AUBURN, Ala. -- Greg McElroy was poised and precise when No. 2 Alabama needed him.
The oft-criticized quarterback likely won over even his most ardent doubters in leading the Crimson Tide to the decisive touchdown in a 26-21 win over Auburn on Friday, overcoming a sub-par performance from Heisman Trophy contender Mark Ingram.
McElroy completed his final seven passes, including a 4-yard touchdown to Roy Upchurch with 1:24 left to give Alabama (12-0, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) its first lead and a second straight undefeated regular season with the Iron Bowl win.
"That was a great drive," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "He made all the right decisions at the right time in the game."
Alabama did it the hard way, falling behind 14-0 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.
First, the state title almost slipped away.
"The strong do survive but the strong do get their (butts) kicked," 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.
For the second straight day, one of the three teams at the top of the BCS standings was knocked woozy but did not fall. Much like No. 3 Texas, which held off Texas A&M 49-39 on Thanksgiving night, Alabama found out being a big favorite against an archrival sometimes doesn't matter much.
TCU and Cincinnati, the unbeaten teams behind Florida, Alabama and Texas in the national title race, are left to hope Florida State can pull an upset against Florida on Saturday that might open the door for them to reach the national title game.
Alabama needs one more win to get to Pasadena, Calif., for the Jan. 7 BCS title game.
Needing one more score to take the lead against Auburn, the Tide called a timeout, 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," Upchurch added.
That capped a frustrating day for McElroy and the offense against Auburn's surprisingly stingy defenders.
"Every series, they came out with something different," McElroy said.
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.
Ingram didn't seem concerned. "I'll be all right," he said
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, passed 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."
Until the final minutes, Auburn had supplied most of the big plays and its maligned defense largely outplayed the nation's top unit.
"You have to love games like this," Tigers linebacker Josh Bynes said. "It comes down to the end and you find out who the man and who the boy is."
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.
The Tigers were shellacked 36-0 by 'Bama last season to have a six-year Iron Bowl winning streak snapped.
"I just told them that we're not walking out of here with heads down," first-year coach Gene Chizik said. "We're a family. We're a family when we win. We're a family when we lose.
"Everybody in that locker room that played did what we asked them to do. They fought for 60 minutes in that game," he added. "I'm not disappointed with anybody on our team. Nobody."
The Tigers stunned the Tide by rocketing out to a 14-0 lead in the first 9:18. Alabama hadn't allowed a touchdown in two games.
Auburn's offense produced two huge scoring plays: A 67-yard run by receiver Terrell Zachery on an end around on Auburn's opening drive and a 72-yard pass from Todd to Darvin Adams on the first possession of the second half. They were easily the longest plays Alabama's defense had given up all season.
McElroy hit tight end Colin Peek for a 33-yard touchdown that tied it at 14 at the half.
"You have to pick your medicine," Ingram said. "If you want to stop one thing, we have to execute other aspects.
"Coming on the road, down 14-0 in a hostile environment, we weathered the storm," Ingram said.
Alabama had to settle for two field goals by Leigh Tiffin that left Auburn nursing a 21-20 lead going into the fourth.
"We didn't play with a lot of passion, and I don't understand that," Saban said.
Afterward, he headed off the field with his right index finger raised toward 'Bama fans. A fan in an Auburn orange shirt said, "Undefeated, right?"
Saban tilted his head, expressionless, and walked into the tunnel, undefeated again.