Auburn completes stunning turnaround
December, 8, 2013
By Chris Low | ESPN.com
ATLANTA -- Good luck in selling this one to Hollywood. Nobody would buy it.
As Auburn celebrated its improbable SEC championship Saturday night, amid confetti falling from the Georgia Dome rooftop and a sea of orange and blue soaking it all up in the stands, the Tigers’ players and coaches alike did their best to put into perspective one of the most stunning turnarounds in college football history.
“I don’t know how you explain it,” Auburn receiver Sammie Coates said. “I just know we’re SEC champs, and I know what it took to get here. We’ve been proving people wrong all year. I wonder who’s doubting us now.”
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIBehind a powerful running game, Auburn won the SEC after not winning a conference game a year ago.
Not many. Certainly not after the way Auburn sliced through Missouri for 545 rushing yards in a 59-42 win that resembled a track meet for much of the game and served as yet another reminder that times are changing in the SEC.
Wasn’t it just two years ago that Alabama and LSU played a 9-6 overtime game -- the so-called Game of the Century -- in which nobody scored a touchdown?
On Saturday, the two offenses combined for three touchdowns in the first quarter, and when it was over, they had combined for 101 points and 1,211 yards in total offense.
“We’re going to pound you until you don’t want it anymore,” said Auburn’s Tre Mason, who set an SEC championship-game record and might have run his way into Heisman Trophy contention with 304 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries.
“That’s what we do. That’s who we are, and we don’t really care what kind of scheme you’re running on defense.”
Likewise, the Tigers didn’t care that nobody gave them a chance back in the preseason to be here and on a collision course with Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. It had already been a magical season on the Plains, but got even better later Saturday night when Michigan State knocked off Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.
The previously unbeaten Buckeyes were one spot ahead of Auburn in last week's BCS standings, but thanks to some help from the Spartans, the Tigers are now in prime position to move into the No. 2 spot in the final BCS standings released Sunday night.
“We’ve done all we can do,” Coates said. “We beat the No. 1 team (Alabama). We beat the No. 5 team (Missouri). We’re ready for whoever they put in front of us because we feel like we’re the best team in the country.”
The surreal part of it all is that Auburn (12-1) hit rock bottom a year ago. The Tigers went winless in the SEC, losing their last two league games to Georgia and Alabama by a combined 87-0 margin, and fired their coach, Gene Chizik, just two years removed from winning a national championship in 2010.
Not only that, but the guy they hired to replace Chizik, Gus Malzahn, was coaching high school football eight years ago. One of the supposed knocks on Malzahn when he first broke into the college game was that his offense was gimmicky.
Well, there was nothing gimmicky about what the Tigers did to teams this season.
The combination of their breakneck pace, ability to push people around up front and their explosiveness at the different skill positions was more than anybody could handle.
Before rolling up 545 yards against Missouri on Saturday (and Missouri had the SEC’s second-best run defense coming in), Auburn had 296 yards on the ground last week against Alabama -- the SEC’s top-ranked rushing defense.
As the game wore on Saturday, Missouri looked like it didn’t know who had the ball most of the time. When Auburn wasn’t pounding away with Mason, quarterback Nick Marshall was keeping the ball on the zone-read or handing it off on a jet sweep.
Even for Auburn’s offensive players, the pace was blistering.
“I was tired, but my mind wouldn’t let me stop,” Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson said.
Marshall was another huge part of this storybook turnaround for the Tigers, who became the first team since Georgia in 1959 to win an outright SEC title after suffering through a losing season the year before. Marshall, who went over 1,000 yards rushing for the season Saturday, was at junior college this time a year ago after starting his career at Georgia as a cornerback. But, while at UGA, he got into trouble for stealing from teammates and was dismissed from the team.
“It was hard, and it’s something nobody wants to go through,” Marshall said. “But coach Malzahn gave me a second chance, and I was going to take advantage of it.”
The Tigers will now have to wait until Sunday night for the official word on their expected national championship date with the Seminoles in Pasadena. Their athletic director, Jay Jacobs, said if schedule strength is going to be the most important component next season in the selection of the four teams for the College Football Playoff, then there shouldn't be any question about the Tigers getting in this season.
And to his point, Auburn has five wins over nationally ranked opponents this season, which is more than any other team in the top six of the most recent BCS standings. The Tigers also have three wins over top-10 foes and own the top-rated schedule among the top six BCS teams, according to Sagarin.
What’s more, 10 of the 13 teams on Auburn’s schedule this season are currently bowl-eligible.
Malzahn figures the chips will fall where they may. But the way his team is playing right now, and the way it’s made one thrilling play after another this season to win games, he likes its chances against anybody.
“We play the toughest schedule of any teams (out) there, and we’re playing our best football,” Malzahn said. “A lot of teams aren’t getting better each week. This team is.”
As unthinkable as it might have seemed four short months ago, it's a team that now has a national championship in its sights.