The date was October 26, 1912, and Georgia had a plan to outsmart its rival Alabama. The Athens Red-Blacks lined up to receive the opening jab with a water boy in overalls and carrying a bucket on the field.
Except he wasn’t a water boy. It was a trick.
The costumed 11th man, identified only as Autrey in Alabama’s records, caught a 35-yard pass on the first play of the game before all hell broke loose. Alabama immediately objected and, according to some reports, led to an all-out brawl in a game Georgia won 13-9.
Modern stupidity is downright conventional by comparison, although the Iron Bowl tested the limits when they entered the 2:30 p.m. CT renewal at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Most recently, a deft move kept Auburn excited in 2019, ending any backdoor hopes of another playoff appearance from the Crimson Tide.
There have been subtler tricks like Philip Lutzenkirchen’s misdirection in the 2010 Auburn comeback or a few flea flickers here and there, but the art of the big surprise has gotten more sophisticated in some ways. In the age of RPOs, where anything can be a ruse to some degree, defense mechanisms have a built-in awareness of the threat of deception.
For Alabama, the number of old-fashioned trick games seemed to have waned in the last few years of unprecedented offensive success. There were a few splashes of the Wildcat formation – popular in the 2009-11 offensive era – when Slade Bolden was in Tuscaloosa. His 6-yard jump pass touchdown on Miller Forristall in the 2019 win over Tennessee was the last non-QB pass thrown by a Crimson Tide player.
But in terms of offensive misdirection or sleight of hand, Alabama seems to have backed it off a bit. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the offensive explosion among quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young, where one-off actions weren’t as necessary.
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said fast attacks make trick play harder to set up, but the warp speed snaps create a different kind of defensive disillusionment.
The first half of Saban’s tenure at Tuscaloosa featured more traditional sleight of hand.
AJ McCarron threw two touchdown passes to flea flickers in his three starting years in key games. At the 2011 Iron Bowl, he broke the goalless tie in the first quarter with a 41-yard throw at Kenny Bell, who got behind the defense when the safeties bit Trent Richardson on the handoff. The running back quickly threw it back to McCarron, who launched it low for the score. Two years later, they pulled a similar play with a 44-yard touchdown throw against DeAndrew White in a 49-42 shootout win over Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel.
Those home run tricks in lower field are harder these days, Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said. Defenses are more often in nickel and dime formations, putting more defensive backs on the field to combat downfield attacks.
“So that idea of getting behind them is harder because teams are playing more loosely,” Leach said. “It doesn’t mean there are other tricks that you can’t do underneath that are pretty good. You will see some every year.”
It’s the kicking game that has seen some of the bigger momentum swings in terms of tricks. Outside of the Iron Bowl, Alabama pulled off one of their biggest shifts with the onside kick in their 2016 CFP title game win over Clemson. Then, three years later, a failed fake field goal in the national championship game against the same program was a touchstone in the stunning 44-16 defeat.
Kiffin, the offensive coordinator in the year of the successful onside kick against Clemson, said Saban was keen to have discussions about the fake kicks and other trick plays before they ever saw the light of day.
“He would want to know what that week was and why. A lot of times you ran it for him before, so… If they worked, he was happy,” Kiffin said. “If they didn’t work, you got ass chewing.”
Alabama’s had less incentive to fake a field goal after Will Reichard brought a degree of consistency previously lacking. Since arriving in 2019, he’s had an 82% success rate on 61 of 74 kicks, and Alabama hasn’t attempted a fake since.
Auburn scored an Iron Bowl touchdown in 2018 when a sideshot from receiver Ryan Davis turned into a 23-yard throw for Malik Miller. That cut the Tide lead to 17-14, but further play after falling 31-14 in the third quarter went sideways. A fake field goal didn’t fool All-American Tide cornerback Patrick Surtain as he placed kicker Anders Carlton a yard from the sticks. Alabama went on to win 52-21.
A year later, Auburn’s 48-45 win at Jordan-Hare had all sorts of hijinks. Alabama converted a third down via substitution breach in a game Najee Harris returned as Wildcat quarterback.
But after Alabama missed a 30-yard field goal that would have equalized it at 2:00 in the Finals, the subsequent defensive stop led to one of the more confusing deceptions. With three points left in the last minute, Auburn punter Arryn Siposs ran onto the field for the fourth and fourth games. But instead of going deep, he lined up at the receiver with QB Bo Nix in the shotgun.
Alabama initially sent out the punt return team but got caught in the confusion. And without timing out, the flood couldn’t stop the train wreck in slow motion. The five-yard illegal substitution penalty effectively ended the game.
“I really feel like it was an unfair game at the end of the game,” said Saban in the aftermath. “They replaced the punter as the wide receiver, so we used the punt team. And with the quarterback still there, we tried to get the defense back on. I thought they should have given us a little more time to come on get (Jaylen) waddle out as a returner and we get called onto the field for 12 guys. So that was very disappointing.
“We are responsible for that as coaches, but that was a very unusual circumstance, to say the least.”
Under the rule book, Alabama was guilty of the violation. However, NCAA rules changed the next year to allow more flexibility in defensive substitutions, which appeared to be a direct response to what happened at that Iron Bowl game.
Of course, this 2019 piece came in an era of Gus Malzahn marked by an unconventional approach that was in stark contrast to Saban’s methodically traditional way of thinking. Alabama knew to expect the unexpected, but there aren’t quite as many files on the coach they face on Saturday.
Interim leader Cadillac Williams has just three tape games to study for Alabama, but the Tigers showed on Saturday they’re not afraid of some fun deals.
After a play in 2004, a toss to running back Jarquez Hunter sucked in Western Kentucky’s safeties to set his throw at receiver Koy Moore. The 29-yard touchdown throw in the 41-17 win looked familiar because Williams was the Auburn running back who shot on target against Georgia 18 years earlier.
“It’s going to work,” co-offensive coordinator Will Friend told his players. “We have evidence because your trainer did it.”
TIED TOGETHER: Auburn turns back the clock with a halfback pass straight out of the 2004 Georgia game
With Auburn’s interim coach playing for bowl eligibility and an opportunity to beat his archrival from a prestige bowl, conditions are ripe to get weird at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.
Just keep an eye on the Waterboy.
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.