NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs can joke about it now.
“It was a tough year last year, but not as tough as three-a-days under Pat Dye,” quipped Jacobs, who played for Dye at Auburn in the early 1980s. “It was pretty close, though.”
And about as ugly as it gets.
Auburn senior H-back Jay Prosch took it a step further.
“It was completely degrading,” he said about the 2012 season.
But in the same breath, Prosch beamed, “This year has been amazing.”
It’s been the equivalent of football nirvana for the Auburn community.
Let’s face it: Nobody expected this, not after the way things unraveled on the Plains a year ago, which has made the Tigers' turnaround all the more remarkable and equally soothing for everybody associated with Auburn.
It’s one thing to have the bottom fall out and go 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC) only two years removed from a national championship. But try doing that when your bitter rival across the state is in the midst of back-to-back national championships.
In a lot of ways, being an Auburn fan in the state of Alabama the last couple of years was a lot like being a 20-handicap golfer in a foursome that also included Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.
“We’ve been through some tough times here with other issues,” Jacobs said. “But as far as on the field, there’s never been a more difficult year to navigate. And then being in the same state with another SEC school that beats you handily and wins two straight national championships makes it even more difficult.
“Not that it wouldn’t have been difficult by itself, but I think everybody in the Auburn family was looking at it and wondering, ‘How far apart are we, and will we ever get back to where we were in 2010?'" Jacobs added. "But here we are now playing for a national championship. They’ve won two in the last four years, and we have a chance to win two.
“We’re excited about what we’ve got going at Auburn. We’re going to keep our foot on the accelerator, and we’re not slowing down.”
No team in the last decade has won as many SEC championships as Auburn (three), but that might get lost in the shuffle when Alabama reels off three national titles in a four-year span.
Not only that, but Alabama obliterated Auburn by a combined 91-14 margin in the two games before this season.
“It was really hard,” Prosch said. “A lot of my friends are Alabama fans, and even though they’re not saying anything about it, you can feel it. It’s not a good feeling. You always want to be a competitor, at least.
“And last year, we weren’t even competitive with them.”
Phillip Marshall has covered Auburn for more than 30 years and knows the program inside out. He’s not sure he’s ever seen it teetering the way it was toward the end of last season, when the Tigers lost their last two SEC games by a combined 87-0 margin, leading to Gene Chizik’s firing and the return of Gus Malzahn as head coach.
“I think that’s what has made this year so special for Auburn fans,” said Marshall, who now works for Auburn. “They’d almost lost hope, and then to see this kind of turnaround in one year, when Alabama had been so dominant, is something nobody saw coming -- not this quickly, anyway.”
Junior center Reese Dismukes joked this week that blood pressures were down across the board this season among Auburn fans, who dreaded the thought the last two years of crossing paths with Alabama fans.
And in that state, it’s common for families to be split right down the middle, so there’s really no getting away from the rivalry.
“It’s good to have taken the state back,” Dismukes said. “I was as tired of hearing people talk about Alabama as anyone else was.”
Junior running back Tre Mason said it’s gratifying to see the pride back among the entire Auburn family.
“Putting them through what we did last year, we owed them a season like this,” Mason said. “It makes me happy as a player to see our fans happy and them walking around with a smile on their face.”
Malzahn’s quiet confidence has been infectious from the outset. He’s not a guy who seeks out the cameras and doesn't provide a lot of soundbites. But soon after getting the job, he worked hard to connect with Auburn fans.
Obviously, when you win an SEC title, beat Alabama and earn a chance to play for a national title, you’re going to connect with your fan base.
It’s a fan base that was splintered when Malzahn arrived. A little more than a year later, it’s a fan base that’s having to pinch itself to make sure this is all real.
“Regardless of what happens Monday night, and we’re looking forward to playing Florida State, but this has been a season for the ages, one that will always be remembered,” Jacobs said. “It’s been such a joy for the Auburn family and has comforted the Auburn family.
“Really, it came out of nowhere, and we’re just excited to see where it all ends.”
So in a season that started with Alabama chasing history, it’s Auburn that can make history Monday night against Florida State.
The Tigers are already the first team in history to play in the national title game on the heels of a losing season the year before. A victory over the Seminoles would complete the greatest improvement from one season to the next in major college history.
“Adversity is what’s made this team what it is right now, and we’re just going to keep fighting,” Auburn senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said.