A 24-16 loss in Tuscaloosa led to the greatest era in Alabama football history
The game flew under the radar, but its consequences changed the course of college football history. Besides hardcore fans, hardly anyone noticed when Alabama and Mississippi State geared up at Bryant-Denny Stadium that crisp Saturday in November 2006.
Overall, it was just another typical year for Alabama fans. Head coach Mike Shula led his team to a 6-3 start and was lining up for a rivalry game against a 2-7 Mississippi State. The hot seat was heating up for the Tide coach, but surely he would pull this one off. Surely, he would not lose to Sylvester Croom, who had interviewed for the same job Shula was given. Surely, Alabama would beat a struggling MSU (which was on a 23-game SEC road losing streak) at home. But to the horror of Bama fans, Croom and his Bulldogs did win.
Surely, Shula would be fired.
The game came down to the wire. After a 75-yard drive to the 2, Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson tried to find the end zone on a keeper with only 2 seconds remaining but was stopped short. Time expired, and Shula had failed.
Croom, on the other hand, could not have been happier with the outcome. He watched from the sideline as quarterback Michael Henig, who was from Montgomery, Alabama, and played at Jeff Davis High School, passed for 143 yards and two touchdowns while his running back, Anthony Dixon, rushed for 121 yards in a 24-16 win over Croom’s alma mater.
The differences in the demeanors of Croom and Shula after the game could not have been more polarizing. “I feel blessed, having grown up in this town, having played at the University of Alabama and having coached the Mississippi State football team to this win,” said Croom.
Meanwhile, Shula was telling Alabama fans what they already knew in their hearts. “We are a better football team than what we saw out there today,” Shula said. “We thought we’d be further along by now.”
Too many years had passed since Gene Stallings led the Tide to a national title over Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, and it felt as if nothing but bad news had come from Tuscaloosa ever since. It was time for change.
On November 26, one week after yet another Iron Bowl loss, Shula was let go. The three consecutive losses following the MSU game to close out the season certainly did not help his case, but many had already assumed Shula would be fired after the season due to his loss to Croom earlier that month. It was something even Croom himself would acknowledge months later. “I think some of that shows you where our program still is, the fact that they would fire a coach because Mississippi State won the ballgame,” he said.
Firing Shula was the end of another disappointing era, but perhaps no one would have anticipated the emergence of a dynasty. That all began on January 3, 2007, when Nick Saban was announced as the new head coach at Alabama.
But Saban and his successful stint possibly would not have ever materialized had Shula beaten MSU. If Wilson had found a way to get those 2 extra yards and a two-point conversion thereafter, the Tide might have clinched win number seven. Sure, Alabama still would have most likely fallen to then-No. 12 LSU the following week, but the Iron Bowl might have ended differently, as No. 9 Auburn was taken to the wire in Tuscaloosa and barely escaped with a 22-15 win.
Could that additional win have boosted Alabama’s confidence to help get the win at home over its biggest rival? If so, the Tide would have finished the regular season 8-4 with losses coming to No. 5 Florida, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 12 LSU, and in a double overtime thriller against Arkansas. Shula probably doesn’t get fired with that record plus a win over a Top-10 Auburn team.
It’s possible that 2 yards for a touchdown plus 3 more for a two-point conversion is all it took to change the season—and the course of history—one way or the other. Those 5 yards may be all that stood between a Shula-led program and a Saban-led one.
This week, Mississippi State is staring down the barrel of extending a losing streak in the series (which Alabama has owned 80-18-3) to 11 as it faces undefeated No. 1 Crimson Tide on Saturday.
Since that dark day in 2006, Alabama has amassed 141 wins, five SEC titles, and five national titles, all thanks to Saban. Don’t be surprised if the greatest college football coach in history adds one more win to that total this weekend.
The Crimson Tide still hasn’t forgiven the Bulldogs for what happened in 2006. H&A
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Kickoff for Mississippi State and Alabama is 2:30 p.m. CST on CBS.