AUBURN, Ala. — Pushed to the limit and outplayed most of the game, No. 2 Alabama found its championship form in the nick of time.
The Tide stayed perfect with an imperfect 26-21 victory Friday over Auburn, taking the lead with a tenacious drive that was capped by Greg McElroy's 4-yard touchdown pass to Roy Upchurch with 1:24 left.
The Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0) didn't get much help from Heisman Trophy candidate Mark Ingram, but still completed a second straight perfect regular season in the Iron Bowl.
Alabama did it the hard way, falling behind in the opening minutes, but ultimately did its part to set up a 1 vs. 2 showdown with top-ranked Florida in the SEC championship game.
Forget the national and conference championships, the state title almost slipped away.
"The strong do survive but the strong do get their [butts)]kicked," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "That was my message to the team."
Auburn (7-5, 3-5) pushed the ball to the Alabama 37 on the final drive, wasting lots of time and gaining not nearly enough yards. Chris Todd's final pass to the end zone was batted down by Rolando McClain.
Needing one more score to take the lead against Auburn, the Tide called a timeout and switched out of a running play and went to a senior back without a touchdown catch in his career.
"I was yelling at everybody, 'Put me in! Put me in!"' Upchurch said. "No one was hearing me. I just had the feeling that I'd be wide open in the end zone. They changed the play.
"Patience pays off, and today I've got a story to tell."
The Tide survived a shaky effort by its usually stellar defense and a sub-par game by Ingram.
The SEC's leading rusher was held to 30 yards on 16 carries and was on the bench for most of the game-winning drive. Saban said he believed Ingram had a bruised hip.
"Something like that," Ingram said. "I'll be all right."
McElroy and Julio Jones took over without him, aided by five runs and a 17-yard catch by freshman Trent Richardson on the 15-play, 79-yard drive that consumed more than seven minutes.
McElroy, who has been criticized at times as a weak link in an offense with a powerful running game, completed his final seven passes for 62 yards. Jones made four catches on the winning drive, three for first downs.
"We didn't play a great game today," Saban said. "It's a great win. I've never been prouder of them."
Auburn outgained Alabama 332-291 and dominated on the ground 151-73. McElroy was 21-of-31 for 218 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was sacked three times.