SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Well, here Auburn is, unbeaten and playing in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game two years removed from suffering through a losing season.
If you’re an Auburn fan, the Tigers weren’t easy on the old ticker this season. They rallied from two-touchdown deficits four different times to win games, including the epic 24-point comeback at Alabama.
It was truly a thrill-a-minute ride, and here’s a look back at the top 10 plays (in reverse order) that paved the way for Auburn to meet Oregon on Monday night on college football’s grandest stage:
10. Everything counts in a championship season, even good “field-goal defense.” Clemson’s Chandler Catanzaro, a walk-on redshirt freshman, missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt in overtime. He had just made a 27-yarder to seemingly send the game into a second overtime, but the Clemson center, Dalton Freeman, double-clutched the snap. Clemson was moved 5 yards back, and Catanzaro hooked his kick wide left, giving Auburn a 27-24 win in overtime in a game the Tigers trailed 17-0 late in the first half.
9. Speaking of field goals, Auburn’s Wes Byrum has five game-winning field goals during his career. One of those came as time expired this season against Kentucky, a 24-yarder allowing the Tigers to escape 37-34 on the road the sixth week of the season. Byrum’s game-winner came on the tail end of a 19-play, 86-yard drive by the Tigers that consumed nearly seven and a half minutes of the fourth-quarter clock.
8. In the first South Carolina game, the Gamecocks turned the ball over on each of their last four possessions. The final one came when freshman quarterback Connor Shaw lofted a pass to Alshon Jeffery in the end zone. Jeffery got his hands on the ball, but was hit by Zac Etheridge. The ball popped out, and Demond Washington made a diving interception with 54 seconds to play, preserving Auburn’s 35-27 win.
7. Cam Newton made so many spectacular plays this season that they all run together. But his 49-yard touchdown run against LSU to put Auburn ahead 17-10 on its first possession of the second half was in a class all by itself. He broke tackles. He showed tailback-like moves in the open field. He accelerated. He wasn’t going to be kept out of the end zone on a run they will be talking about on the Plains for years to come.
6. The offenses were scoring at will, and the defenses almost seemed helpless when Arkansas visited Jordan-Hare Stadium on Oct. 16. The Tigers led 44-43, and the Hogs had a third-and-1 at their own 43. Broderick Green motored around right end for the first down, but fumbled after being hit by Craig Stevens. Etheridge picked up the ball and raced 47 yards for a touchdown. It was close as to whether or not Green was down before the ball came loose. The play was reviewed, and the replay official confirmed the call on the field. Auburn went on to dominate the fourth quarter and win 65-43.
5. Etheridge’s fumble return for a touchdown was just the first of several big defensive plays by Auburn in the fourth quarter of that Arkansas game. On the Hogs’ next offensive play following Etheridge’s return, Tyler Wilson threw a ball over the middle that senior middle linebacker Josh Bynes read perfectly and intercepted. Bynes returned it 33 yards to the Arkansas 7-yard line, setting up Newton’s 3-yard touchdown run to break the game wide open. Bynes intercepted another Wilson pass three offensive plays later to seal the deal.
4. The Tigers knew they had to make something happen right out of the gate coming out of halftime against Alabama, and that’s exactly what they did. Trailing 24-7 at the half, Auburn got a 70-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Terrell Zachery on the Tigers’ second offensive play of the second half. It was a deep ball down the left sideline, and Alabama safety Mark Barron appeared to be in position to make a play. But Barron had torn his pectoral muscle in the first half and was unable to pick his arm up and knock the ball away. Zachery made the catch and raced to the end zone. Just like that, what was once a 24-0 lead had been cut to 10 points with an entire half to play.
3. Auburn piled up a staggering 440 rushing yards against LSU in its 24-17 win. But with just under six minutes to play, the game was deadlocked at 17-17. Somebody needed to make a play. Onterio McCalebb was that somebody. He showcased his speed by racing 70 yards for a touchdown on a jet sweep. McCalebb got key blocks from Kodi Burns and Zachery on the play, made one cut and was gone. It was the knockout blow for Auburn in a game that was teetering up until that point.
2. Antoine Carter didn’t score a touchdown. He didn’t ring up a key sack. But he did save the Tigers’ season with the kind of hustle that epitomizes why you never give up on a play. Alabama was leading 21-0 in the first half, and running back Mark Ingram caught a pass and broke loose for what looked like might be another touchdown. Ingram stumbled briefly, which allowed a hustling Carter just enough time to get to Ingram and poke the ball away. Carter, a senior defensive end, had to run nearly 50 yards from where he started. He got to Ingram at the Auburn 18-yard line and knocked the ball loose. Instead of going out of bounds, it squirted through the end zone for a touchback. A 28-0 lead there would have probably been insurmountable, but Auburn had new life thanks to Carter never giving up.
1. Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley was to the Tigers’ defense what Newton was to the offense. He led the SEC with 10.5 sacks, and none were any bigger than his sack of Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. The Crimson Tide, leading 24-7, had the ball second-and-goal at the Auburn 8-yard line and were about to salt the game away for good in the final minute of the half. On the snap, Fairley exploded off the ball and got to McElroy in a flash, forcing a fumble. Fairley was on the ground by that point, but saw the ball rolling around. He was able to beat all of the Alabama players and pounce on the fumble at the Auburn 12. It was a huge momentum swing going into halftime, keeping the Crimson Tide from scoring any more points. If they score there and go up 31-7, the game’s over. Fairley had other ideas with his version of a hat trick -- sack, forced fumble and recovered fumble -- and Auburn rallied in the second half for an improbable 28-27 victory.