ensuing play, Jones found John Metchie over the middle for the 7-yard score.
Auburn got on the board midway through the second quarter on a Carlson 47-yard field goal, but Alabama responded with a five-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with Jones stepping up in the pocket and finding tight end Jahleel Billingsley for a 24-yard scoring strike and a 21-3 lead with 6:24 before halftime.
Seth Williams dropped a potential 58-yard touchdown reception from Nix with 41 seconds remaining in the half that could have pulled Auburn within 21-10. The Tigers got the ball to open the second half and used a 37-yard pass from Nix to Shedrick Jackson to get to the Alabama 30, but the drive stalled and Carlson drilled a 45-yarder to pull Auburn within 21-6.
"Give Alabama credit. They are a very, very talented team," Malzahn said. "We knew that, but we came in here with the mindset that we wanted to win the game. To beat a team like that, you have to make plays, and we didn't do that.
"We didn't play our best, and that's obvious, and I think they played very well."
Saban admitted he felt helpless watching a televised Iron Bowl upstairs at his house with his wife, Terry, viewing the game downstairs.
"I think I did yell at the TV a couple of times today," Saban said. "I yelled a couple of times when we made mistakes in coverage and a couple of times when we missed some tackles and a couple of times when Mac didn't throw the ball to the guy I thought he should have thrown it to, so I guess it was more than a couple.
"It was a little different, but it still feels good to win."