It started, as problems in previous games have tended to do, in the red zone on Bama's first offensive possession of the game. The Crimson Tide diligently marched down to first-and-goal on the three-yard line. Then, Kenneth Darby ran once and Tim Castille ran twice for two whole yards, and Bama kicked a field goal.
"We were going to go four downs," Alabama Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader said. "Then the third down one, we went backwards."
No one in the stands, press box or at home watching on television should have been surprised by this because it's happened all year, right?
"It's really surprising. It shocked us," Rader said.
Then, an Auburn sack of Bama quarterback John Parker Wilson turned into an Auburn touchdown when right tackle Chris Capps, in a scenario no less predictable than night following day, got rushed past by Quentin Groves, who absolutely plastered quarterback John Parker Wilson causing him to fumble.
That wasn't a shock to anyone I know either. But there are none so blind as those who refuse to see, and because he apparently does better in practice when no one else is watching, Capps trotted back out to his right tackle position the next series and the same thing happened again.
Capps, who was replaced a week ago by Kyle Tatum for the rest of the game after suffering a minor injury, started his 12th game of the season against Auburn. He was replaced on the next series by Tatum, and later by center Antoine Caldwell. Shula said after the game that the blocking assignments called for the pass protection to be slid towards the right side on both those, but that wasn't apparent. Neither time was there a tight end on the right side to help out.
Then, when the team that can't get it in from the three-yard line scores on a big play to cut the Auburn lead to 14-9, they decide to have a personal foul penalty assessed (for a total of 1.5 yards) on the PAT instead of on the kickoff (where the full 15 yards would have been assessed) in order to go for two. Punchline: They called a pass play which didn't work.
When CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson asked Shula at halftime why he went for two, he said he "wanted to make it a one-score game." Apparently, scores are measured in field goals at Alabama now.
A reflection of the season yields similar and perplexing results.
Mike Shula has said Alabama was close three times on the road against quality Southeastern Conference opponents (Arkansas: L 24-23, Florida: L 28-13 and Tennessee: L16-13) in addition to playing poorly against one at home (Mississippi State: L 24-16), and all of those things are true. While it may be accurate, it's not quite complete.
Alabama was also "close" at home against much lesser quality foes (Ole Miss: W 26-23 in overtime, Hawaii: W 25-17), and close for a half against two of the worst teams in America (Duke: losing 14-10, Florida International: winning 10-3).
The team's seemingly willful blindness to those facts is nothing short of utterly disturbing. The perspective of history will look back on this season as one of Alabama's worst in the modern era. Worse than the 4-9 mark Shula set in 2003 and worse than the 6-6 season of 2004. That's not because the ceiling of expectations was so high – it really wasn't - but because the floor of expectations didn't sink to the level of losing to the likes of Mississippi State.
If Mal Moore decides not to fire Mike Shula, it should be because he has seen something we don't know about. He should come away from an internal inspection of the house Mike Shula has built convinced that there are no cracks in the foundation, no structural flaws.
Watching Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves leading the Auburn marching band in their altered version of Bama's "Rammer Jammer" cheer, seeing Auburn's mascot run around the field with a giant five-fingered hand and hearing Auburn fans pouring down the stairs at Bryant-Denny Stadium with cheers of "SHU-LA… SHU-LA… SHU-LA" as if he were THEIR hero, should give any red-blooded Alabama fan the unmistakable picture that such careful inspection is sorely needed.
But even at the very best, the 2006 University of Alabama football team is one with serious questions that must be answered at the highest levels before the program can go full speed ahead.