NCF Nation: Chris Davis

Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



Auburn's miraculous, last-second "Kick Six" against Alabama was a sinfully sweet ending to the Tigers' 2013 regular season.

Well, Chris Davis' phenomenal play literally got even sweeter for one couple, as Auburn fan Billy Gilley received an amazing "Kick-Six" groom's cake for his wedding.

Alabama fans might want to avert their eyes, but this really is a thing of beauty by Cobalt Connections. The cake is complete with thousands of tiny orange-and-blue clad fans, an autograph area for Gus Malzahn and a scoreboard featuring the 28-28 score with one second remaining on the clock from last season's Iron Bowl.

I don't know what all the fillings were for this cake, but the inside looked delicious once everyone dug into it. (To my future wife: A miniature, chocolate-filled Godzilla cake is the way to my heart.)

The details are good enough that even Nick Saban would take a bite out of that bad boy!

When I was little, I had plenty of awesome cakes, thanks to my incredibly creative parents and the talented folks at Deanna's Confections in Oxford, Miss. My cakes featured, Godzilla, Ninja Turtles, killer whales, and dinosaurs, but never had this detail.

But while Auburn had the Homer drooling effect on people, Alabama touched everyone's heart with cuteness explosion of the kitten variety.

Green Bay Packers fan Stephanie Van Groll might even get a hug from Malzahn with the new addition to her family: Ha Ha Kitten-Dix. Yes, this little bundle of fur is named after former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was drafted by the Packers in the first round of this year's NFL draft.

As a proud cat owner, I fully understand that cats are far superior to dogs, and a kitten will tug at everyone's heart.

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
1:00
PM ET
We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

SEC's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
10:00
AM ET
The SEC’s national championship streak is over, but the memories from the 2013 season will endure.

It was a wild ride, for sure.

No team in the league finished unbeaten. The team that won the SEC championship and played for the national championship (Auburn) didn’t win a single SEC game in 2012. Nine of the league's 14 teams averaged 30 or more points per game, and there were 11 SEC matchups in which both teams scored 30 or more points.

And for the third consecutive season, at least four SEC teams finished in the top 10 of the final polls.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our annual Best of the SEC:

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTre Mason saved his best games for last, including a record 304-yard outburst in the SEC championship game.
Best offensive player: Offense stole the show this season in the SEC, and Auburn junior running back Tre Mason was in a class by himself, particularly when it counted. The Tigers’ Heisman Trophy finalist finished with an SEC-best 1,816 rushing yards, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record, and also scored a league-high 25 touchdowns. In his last three games, against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State, Mason rushed for 663 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

Best defensive player: Of all the great players Alabama has had on defense under Nick Saban, senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only one to record 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. He finished with 108 this season, including nine for loss, and also led the Crimson Tide with 10 quarterback hurries. What set Mosley apart was his ability to do a little bit of everything. He was one of the surest tacklers in the league, equally outstanding in coverage and as a blitzer and cleaned up the mistakes of those around him.

Best coach: There's no question that Auburn's Gus Malzahn deserves this honor. He helped take a team that went a humiliating 3-9 in 2012 to 12 wins, an SEC championship and berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tigers beat five ranked teams, including their final three opponents leading up to their 34-31 loss to Florida State in Pasadena, Calif. Malzahn also was named the AP Coach of the Year.

Best freshman: There was some stiff competition for this one, but the nod goes to Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. All the talk coming into the season was about the Gators' veteran cornerbacks, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but Hargreaves wound up leading the Gators with three interceptions and was fourth in the SEC with 11 pass breakups. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press, becoming the first Florida true freshman to earn first-team All-SEC honors from the AP since Emmitt Smith in 1987.

Best performance in a win: Was anyone better than Mason in a win this year? In the SEC championship game victory over Missouri, Mason rushed for an SEC championship record 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. He carved up a Mizzou rush defense that entered the game ranked second in the league and made punishing runs in Auburn's 59-42 victory.

Best performance in a loss: Johnny Manziel wasn't perfect in Texas A&M's 49-42 loss to Alabama on Sept. 14. He had a couple of costly interceptions. But he also put the Aggies on his shoulders in the second half and nearly pulled off an improbable comeback. Manziel finished with 562 yards of total offense (464 yards passing and 98 yards rushing) and threw five touchdown passes. He threw three TD passes in the fourth quarter to rally Texas A&M from a 42-21 deficit.

Best comeback: An ailing Connor Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to bring South Carolina back from the dead in a 27-24 double-overtime victory on the road against Missouri. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 when Shaw entered the game. He was 20-of-29 passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns and led South Carolina to points on five of the six possessions he was on the field.

[+] EnlargeMarquez North
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIMarquez North's incredible catch set up the winning field goal in Tennessee's upset of South Carolina.
Best catch: Alabama's Kevin Norwood had two or three sick catches this season, and South Carolina's Bruce Ellington had a one-handed, bobbling gem in the bowl game. Auburn's Ricardo Louis had the most-talked-about catch with his Hail Mary to beat Georgia, but top prize goes to Tennessee freshman Marquez North. His 39-yard catch on a third-and-10 play with less than three minutes remaining set up the game-winning field goal in the Vols' 23-21 victory over South Carolina. North, with the defender draped all over him, somehow managed to pull the ball between his face mask and shoulder pads with his left hand.

Best block: Easily the most talked about block of the year came when Florida wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and Florida center Jon Harrison blocked each other during a play in Florida's embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern. The block drew laughs from plenty of folks inside and outside of Gainesville and pretty much summed up Florida's disastrous 4-8 season.

Best moment: Auburn's Immaculate Deflection against Georgia was amazing, but Chris Davis' Kick Six -- an improbable 109-yard touchdown return on a missed Alabama field goal to close out the Iron Bowl -- was simply divine. Who would have ever thought that a Nick Saban-coached team would give up such a crazy play with one second (which Saban asked for) remaining? The play, in which Davis was barely touched, catapulted Auburn into the SEC championship game and eliminated Alabama from contention for its third consecutive national championship.

Best finish: How about the way the Mississippi State Bulldogs ended the 2013 season? With all due respect to Missouri's bounce back after that loss to Auburn, the Bulldogs were on the brink of postseason elimination before winning their last two regular-season games in overtime, including a victory over archrival Ole Miss, to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs then pummeled Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Best under-the-radar star: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out of nowhere to steal the defensive spotlight for most of the season. He was a terror off the edge, had three games in which he recorded three sacks and led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Pretty good replacement for Sheldon Richardson.
Let's take a look at the best and worst from the SEC during this year's bowl season:

Best game: This had to be Texas A&M's 52-48 comeback win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Right when we thought Johnny Manziel was going out on a low note, he put his team on his shoulders to erase a 21-point deficit. He struggled to get on the same page with his receivers early but finished in style with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. The Aggies outscored Duke 35-10 in the second half.

Worst BCS bowl team without a national title at stake: Alabama has been money under Nick Saban in BCS National Championship games. But the Crimson Tide have laid a pair of eggs now in the Sugar Bowl, the latest coming in an ugly 45-31 loss to Oklahoma last week that saw Alabama turn it over five times and give up 429 yards of total offense. It was reminiscent of Alabama’s 31-17 loss to Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel put on quite a show in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in what turned out to be his final game.
Worst tackle: Though Auburn's defense played very well for the better part of the Tigers' heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, the dagger came on a fumbled defensive effort. Chris Davis and Ryan Smith cost Auburn a big play on the Seminoles' game-winning scoring drive when they both attempted to tackle Rashad Greene after a first-down catch just to the right of the middle of the field. They hit each other more than Greene, who then sprinted down the right sideline for a 49-yard gain to help set up the final score.

Best catch: Not only was Bruce Ellington’s bobbling, one-handed catch in South Carolina’s 34-24 win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl a gem, but it also changed the complexion of the game. The 22-yard gain came on fourth-and-7 and set up a 22-yard touchdown catch by Ellington late in the third quarter that put the Gamecocks ahead for good.

Best quote: “I was in a zone I haven’t been in before -- ever. I just wanted this game.” -- Manziel

Best grind-out performance: LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who helped keep LSU out of the upset column against Iowa with his 28 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 37-yarder with two minutes remaining.

Best multi-purpose performance: About the only thing Connor Shaw didn’t do in his farewell performance for the Gamecocks was intercept a pass. He passed for three touchdowns, ran for a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

Worst defensive breakdown: Big pass plays haunted Georgia’s defense this season, and the 99-yard touchdown pass the Bulldogs gave up in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl was perhaps the worst of the bunch. Nebraska was facing third-and-14 from its own 1 in the fourth quarter when Quincy Enunwa took advantage of a bust in the Georgia secondary and streaked 99 yards to give the Huskers a 24-12 lead. Nebraska finished with just 307 yards of total offense, and 99 came on that one play.

Worst timing: Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch has always been rock solid for the Bulldogs, but his crucial drop on a fourth-and-3 at Nebraska's 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining ended any chance of a Georgia comeback. Lynch would have given the Dawgs a first down inside the 10.

Best individual performance: Manziel delivered a performance for the ages (and a performance that turned out to be his final one at the collegiate level) in rallying the Aggies from a 21-point deficit to beat Duke 52-48 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Manziel was 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns, and he also rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown.

Best team performance: How about those Mississippi State Bulldogs? Left for dead in late November, the Bulldogs won two straight in overtime to make a bowl game. After getting bumped up to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State crushed a Rice team that entered the game winners of nine of their last 10 with a 44-7 showing. Quarterback Dak Prescott had arguably his best game, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 78 yards and two more scores. The defense also allowed a season-low 145 yards.

Auburn runs out of miracles

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
3:34
AM ET
video
PASADENA, Calif. -- There were no miracles this time, only heartache.

And for the longest time, it didn’t look like Auburn would need a miracle Monday night after building an 18-point lead on a VIZIO BCS National Championship stage that not even the most die-hard fan on the Plains would have dreamed the Tigers would be playing on back in August.

But Florida State came storming back with a little late-game magic of its own to win a 34-31 thriller at the Rose Bowl, leaving a lump in the Tigers’ collective throats and bringing to an end the SEC’s national championship streak.

“We’ve been in this position all season long,” Auburn senior cornerback Chris Davis said. “We believe that if the game’s close, we’re going to win. It didn’t go our way tonight, and it’s going to take a long time for this hurt to go away.”

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesDee Ford had two sacks for Auburn.
The truth is that Auburn was never supposed to be here, not after going winless in the SEC a year ago, firing Gene Chizik as its head coach and starting over with Gus Malzahn.

But Malzahn’s message to his team in his very first meeting was that the Tigers were going to engineer the biggest turnaround in college football history.

And, boy, were they close, which made Monday night’s loss all the more nauseating for them.

“I apologize to the Auburn family and the rest of the fans that we didn’t finish,” said Auburn running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 195 yards on 34 carries and surpassed Bo Jackson as Auburn’s single-season rushing leader.

“We didn’t finish what we started. That’s a great team [Florida State] and they deserved to win. They found a way to win at the end.”

Mason had given Auburn a 31-27 lead with 1:19 to play on a tackle-breaking, 37-yard touchdown run.

“We knew we were going to take it down and score there,” Mason said. “Even after they returned that kickoff, you could just feel it on our sideline.”

It’s the same script Auburn had followed all season, whether it was Davis’ kick-six touchdown against Alabama, Ricardo Louis’ Hail Mary touchdown catch against Georgia or Nick Marshall’s late touchdown pass to beat Mississippi State.

“Right now, I’m kind of at a loss for words,” Auburn center Reese Dismukes said. “No one gave us a chance at the beginning of the season. We won the SEC championship in the best league in the country. Obviously, it was a successful season, but you’d like to win one more game.”

If not for a handful of plays, Auburn could easily be taking the final BCS crystal trophy back to the Plains.

Jameis Winston’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds to play won it for the Seminoles. But a play earlier, Davis was flagged for pass interference in the end zone when Winston tried to hit Rashad Greene on a third-and-8 play.

“I didn’t think it was pass interference. The ref called it, so it is what it is,” Davis said.

As costly as that pass-interference penalty was for the Tigers, the real back-breaker was Greene’s 49-yard catch-and-run to set up Benjamin’s touchdown. Auburn was in a zone and had a chance to tackle Greene for a modest gain, but he split Davis and safety Ryan Smith and was off to the races.

“We just didn’t come up with a stop when we needed to, and we usually do that as a defense,” said Davis, who was also covering Benjamin on his game-winning touchdown.

Auburn’s defense deserved better. The Tigers pressured Winston repeatedly, sacked him four times and held the Seminoles to three offensive touchdowns.

But Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to put Florida State ahead 27-24 late in the fourth quarter was a killer. Likewise, the Tigers had another breakdown on special teams late in the second quarter when they gave up a fake punt leading to Florida State’s only first-half touchdown.

“They just executed at the times they needed to,” said Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, who had two sacks. “We played great for 3½ quarters. It just came down to that one possession. We had some calls that didn’t go our way, and it just didn’t work out. It’s unfortunate, but we have nothing to hang our heads about.

“Those same guys who were out there on that field were the same guys that helped get us here. We went out and fought. We just came up short. We’re not going to hang our heads.”

Video: Auburn's miracle makers

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
6:30
PM ET
video
Scott Van Pelt catches up with Auburn's miracle makers, Ricardo Louis and Chris Davis, who scored the most important touchdowns of Auburn's season.


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State receiver Kenny Shaw was posing for photos while wearing “Google Glass.” Auburn players were dancing and jumping into interview shots, even joining the ESPNU crew on stage. Players from both teams took turns getting their pictures taken with the Vizio BCS National Championship trophy.

But don't be fooled -- they're ready for Monday night.

Saturday’s media event at the Newport Beach Marriott was chaotic, with every player and coach from both teams available to reporters. Florida State was the first team in the spotlight, followed by Auburn, and while the stars and head coaches for each team were seated at individual podiums, the rest of their teammates and staff members were seated around tables in a huge ballroom, swarmed by reporters with microphones and television cameras, working to preview the sport’s biggest game.

[+] EnlargeNCAA BCS National Championship
AP Photo/David J. PhillipAll of FSU and Auburn's players faced the media throng Saturday before the BCS title game.
In spite of all of the distractions and attention this week, those within both programs agreed they are focused and ready for Monday night’s stage.

“Preparation has been great,” FSU receiver Rashad Greene said. “So I feel like it's been one of the best all year. So we're doing a great job at handling our business, handling the situation, and when it's time to prepare, we have done a great job and when it's time to have fun, we're doing a great job at having fun as well. So we're definitely mature enough to handle our business and know there's a time and a place to do everything.”

Auburn cornerback Chris Davis said the Tigers have had the same approach.

“In the SEC, that's the best conference in college football,” Davis said. “And I just got to say, we're going to be well prepared for Monday. We're just ready to play our best and represent the great state of Alabama.”

For Auburn, Monday’s game is a chance to extend the SEC’s streak of national titles to eight, and give the conference 10 of the 16 BCS championships. For Florida State, which is making its first appearance in the national title game in 13 years, it’s a chance to elevate the ACC and most likely finish in the top five for the first time since the program’s historic run from 1987-2000. Saturday’s media event was a also rare opportunity for reporters to speak with Florida State assistant coaches, several of whom are former players now basking in the program’s return to the top.

Both teams have been here since Dec. 31, when they were welcomed at Disneyland. Sunday morning’s news conferences with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will be the final media availability before Monday’s 8:30 p.m. ET national title game.

For the players, it’s all business now.

“Our team has done a very good job this year of not getting distracted by anything,” Malzahn said. “This week has been no different, even though the schedule has been a little bit chaotic at times. Once we got in our meetings, once we got to the practice field, the guys have been locked in, trying to get better and focus.”

Fisher and Greene both said that the Noles haven’t played their best game yet.

“I feel very confident we're ready,” Fisher said. “I think we've practiced extremely well and I like our mindset and our attitude right now. I think we're very confident in what we do but we're not arrogant. I think our kids believe in the system, and the team we have, there's not a lot of arrogance where they're ignoring things and not preparing at the same time, and I think that's very critical.”
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- The hits just keep coming for Texas, which can’t seem to find a coach to replace Mack Brown.

Well, here’s some good news: If the Longhorns hire Jimbo Fisher, they’ll get a two-for-one deal, scoring the Heisman Trophy winner, too.

The odds of that happening don’t look good, of course, especially because Fisher recently signed a new contract with Florida State. And Texas already had its chance at quarterback Jameis Winston.

“Through the whole recruiting process, I said to my coach, ‘We got to get Texas on the phone,’ ” Winston said.

Winston even tried to get Brown on the phone himself.

“I tried to call him a couple times because I really like Texas,” he said.

It’s probably better it didn’t work out. After all, Winston said he was an Oklahoma fan.

SWINGING FOR THE STARS

Who says Winston can’t play both baseball and football at the next level?

“You can do anything you put your mind to,” the two-sport star said. “A lot of people are going to say, ‘No way, he’s a quarterback.’ Bo Jackson was a running back. The one thing I always seem to do is gain the trust of my teammates. Even being in the NFL, if I can convince those guys I can be your quarterback, I can go play baseball for the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees. I can’t talk about that, because I’m living in the moment right now.”

On Tuesday, he’ll be ready to talk baseball again.

“Right now I got one thing on my mind, win the national championship on Monday. Tuesday comes, I’ll be ready for it then. I’m pretty sure [Florida State baseball] coach Mike Martin, he’ll talk to me about it then. I know he’s not saying nothing about baseball to me right now.”

HAPPY RETURNS

Prior to this season, Auburn's Chris Davis had not returned any punts or kicks during his college career, but it wasn't because he didn't try.

"I'd been asking. I never got the opportunity," said Davis, who led the SEC in punt return average this season and also returned the missed field goal against Alabama 109 yards for a touchdown.

Asked what reason the previous coaching staff at Auburn gave him for not giving him a shot to return kicks, Davis said, "They didn’t have an answer for me."

Auburn's current special teams coach, Scott Fountain, was the director of player personnel on the previous staff and made it known when the new regime arrived that Davis was plenty capable as a return man. Davis had excelled as a return specialist in high school.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"I’d mention it every year. I’d go back and catch punts and kicks at the beginning of the season, but I never got the opportunity," Davis said. "I thank Coach Fountain and Coach [Gus] Malzahn for the opportunity."

NOT BACKING DOWN

Florida State's receivers, led by 6-foot-5, 234-pound sophomore Kelvin Benjamin, are big, physical and explosive.

Benjamin has 14 touchdown catches entering Monday's Vizio BCS National Championship, which presents quite a challenge for an Auburn pass defense that ranked last in the SEC this season.

But the Tigers are adamant they're not going to all of a sudden change it up.

"We’ve mixed it up, but man[-to-man coverage] is our base," Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "We’re going to play man. LSU had great receivers. Georgia had good receivers. Missouri’s got bigger receivers than Florida State’s got. We’ve seen all types. We’ve seen some of the best. At all times, we haven’t stopped them, but you can’t just give up on something.

"I think a lot of people have been intimidated out of man coverage against them early in the game because they can’t score on them. If we score on them and hold the ball on them a little bit, we’ll have a chance to be more aggressive. If we don’t, we’re going to have a hard time."

GETTING DRAFTY

Florida State junior running back Devonta Freeman said he turned his papers into the NFL draft evaluation board but hasn’t heard back from it yet. Freeman said when he does, he will talk to Fisher about possibly entering the draft.


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Way back before Chris Davis had even dreamed about making the play of the year in college football (maybe the play of the decade), his head coach knew how important Davis would be to this Auburn team.

“One of the keys to our season is Chris Davis staying healthy because of all the different ways he can impact our team,” Auburn’s Gus Malzahn said.

Malzahn made those comments back in late July, just weeks before the start of preseason practice.

Not even he knew how prophetic he would be.

[+] EnlargeL'Damian Washington
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsChris Davis (right) has been Auburn's best defender as well as a prized special teams player and the Tigers' leader.
Davis’ improbable 109-yard touchdown return of a missed field goal to beat Alabama is just a part of the story. He’s been the Tigers’ best cover cornerback. He leads them in total tackles (69) and pass breakups (14) and also leads the SEC in punt return average (20.1 yards per game), which includes an 85-yard touchdown against Tennessee.

“He’s not a guy of many words, but he’s our captain for a reason,” Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “He goes out there and leads by example. And when it comes to needing a big play to be made, you know No. 11 is the guy who will make that play.”

Perhaps the best perspective on what Davis has meant can be traced to a conversation after the season among Malzahn and all three of the Tigers’ coordinators. They were discussing the different team awards, and Davis’ name kept popping up in every category.

“We didn’t know whether to give him most valuable player, most valuable special teams player or most valuable defensive player,” said Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator.

“He made so many big plays. If you take Chris Davis out, does somebody make those plays? I don’t think they make all of them. The play at the end of the Alabama game was one of them, but he made a lot of them. He matched up most of the time on the best receiver, and he’s given up some balls, too, but he can play with anybody in the country one-on-one and has shown that most of the time.”

Davis’ plight since arriving on the Plains, in a lot of ways, has mirrored Auburn’s incredible turnaround this season. Coming out of Birmingham, Ala., he wasn’t very highly recruited and has had an injury-plagued career.

In fact, he suffered a high ankle sprain on the opening kickoff of the 2011 BCS National Championship win over Oregon and missed the rest of the game. Even this season, he missed the Mississippi State and LSU games with an ankle injury.

“Growing up, this is what I dreamed of, to be in these types of situations,” Davis said. “I had my ups and downs here, fighting injuries every year, but I never gave up. That’s kind of how we came into this season because we were going to face adversity.

“We stuck together through it all, and this is a season to remember, especially coming off last year. It’s one of the biggest turnarounds in college football, and now we’re trying to finish it off with this game.”

Davis, a senior, became a household name following his stunning touchdown return against Alabama. He jokes that he can’t get away from that play no matter how hard he tries. When he returned to class that next week at Auburn, he received a standing ovation.

“That was one play, one I’ll always remember, but we have more to do,” Davis said.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today’s matchup is between Florida State’s wide receivers and Auburn’s secondary.

Florida State’s wide receivers: It’s not a deep group, but there may not be a more dynamic set of receivers in the country than what Jameis Winston has at his disposal at Florida State.

[+] EnlargeBenjamin
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFSU WR Kelvin Benjamin is a physical presence who can also break free and make big plays.
Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are all within striking distance of 1,000 yards. Greene is one of the nation’s most consistent threats, and while he’s not imposing physically, he runs precise routes and rarely drops a pass. Shaw is the lone senior in the group, and he’s averaging 18 yards a catch and has topped 89 yards receiving seven times. But it’s Benjamin who should keep Auburn defenders awake at night.

At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Benjamin is as physical a receiving threat as there is in college football. He excels at jump balls, is physical at the line of scrimmage, and loves blocking downfield. His career has been marked by inconsistency, but he was red hot to end the regular season, with 17 catches for 458 yards and eight TDs in his last four games.

Even if Auburn manages to corral all of Florida State’s deep threats, tight end Nick O’Leary is a wild card. O’Leary has 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns this season and is one of Winston’s favorite targets. As the big three receivers draw attention downfield, O’Leary provides a dangerous weapon underneath and is capable of picking up big chunks of yards after the catch.

And, of course, the key to all of it is Winston, the Heisman winner and one of the country’s most aggressive quarterbacks. Winston completes 55.8 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more (second only to Baylor’s Bryce Petty among AQ QBs) and has 19 TDs without an INT in the red zone this season.

Auburn’s secondary: In the last three games, Auburn has had a difficult time defending the pass. Aaron Murray threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns. AJ McCarron threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns. And in the SEC championship game, James Franklin threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Tigers are about to face the Heisman Trophy winner and the nation’s leader in opponent-adjusted QBR (90.8).

It’s a group that remains confident in their ability, but they know they have a steep challenge ahead of them.

The most notable name is cornerback Chris Davis, but that’s more because of his field-goal return to beat Alabama than his pass coverage. Still, he’s the No. 1 cornerback and the team’s best chance of shutting down an opposing wide receiver. It’s the cornerback opposite Davis, Jonathon Mincy, who teams have been able to pick on this season.

Mincy was defending Amari Cooper when the Alabama wide receiver hauled in a 99-yard touchdown pass in the Iron Bowl. He also had no answer for Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who finished with six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn. If he draws the assignment of defending Benjamin, which is what he wants, it could be a long day for the Tigers.

The X-factor could be Robenson Therezie who plays the Star position in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense. He leads the team in interceptions (four) and is fourth in tackles (55). He’ll primarily focus on covering the slot receiver, but he might also be asked to cover O’Leary at times or even blitz from time to time. Auburn isn’t going to stop Winston, but Therezie could make life a little more difficult for the Florida State quarterback.

Hale: Big edge Florida State

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State
AUBURN, Ala. -- Since losing to LSU early in the season, Auburn has won nine straight games and knocked off three top-10 teams in the process. The Tigers were supposed to lose at No. 7 Texas A&M. Nobody gave them a chance against No. 1 Alabama. And some even picked against them when they played No. 5 Missouri in the SEC championship game.

All Auburn did was win each of those games and prove the critics wrong time and time again. Now the Tigers are preparing to face No. 1 Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game and to nobody’s surprise, they are once again the underdogs.

[+] EnlargeAlabama vs Auburn
USA TODAY SportsAuburn can lay claim to being in several more tightly contested games this season than Florida State.
“I don’t care who they talk about as the favorite especially when you have two weeks to prepare,” Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. “Honestly, if you’re a top caliber team -- I think any top-five team could play with two weeks to prepare. Once the ball is rolled out, it’s time to play football. It really doesn’t matter about any rankings.

“I could care less about people not believing or saying, ‘This is the time they’re going to fall.’ We prepare for this.”

If anything, Auburn is more battle tested than Florida State heading into next Monday’s title game. The Seminoles have dominated their schedule, winning every game by at least 14 points and having an average margin of victory of 43 points. But they played four top 25 teams, two of which are no longer ranked.

Meanwhile, Auburn played six top 25 teams, four in the top 10, and nine of its 13 opponents are playing in a bowl game.

“I think if you look at our entire schedule, I would like to think we are battle tested,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “We’ve been in some true dogfight games. We’ve been in some games where the pressure was on -- on the road, at home -- and our guys have responded. In big games, I know they are not going to panic, so I’ve got to believe that will help us moving forward.”

It’s not just the caliber of opponents they have played this season. It’s how they’ve won. “Dogfight games” doesn’t even begin to describe some of their victories.

It took a game-winning drive in the final minutes to knock off both Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Against Georgia, Auburn connected on a 73-yard Hail Mary with less than a minute left to hold off the Bulldogs. And how can you forget the field-goal return by Chris Davis to take down Alabama in the Iron Bowl?

“There were times that things didn’t look good at all,” Malzahn said. “I’d always look on the sidelines and didn’t see anybody defeated, didn’t see anybody with their head down. They really believed, and they found a way to do it.”

“We know how to fight and we know how to battle and to push through and win a football game even when it’s tough,” fullback Jay Prosch said. “I think that’s a huge benefit. There’s always ups and downs in football games, and you have to know how to overcome that.”

It has been a miraculous run for this Auburn football team. The Tigers leave for California this week, and regardless of the point spread or what the outside world is saying, they will be confident and prepared when they take the field next week.

This is the type of game, the type of moment, Auburn lives for.

"It's just something that we embrace, embrace the moment of being in the spotlight and playing big teams,” quarterback Nick Marshall said. “We just know we have to keep doing what we're doing, and we'll be all right. We're going to find a way to win the game."

SEC 2013 wrap

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
10:00
AM ET
That cliche about history and its thirst for repeating itself really fits the SEC. Eight years after the SEC captured the first of seven straight BCS national titles, and 16 years after taking the first BCS title, it's closing out the BCS era with one final appearance in the big game.

The league needed a fresh face at a historic place and a little bit of luck to take its talents out west, but it only made sense that the conference that already owns nine BCS titles gets one last shot at another.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return against Alabama will live forever in SEC lore.
The team with the opportunity to bring commissioner Mike Slive another one of those shiny crystal footballs is Auburn. A three-win SEC bottom-feeder a year ago, the Tigers made the biggest turnaround in college football with an SEC title, 12 wins and some fantastic finishes that play on a loop in the minds of college football fans everywhere.

Auburn didn't have a smothering defense, but it pounded just about every team it faced with the nation's most dangerous rushing attack (335.7 yards per game). Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason (1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns), the Tigers' rushing attack, which features elements of the spread, triple option and power running, crossed the 200-yard mark in 12 games.

Along the way, the Tigers had thrilling endings in wins against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. The final two showcased a destined Hail Mary from quarterback Nick Marshall against Georgia and an unthinkable last-second, 109-yard touchdown return by Chris Davis on a missed 57-yard field goal attempt by Alabama.

With Auburn in the big game, that means that for the first time since Auburn was last in this game in 2010, Alabama will be watching from home. The Crimson Tide, which will be haunted by Davis' return for the foreseeable future, is headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and isn't competing for its third straight national championship.

The Tide seemed to have everything going for them until Davis took a chance. It bested Johnny Football in a shootout and topped LSU in dominating fashion late. But even Nick Saban and the Tide aren't perfect. A last-second decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal changed everything.

But in a year that was so un-SEC for the conference, it was fitting that Alabama missed the big one. Defenses were hard to come by, with only four teams giving up less than 350 yards a game. Only Alabama allowed less than 20 points per game (11.3).

Quarterbacks changed the dynamic of the conference with more shootouts than smashmouth games. Johnny Manziel passed (3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns) his way to New York for the Heisman ceremony, while we said somber goodbyes to Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw (still the toughest man in the game) and Zach Mettenberger.

Traditional SEC Eastern Division powers Florida and Georgia stumbled thanks to injuries. The Gators were hit the hardest and fell the most, suffering their first losing season since 1979, missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 22 years and losing to Vanderbilt and FCS Georgia Southern at home.

Then there was Missouri, which took the SEC East by storm in another bounce-back year. Headed by a high-flying offense, these Tigers won 11 and made it to Atlanta in their second year in the league, only to meet the buzz saw that is Auburn's running game.

Many things were different all around the league this year, but one thing remained the same: A chance at a national championship is still there. Once again, this league needed luck, but somehow the SEC found a way.

Offensive MVP: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: Mason was one of the league's most consistent players. He led the SEC with 1,621 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. He set an Auburn record with 23 total touchdowns and 2,137 all-purpose yards. In SEC games, Mason averaged 5.7 yards per carry and crossed the century mark on the ground eight times.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III, Michael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida CB Vernon Hargreaves III put together an sterling freshman season with three interceptions and 14 passes defensed.
Defensive MVP: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is a close second here, but he just wasn't as consistent as Mosley, who led Alabama with 102 tackles, including 56 solo stops. Mosley was the closest thing to a quarterback on defense that you could find in the country. He can play both the run and pass. He led Alabama with nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries.

Newcomer of the year: With Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall spending a year at Georgia, he wasn't eligible. But our top newcomer came in and made an immediate impact in Florida's secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III started the final 10 games of the season, tying for first in the SEC with 14 passes defended (most by a freshman in Florida history). He also had three interceptions and 38 tackles.

Best game: There were so many to choose from this year. You had instant classics with Vanderbilt-Ole Miss, Georgia-LSU, Auburn-Texas A&M, Alabama-Texas A&M, Missouri-South Carolina and Auburn-Georgia. But Alabama-Auburn had the craziest ending of all. In a game that should have gone to overtime, Davis ended things with a remarkable return to give Auburn a 34-28 win over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Fans stormed the field, and the Tigers eventually found a spot in the BCS title game.

Biggest disappointment: Yes, injuries ravaged the Gators, but a 4-8 record shouldn't happen at a program like Florida. The most embarrassing part about the year was that home loss to Georgia Southern before getting blown out by Florida State. The Gators scored more than 20 points just four times, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were both fired at the end of the season.

Biggest surprise: Auburn went from winning just three games a year ago to playing in the national championship in Malzahn's first season. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total offense last year (305) and head into bowl season ranking second (505.3) in the SEC.
video
AUBURN, Ala. -- In last Saturday’s SEC championship game, the Auburn coaches kept giving the ball to running back Tre Mason, knowing their next game wouldn’t come for at least another three weeks. Mason delivered with 304 yards and four touchdowns against Missouri, but it didn’t come without some consequence to his body.

“Of course, you know I'm feeling a little sore after however many carries I had, 46 or something like that,” Mason said. “But that’s just how you feel after a game. I wasn’t going to stop until the clock hit zero, and we won. I wasn’t even tired. Even after the game, I was celebrating and I was happy. I probably could have gone another game.”

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTre Mason and Auburn get a long break to rest up and prepare for No. 1 Florida State.
Fortunately, Auburn doesn’t have to play another game until January. After back-to-back wins over two of the most physical teams in the SEC, the Tigers will receive a much-needed break to rest up, recuperate and prepare for No. 1 Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 6.

“It's tough to have to wait a month, but we need that preparation and like what Tre said, people need their bodies to heal,” cornerback Chris Davis said. “You need to step away from football for a minute.”

The Auburn players are off this week because of finals, but it’s back to the practice field next week as they start preparation for the Seminoles.

“We need to know what they’re doing before they do it, and I think that will give us a good head start on them,” Davis said. “And we just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Like Coach [Gus] Malzahn said, you’re not going to change anything. We’re just going to prepare like we’ve been preparing until the game comes.”

Malzahn, Davis and the rest of the seniors have been in this situation before. They won the 2010 BCS title game after winning the SEC championship. That season, the Tigers had 36 days between the two games. This year, they only have 29 days, but Malzahn plans to implement a similar regiment in the weeks leading up to the final game.

“I’d like to think that [experience] would definitely help,” Malzahn said. “I thought we had a solid plan in 2010.

“Any time you have a month before you play, you’ve got to be strategic. You have to rest your guys enough mentally and physically, but keep them as fresh as you can and get your work done. Then you try to keep some type of routine, especially the last two weeks before you play. I really felt good about our plan in 2010, and it will be fairly similar to that.”

As an offensive coordinator, Malzahn was 4-1 in bowl games that he coached. The lone loss came at Arkansas in 2006 when he wasn’t calling plays. However, this will be his first postseason experience as a head coach. Last season, he left Arkansas State before the Red Wolves played their bowl game.

He’s already admitted that he’s slept better since Saturday’s SEC championship game.

“Probably better than I had the few weeks before just because we're not playing another opponent [right away],” Malzahn said. “I would say there was a little more relaxation than there had been.”

This week, Malzahn and a select group of players will travel to Orlando for Thursday’s Home Depot College Football Awards show. From there, he’s expected to accompany Mason to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation on Saturday night.

Then it’s back to work for Malzahn and the Tigers.
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.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES