ATLANTA -- Matt Ritter watched in person as his Auburn team completed one of the most dramatic bounce-back regular seasons in college football history -- and that's when the real waiting started.
The 2006 Auburn grad and a group of friends then traveled across town to the Diesel Filling Station -- one of the Atlanta area's best-known Auburn-centric bars -- to watch a bit more football after the Tigers' 59-42 win over Missouri at the Georgia Dome in Saturday's SEC championship game.
Their reason? It was entirely possible that Auburn wasn't simply going to represent the conference in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. If either top-ranked Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State -- both of which were undefeated when the day started -- lost in their respective conference championship games on Saturday night, Auburn would play in the Vizio BCS National Championship Game.
"Obviously we're all about Michigan State right now,” Ritter said at halftime of the Big Ten championship game, when the Spartans led Ohio State 17-10. “We knew Duke had a very, very small chance of winning [against Florida State in the ACC title game], but we knew Michigan State had the No. 1 defense in the country. We knew Ohio State, they're a good team, but I don't think they're a fantastic team."
Sure enough, the bar full of fans wearing orange and blue were chanting, “Pa-sa-de-na!” by the end of the night, once Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford's late touchdown run put away the Spartans' 34-24 win and cleared a space for Auburn to face Florida State in sunny California with a BCS crown at stake.
Ritter and friends had plenty of company at Diesel -- a former filling station in the Virginia Highland neighborhood whose marquee still read “Bama, You're 109 Yards from a Win. Go Tigers,” referring to Chris Davis' 109-yard return of a missed field goal on last Saturday's final play against top-ranked Alabama. According to the Atlanta Auburn Club, the city's metro area is home to more than 22,000 Auburn "alumni, fans and friends," and plenty of them crammed into bars and restaurants across the city on Saturday to watch Tre Mason and the Tigers pull away from Mizzou with a relentless rushing attack.
That night, Auburn partisans reconvened to cheer as Michigan State jumped out to an early 17-0 lead over Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. On the other hand, things weren't going so well in ACC country, as Florida State took command early against heavy underdog Duke and eventually won 45-7. But the good news was that Auburn needed only one of the undefeated teams to lose, and Michigan State obliged its new fan club by delivering the win the Tigers needed.
Then it quickly became time to contemplate travel plans for a trip West in early January.
"We're talking about it,” said Jeremy Barrow, a first-year Auburn season-ticket holder. He and his wife, Danya, watched the Michigan State game at Diesel after staying home to watch Auburn's victory earlier in the day. “It's one of the reasons why we skipped the SEC game. We figured if we won, we'd need all that money to go."
But even without a trip to Pasadena, this would have gone down as one of the most remarkable seasons in Auburn football history.
Two seasons after Cam Newton carried the Tigers to the 2010 BCS crown, the Tigers bottomed out with a 3-9 record that resulted in coach Gene Chizik's departure and former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's return to the Plains. Considering how pathetic Auburn was in 2012, most Tigers fans entered the season simply hoping to reach bowl eligibility, with wins against highly ranked teams like Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M seeming far from likely.
Now here they were at 12-1 after beating each of those teams and throttling No. 5 Mizzou with 677 yards of total offense on Saturday. Further, Michigan State's win proved that Auburn's horseshoe still had plenty of good fortune left for the Tigers and their allies.
"It was beyond all expectations of what we thought,” Danya Barrow said. “I was really like, 'If we could just make a bowl, I'll be happy. If we could just make the Capital One, I could go and it would be cool.'"
Auburn fans are free to dream big again now, however.
This time a year ago, when Alabama was preparing to win its second straight BCS title and third in four years, morale was at its lowest point in decades among Auburn fans. Malzahn and his resilient team, which already has a number of last-minute wins on its resume, needed just one miraculous season to restore their fans' optimism -- and a spot in Pasadena only adds to their jubilation.
“We're just so proud of the team in general and this season and the turnaround,” Ritter said. “Last season was just so terrible. Just to be where we are right now, I think that Auburn in general, it restored a unity and pride back into the university and the football program. I think everybody's excited for things to come from here on out.”