SEC: 2013 Iron Bowl

Reliving Auburn's miracle return

December, 3, 2013

AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return was like something out of a video game, according to Tide QB AJ McCarron.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, staring his own date with destiny and a third straight national championship in the eye, didn't think to throw a Hail Mary pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the odds of AJ McCarron heaving a touchdown in that situation were 2 percent. Better to give Adam Griffith a shot at splitting the uprights from 57 yards out, Saban thought. He'd seen his freshman kicker hit it from 60 yards plenty of times, and Cade Foster, Alabama's regular place-kicker, had already missed three field goals.

Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.

"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.

"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.

Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.

"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.

Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.

"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.

Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.

"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."

Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.

Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.

"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."

Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.

"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"

It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.

"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"

"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."

Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."

The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe game over, the field turned into one very large celebration.
"I don't think I've ever been part of a sequence like that with so much on the line in that part of the game," Malzahn said, not realizing he had won the Western Division until the moment he shook Saban's hand after the game.

Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.

"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."

"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."

It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.

When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.

Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Chris Davis' unthinkable game-winning return on a missed Alabama field goal seemed impossible at the time. Even with all the magic from the immaculate deflection on the Plains just two weeks earlier, Saturday's shocking finish in Auburn's 34-28 stunner over No. 1 Alabama just wasn't supposed to happen.

But with this group of cardiac cats, an ending like that just makes since. In the fourth quarter, Auburn's magic emerges.

"Coach [Gus Malzahn] tells us the whole season that if it comes down to the end, we can win the game, we can find a way to win," receiver Sammie Coates said. "And every time it comes down to the end, we find a way."

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsChris Davis' stunning return on a missed field goal to beat Alabama was just the latest incredible fourth-quarter rally for Auburn.
During No. 3 Auburn's miraculous regular season, the Tigers (11-1, 7-1 SEC) have outscored opponents 93-58 in the fourth quarter. Only Georgia and Ole Miss have outscored the Tigers in the fourth quarter this year, but both resulted in Auburn victories after clutch plays on both sides of the ball.

But the last two games have shown just how much the Tigers love to shine when the game is on the line. Two weeks ago, Auburn blew a 20-point lead to the Bulldogs only to have Nick Marshall bring the Tigers back from the brink with his 73-yard prayer to Ricardo Louis.

Saturday, Auburn did that ending one better with Davis' return on a play that really never should have happened. Nick Saban pleaded for a second to be added to the game clock when Davis knocked T.J. Yeldon out of bounds after a 24-yard run to Auburn's 38-yard line. He got it, and trotted Adam Griffith out to attempt a 57-yard field goal with the SEC Western Division and a potential spot in the BCS title game on the line.

Griffth had made a 60-yarder in practice, but this wasn't practice. This was rowdy Jordan-Hare in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl. And with no athletes on the field fast enough to catch anyone brave enough to return a short kick, Saban became yet another victim of Auburn's amazing fourth-quarter magic.

On Saturday, Auburn orchestrated its best fourth-quarter performance of the season. Facing a Crimson Tide team that has prided itself on dominating late and wearing down teams in the waning minutes, it was Auburn that did the late pushing and punishing.

Tied at 21 to start the fourth quarter, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron delivered what appeared to be the death blow to Auburn's magical season when he launched a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 10:28 remaining.

Plenty of time remained, but this was Alabama. This was a team that thrived on late heroics … until it met this year's Auburn team.

Auburn allowed just 53 yards on its last three possessions and blocked a field goal. On offense, Auburn drove 80 yards on seven plays and tied Alabama with a wide open 39-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to Coates.

The Tigers stood tall, poked out their chests and bullied big, bad Bama before Davis ripped its heart out.

"They hit us back," Auburn safety Ryan Smith said. "Those were some hard punches and it was hard to fight back. We just tried to stay together and tell each other, 'Man, we are gonna keep fighting and we're gonna find a way to win this game, like coach tells us all the time.'"

Auburn's fourth-quarter rallies in consecutive games has been linked to luck, and you can't argue that it hasn't been a factor. But you can't say that luck has trumpeted Auburn's efforts. A lucky team doesn't eat up Alabama's running game late. A lucky team doesn't force Saban to make a critical late-game error.

"It's been like that all year," said running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 26 yards on six carries in the fourth quarter Saturday. "In the close games, we've been pulling out with a win. It's our mindset going into the fourth quarter that we own the fourth quarter. Once the fourth quarter rolls around, it's a new game. We don't even treat it like the same game we're playing. It's a new game, and we're starting over."

Auburn knows how to fight when the pressure is on and the clock is ticking down. Saturday made blood pressure rise and hearts pound on the Plains, but endings like this and plays like this have guided Auburn to its unlikely run to the SEC title game.

"It's been an amazing year so far," Malzahn said. "It's not over with, but obviously a huge win. Our program is going in the right direction and I really like coaching our team."
AUBURN, Ala. -- Their pain exiting the visitor's locker room was obvious. Far-off looks and muted responses told their story. Alabama's players had just endured the most heartbreaking, debilitating loss of their careers. And to make matters worse, it happened at Auburn on an improbable finish that Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood couldn't help but call "lucky."

But it wasn't luck that led to Auburn's win. That's a hard pill for Alabama fans to swallow so soon, but the game was tied with one second remaining. That was no fluke. Nick Saban then went for a long field goal, didn't have his players properly prepared to defend the return and paid the ultimate price. The gates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium flooded into a blue and orange sea of joy, and Alabama had no one to blame but itself.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGus Malzahn has a lot in common with Nick Saban.
Was it a likely scenario? Of course not. According to NCAA records, it was only the fourth time that a missed field goal was returned for 100 yards. But the answer to that most timeless of questions -- Did they win the game or did the other team lose it? -- doesn't apply here. Forget Cade Foster's missed field goals. As a matter of fact, get off his back already. You'd do well to remember the litany of missed opportunities Auburn had as well. The Tigers dropped passes, fumbled the football and committed penalties.

It's been more than 24 hours since the best, craziest, wildest Iron Bowl ever, and that's more than enough time to realize what we witnessed on Saturday night: Both teams played like champions, both coaches were among the best in the game and this rivalry is going to be the most compelling in college football for years to come.

As one SEC head coach told me prior to Saturday's game, "Alabama is at the top … Auburn is still trying to get there." Well, whether Auburn wins the SEC championship and advances to the BCS title game is beside the point now. They proved that coach wrong. By beating Alabama, Auburn showed it’s more than just a team on the rise, it's an equal. The upstart Tigers are ready to compete with the likes of the vaunted Tide for championships today, not somewhere off in the future.

And the Iron Bowl rivalry is better off for it. Why? Because competitive games are good games, and rivalries are healthiest when both teams are playing well. What we saw from Alabama and Auburn over the past two seasons was sickly, predictable and no fun to watch.

Gus Malzahn, instead, has the Tigers back less than a year after walking into what was, by all accounts, a dumpster fire. Players quit, recruits jumped ship and the entire coaching staff was fired two seasons removed from a national championship. Rebuilds of that variety are supposed to be measured in years, not months. Winning Iron Bowls wasn't supposed to happen right away. Look at it this way: Nick Marshall's touchdown run in the first half Saturday was the first offensive touchdown by Auburn against Alabama since 2010.

Sound familiar, Alabama fans? It should. Saban walked into a similar mess in 2007. He took a little longer to recover from what NCAA probation and Mike Shula left behind, but in 2008 he and Alabama snapped Auburn's six-game Iron Bowl winning streak with a 36-0 win in Tuscaloosa. A year later the Tide won a national championship.

Try to separate Saban and Malzahn all you want, but their similarities are striking. They're both singularly focused coaches with a public personality that, to be put kindly, is often lacking. They eat, sleep and breathe football. They don't hype games and they don't regale the media with humorous stories. And they're both geniuses at what they do. Saban has established himself as the best defensive coach in college football and Malzahn is quickly making his case to become the best offensive coach in the game. One pushes the tempo like a maniac while the other does everything he can to slow it down.

It's brilliant. You couldn't draw up a better foil than Saban to Malzahn and Malzahn to Saban. They're even in the same state. They're practically neighbors. They'll cross each other's path on the recruiting trail, nod, smile and silently plot ways to ruin one another's existence. Just think of the weeks and months the Alabama staff will spend in the dark scouring Auburn's film this offseason, trying to find some place to exploit, some soft spot in the read-option to destroy.

Get ready, Alabama. Prepare yourself, Auburn. You're both lucky because this is going to be a fun ride for the next few years. With these two coaches, the Iron Bowl should continue to be a competitive back-and-forth like we saw Saturday every year.

Video: Malzahn talks win on 'SportsCenter'

December, 1, 2013

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn joins "SportsCenter" to talk about Auburn's win over Alabama and break down Chris Davis' game-winning field goal return.

Video: Auburn CB Chris Davis

December, 1, 2013

Edward Aschoff talks to Auburn cornerback Chris Davis about his 100-yard field goal return to beat Alabama 34-28 in the Iron Bowl.

The new standard for Iron Bowl lore

December, 1, 2013

AUBURN, Ala. -- Someday, someday, there will be a greater Iron Bowl finish than this one. Babe Ruth died, and the Yankees continue to play. Sinatra has come and gone, and people still sing. Forty-one years after "Punt Bama Punt," Chris Davis caught a field goal nine yards deep in the end zone, and started running.

So it's possible that the way that No. 4 Auburn dethroned No. 1 Alabama, 34-28, will be eclipsed. But at this moment Saturday night, with the cheers at Jordan-Hare Stadium still reverberating from here to Columbus, Ohio, it doesn't seem possible at all. With the clock showing all zeroes, Davis returned Adam Griffin's Hail Mary of a 57-yard field goal attempt 109 yards for a touchdown.

"We saw they had a guy back there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "Everybody knew they had to cover him. We just didn't, we didn't cover it right."

In the 15 seconds or so that it took Davis to sprint from end line to end line, Alabama lost its chance at a third consecutive BCS championship; Auburn won the SEC West and planted itself in the BCS title debate, No. 3 Ohio State saw its BCS hopes come to life, and the spectrum of emotions that any of us who enjoy football stretched a little beyond its limit.

"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said, "and I knew we had bigger guys on the field to protect and that was all after that."

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AUBURN, Ala. -- It was Gus Malzahn's call.

With 1 second remaining before what should have been overtime Saturday in the Iron Bowl, Malzahn called a timeout to ice Alabama kicker Adam Griffith before his 57-yard attempt at a game-winning field goal. The Auburn coach also decided to replace safety Ryan Smith with cornerback Chris Davis in the back of the end zone -- just in case Griffith's kick came up short.

What happened next was perfectly in line with the magical season transpiring on the Plains.

Davis received the kick well short of the uprights, sprinted toward the middle of the field before cutting down the left sideline and zooming toward the end zone for a touchdown to give the Tigers yet another jaw-dropping, last-second victory that will send them to SEC championship game as the SEC Western Division champions.

"I thought just run, try to make something happen, and that's exactly what I did," an exhausted Davis said. "It's a miracle. Like I said, God is good.

"It hasn't sunk in, yet. It will sooner or later."

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' last-second, 100-yard touchdown return was Auburn's second improbable win in a row.
Auburn's improbable 34-28 win knocked No. 1 Alabama off its perch above the college football landscape and made the case for some destiny talk with the Tigers.

In back-to-back games, Auburn did the unthinkable with its back against the wall. The Tigers successfully blew a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead to Georgia on the Plains two weeks ago before Nick Marshall's prayer of a pass deflected off Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons' hands and into the mitts of Ricardo Louis for the 43-38 win.

Then came Davis, who had pleaded with his coaches to give him more chances in the return game. Once again, Malzahn's move paid off. A year removed from being the laughingstock of the SEC with a 3-9 record and a fired head coach, the Tigers are the class of the SEC West and are inching closer to possibly playing in the BCS title game.

"I knew we were going to score; they had too many big guys on the field, and he's just too fast," receiver Sammie Coates said.

Luck, talent, attitude and a helluva head coach have the Tigers back in the national spotlight.

"No one believed us, now we're here," senior defensive end Dee Ford said. "We definitely deserve every bit of it."

Luck is involved, but it isn't everything. This team just has "it." It has spunk and heart, two things missing from last season's disaster. After Auburn's Jekyll-and-Hyde-type loss to LSU in late September, the Tigers have bounced back to win eight straight without scoring fewer than 30 points.

Luck doesn't do all that. A lucky team doesn't win 11 games, including one against top-ranked Alabama. A lucky team doesn't fight back from a 14-point deficit by gutting the SEC's top-ranked rush defense for 296 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. A lucky team doesn't tire out one of the most mentally and physically conditioned teams around.

"Growing up, I've been an Auburn fan, and I ain't never liked Alabama," Smith said. "Right now, this is our state for the next 365 [days]."

He's right, and it's not like Auburn changed much to beat its archrival. Malzahn stuck to his game plan and wore down Alabama.

Auburn's no-huddle, hurry-up offense gassed Alabama's defense. After the Crimson Tide took a 21-7 lead late in the second quarter, the Tigers responded by marching 81 yards on seven plays in just 2:08 to cut the score to 21-14. On the first drive of the second half, Auburn went 69 yards in nine plays to tie it up.

On those drives, Auburn ran the ball 13 times for 119 yards and had just three runs of less than 6 yards.

"That's what we're good at, and we were able to run the football effectively," Malzahn said. "Once we got the pace going and kinda wore them down.

"When we're clicking we can run the football effectively."

But what really spoke to how far this team has come was how it bounced back after AJ McCarron delivered what appeared to be a dagger of a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper to make it 28-21 early in the fourth. Instead of panicking, the Tigers relaxed.

The defense blocked a field goal and held Alabama to just 53 more yards on its final three possessions. After a lull by the offense, the Tigers drove 80 yards and tied the game again on a 39-yard pass from Marshall to a wide-open Coates on their final drive.

Then came the return, which trumped the pass less than two weeks earlier and sent a crazed orange-and-blue sea of Auburn students spilling onto Pat Dye Field to celebrate a historic win with its miraculous team.

"I believe it validates everything we've been saying all year, especially me," Ford said. "I said our setup [was] an opportunity for a comeback. We really knew that we had a chance to shock the world; we said that from media days, the summertime to right now, and we were able to do that."

When asked after the game if this was the biggest win of his life, Malzahn played coy, saying it ranked "up there" and that he'd have to think about it. But before Malzahn could complete his mundane response, his wife, Kristi, cut in.

"Just say, 'Yes!"

As a room full of media members chuckled alongside Malzahn, he finally let his guard down.

"Probably so," he said.

"It's indeed a new day."

It certainly is on the Plains.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Rolled up in a trash can outside the visitor's locker room was a sign that read "Roll Tide." Wrapped around it was another: "ATL Bound."

No, No. 1 Alabama will not be going to Atlanta to compete for the SEC championship. An improbable 34-28 loss on the road at Auburn swallowed up that dream and left nothing behind. All hope of an undefeated season disappeared as Chris Davis weaved down the sideline and ran back a missed field goal 100 yards for the winning touchdown as time expired. And that third straight national championship? Alabama now sits far off the fringe of the title conversation.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Jay SailorsAlabama's Amari Cooper sat stunned after watching the way the Tide lost to Auburn.
Auburn fans rushed the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium while Alabama's players and coaches looked on in stunned disbelief. Their title run was over on a play that no one could have foreseen. It was a game that featured jabs back and forth throughout, but ended on what felt like a sucker punch to the Tide. Kevin Norwood, Alabama's most veteran wide receiver, called the touchdown "lucky" after the game, his eyes glazed as he reflected on what he just witnessed.

"The chances of that happening in college football are rare," he said, "and it happened tonight. They got it by luck, but whatever. It happens."

Norwood said he'd experienced the pain he felt then just once before: 2010 against Auburn, when Alabama let a 24-point lead disappear in a failed bid to knock the Tigers out of the championship picture. Instead, it was Alabama seeing its lead and its championship aspirations snatched away by Auburn on Saturday night.

It very well could be the final thing Norwood and his fellow seniors remember about their time at Alabama. Painful memories have a way of overtaking the good like that. They'll have two championship rings to look back on years from now, but the spot where a third should have rested will weigh heavily.

"It's sad," said Anthony Steen, a senior and three-year starter at guard for Alabama. "It's really hard to explain. I haven't felt this way in a long time and hopefully I won't ever have to feel this way again."

"It was quiet," said fellow veteran Jeoffrey Pagan of the atmosphere in the locker room after the game. "There were a couple of guys in tears just because of how hurt they were from the game. There was just a dull atmosphere. Coach called it up and just told us to move on from here."

But how do you do that? How do you go from having championship reservations to sitting idly by waiting for whatever bowl game calls your name?

AJ McCarron and others did their best to answer that question, but their body language betrayed them. Lost looks and listless platitudes did little to express optimism for what's left of the season. There will be one more game, but not the one anyone wanted.

"Sometimes luck just isn't on your side," McCarron said. "But like I told the guys, 'Hold your head high and be thankful for everything you've got.' Football is just a game at the end of the day, it's not life."

Nick Saban did his best to give off that same calm demeanor. Alabama's head coach took the podium after the game and told reporters of missed execution and missed opportunities. He looked down often, his voice raspy, his hands on his hips as he lamented going for it on fourth down and less than a yard, the chance of a field goal in his grasp.

Those three points could have been the difference in winning and losing. So could have a dropped touchdown pass by Amari Cooper, two missed field goals by Cade Foster and so many others mishaps. It wasn't the sloppiest game Alabama played all season, but the mistakes added up. Failing to stop Davis' returned field goal was the sour cherry on top.

"That was not a great way to lose the game, especially for a team that I have a tremendous amount of respect for," Saban said. "It's my responsibility."

Later, Saban used harsher tones, calling it a "comedy of errors" in the fourth quarter.

But no one was laughing.

Deion Belue, Alabama's senior cornerback, was the last player to leave the locker room on Saturday night. He said nothing on the walk to the bus, passing up the food cart without so much as a look at the spread. Four women hugged him, but he didn't break stride for their embrace. He was in too much of a daze.

Even the volunteers cleaning up the players' mess in the locker room said nothing. Heads down, they picked up discarded gloves, cleats and towels. They loaded trunks full of equipment into buses without a word, bracing their hands against the No. 15 stickers on the corners of all the luggage.

There will be no trip to Atlanta. There will likely be no 16th national championship this season. Any fairytale run for Alabama this time around will need serious help.

Those dreams and those hopes were all but wadded up and left behind in Auburn.

Video: Auburn returns FG to beat Alabama

November, 30, 2013

Gus Malzahn and Auburn players recap their 34-28 win over Alabama.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Somehow the game lived up to the hype. Really, it was a classic. The biggest Iron Bowl in recent memory, pitting championship hopefuls No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn, found a way to surpass the enormous buzz surrounding the matchup entering Saturday afternoon in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Alabama and Auburn wrestled back and forth all night, but the final moments belonged to the home team as Auburn did the unthinkable and returned a missed field goal in the final seconds to knock off Alabama 34-28.

It was over when: It wasn't over until it was over. Whenever Alabama pulled away, Auburn reared right back. And on the final play of regulation, Auburn returned a 57-yard field goal attempt the length of the field to pull off the improbable upset and continue the miracle season on The Plains.

Game ball goes to: Tre Mason ran like a man possessed against the vaunted Alabama defense. The Tigers' leading rusher hustled for 164 yards and a touchdown. When Auburn needed to move the chains, he did. And without the threat of him running up the middle, the read-option with Nick Marshall doesn't work so well.

Stat of the game: Alabama entered its regular-season finale having allowed just one 100-yard rusher all year. But the Tigers' Mason eclipsed the century mark before the first half was complete, gaining 164 yards overall. To make matters even more interesting, Auburn quarterback Marshall contributed 99 yards of his own on the ground, including a 45-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter. Auburn became the first team to rush for 200 yards on Alabama since Georgia Southern did it in 2011.

What it means: For Alabama, the championship run is over. For Auburn, the miracle season continues. The Tigers will go to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta and with a win there will be in the running for a berth in the national championship game.

Video: Keys to the Iron Bowl

November, 29, 2013

David Pollack discusses AJ McCarron's chances at winning the Heisman Trophy and shares his key for Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

Auburn gets physical to regain its edge

November, 29, 2013

From the day Gus Malzahn returned to Auburn in December as head coach, he has repeated a very familiar theme.

"We had to get our edge back," Malzahn said.

The Tigers weren’t going to do that with snazzy new uniforms, a gimmicky offense or by pretending that 2012 was simply a fluke.

“We went back to doing what Auburn has always done best and what fit the players we have here now, and that’s spreading you out and coming at you until you can’t take it anymore or don’t want it anymore,” said Auburn junior running back Tre Mason, one of the main cogs in an Auburn running game ranked second nationally in rushing (320.3 yards per game).

Yes, Malzahn likes to play at warp speed and views huddling the way most of us view Sasquatch sightings. And, yes, the Tigers’ goal is to snap the ball before the defense is ready, and they’re always going to show you different formations with a lot of motion, misdirection and even a few trick plays.

But the biggest misnomer with Malzahn’s offense is that it’s more finesse than physical.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesTre Mason and a physical run game have lifted Auburn into the national spotlight.
There’s a reason that he has had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in all eight of his seasons in the college game after making the move from the high school ranks.

And in six of his eight seasons as either a head coach or offensive coordinator his teams have averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game.

“That is what we harped on when we first got here,” Malzahn said. “We felt like we needed to get our edge back, that physical, hard-nosed, blue-collar edge back that starts up front. We are a run, play-action team. A lot of times, you hear 'spread' and think pass to open up the run, but we run to open up the pass.”

More times than not, the Tigers have run to open up the run this season and haven’t had to pass.

Quarterback Nick Marshall’s development in the zone-read part of the Tigers’ package has helped take this offense to another level. He’s a dynamic athlete and has carved defenses apart as he has become more and more comfortable in the offense.

Auburn has used the zone read on 43 percent of its designed rushes this season, the second-highest percentage in the SEC. The Tigers lead the SEC in yards (1,589), yards per rush (7.2) and touchdowns (18) on zone-read rushes.

When Marshall keeps the ball on the zone read, he has gained 657 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He’s averaging 9.4 yards per rush on zone-read keepers, best among quarterbacks in BCS automatic-qualifying conferences with at least 25 such rushes.

So Marshall’s athleticism has obviously been critical to Auburn’s success. But going back to Malzahn’s original point, it has all started up front for the Tigers in their offensive line.

According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, they’re averaging 209.5 rushing yards per game before first contact, which leads all teams from automatic-qualifying conferences. To put that number into perspective, 97 FBS teams do not average 209.5 total rushing yards per game.

“We don’t care if you put all 11 in the box. We’re still going to run the ball,” said Mason, who has rushed for an SEC-leading 1,153 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.

“We’re going to figure out a way to block it all up and figure out a way to be successful. With that mindset, we feel like we can’t be beat.”

And even though Auburn has attempted fewer than 20 passes in four of its past seven games, Mason invites Alabama this week or anybody else, for that matter, to sell out against the run.

“If you want to stack the box, we’re going to throw deep on you,” Mason said. “We feel like we have so many weapons in our arsenal.”

The obvious question heading into Saturday’s Iron Bowl is whether Auburn can make a living running the ball against an Alabama defense that specializes in making teams one-dimensional.

One stat to watch is big plays.

Auburn has 64 rushes of 15 yards or longer this season, second most in the FBS. By contrast, Alabama has allowed three rushes of 15 yards or longer all season, which is on pace to be the lowest total in the past 10 years.

The Crimson Tide have allowed just five rushing touchdowns all season and are the only FBS team that has not allowed a team to rush for multiple touchdowns in a game.

Mason, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons, has great respect for Alabama on defense. But the way he looks at it, the Tide are the ones who will need to make the adjustments Saturday on the Plains.

“We don’t have to do anything different or try to be something we’re not,” Mason said. “We just have to do what we’ve done all season, and that’s play Auburn football.”

ESPNWhen Gus Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator from 2009-11, his Tigers' lethal rushing attack was kept far below its SEC average each year by the Tide. Will Saturday be different?

Cyrus Kouandjio's long road

November, 29, 2013
Cyrus KouandjioAP Photo/Butch DillCyrus Kouandjio, right, is a massive protector for Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Cyrus Kouandjio hunched over in his seat, an enormous, well-built man struggling to connect the dots of his past. Where does my strength come from? he asked, his wide smile vanishing behind the dust of old memories as he sorted through his family's struggle to survive.

Unlike most 6-foot-6, 310-pound offensive linemen, Cyrus is unburdened by a heavy gut or cumbersome muscle. His feet are nimble -- something he developed kicking around a soccer ball as a child. But the most impressive thing about him is his raw power. This season he's unveiled a new move -- "The Slap," as it's been called -- where he simply takes his right hand and whacks rushing defenders to the ground like wobbly tackling dummies.

A junior left tackle at the University of Alabama, Kouandjio is still a baby to the game. He seems mostly unaware of his sizable presence, even as his grip swallows yours in a polite handshake.

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AUBURN, Ala. -- All Corey Grant ever wanted was a shot.

He grew up in Auburn's backyard, but the four-star running back committed to cross-state rival Alabama in the Class of 2010 based on a pitch the Crimson Tide staff gave him, promising to open the offense and utilize his blazing speed. Had he stayed home and signed with the Tigers, he would've been a part of the 2010 BCS National Championship team.

Not to worry, Grant surely would get a ring while at Alabama, right?

Wrong. The role he thought he was going to play in Tuscaloosa never panned out, and he transferred to Auburn after his freshman season. He was back home, but he had to watch his former team win back-to-back national championships.

The state of Alabama has claimed the past four crystal balls, and Grant doesn't have a ring to show for it. But none of that matters.

"I'd rather play than sit on the bench and get rings," Grant, now a junior, said.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant finally is playing, which means more to him than winning rings while on the sideline.
That's how he always has been.

Grant grew up around football. His father, Ike Grant, was a football coach for 33 years and would take his son with him to work as soon as Corey was old enough to walk. Corey would cut the grass. He would watch film. He would hang out in the weight room with the players. He was always working, always around football.

"Corey didn't have no other choice than to be the kind of kid that he is, simply because I was a football coach and no stranger to hard work," said Ike, the 10th child of 14.

More than anything else, Ike wanted his son to be a good person, but he could see at an early age that Corey was going to be a special athlete. When Corey started walking, it wasn't long before he was running around the house. In pee-wee football, they would toss him the ball and Corey would outrun everybody.

It continued into high school, where he emerged as one of the top prospects in the state.

"Corey had a tremendous junior year," Opelika coach Brian Blackmon said. "Corey had a really big upside. He played a little bit at a bunch of different positions as a sophomore for us. His junior year, though, he had an incredible year. A lot of big plays."

Stanford was the first to offer Corey a scholarship. Auburn was the first SEC school to offer back when Tommy Tuberville was still the head coach. He had double-digit offers but chose Alabama over both Auburn and Florida, which was also in the mix.

But Corey never found a fit while he was in Tuscaloosa.

"He went to Alabama, but we could tell during preseason that he wasn't really happy," his father said. "He wasn't really sure. Midway through the season, we really knew it, because when he'd come home, he would kind of indicate that, and he would always regret going back."

Corey stuck it out through the next spring, but when freshman running back Dee Hart arrived in January and passed him on the depth chart, the writing was on the wall. It was time to move on.

There was just one problem. Nick Saban wouldn't release Corey's scholarship if he chose to play for another SEC school. The Alabama coach knew the caliber of athlete he had and didn't want to have to compete against him for the next two or three years.

That left Corey with very few options. Ultimately, he wanted to come home and play for Auburn. But to do that, he was forced to walk on to the program and live at home for the first year. He would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive to the football complex every morning for practice. It wasn't easy, but it was the only way.

"I think Corey was just happy to be home," Blackmon said. "Corey's a very driven kid. He had to go back and earn it all over again. He went from a four-star, highly recruited kid to a walk-on, having to earn it again."

Corey won multiple team awards the year he walked on and eventually earned a scholarship. But when former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for Arkansas State, Corey's opportunity to play left with him. The local kid was working hard and doing everything the right way, but his opportunity never came.

"He's had a hard road, simply because when he got to Auburn, he had to sit down, because Coach Saban wouldn't release him," Ike said. "Then the next year, he stood on the sideline and nobody gave him an opportunity.

"All the coaches would say he's a great kid, he's a great athlete, he's a hard worker, he does what he's supposed to, but he never got that opportunity. He's had a struggle with that."

Flash forward to this season. Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach, and, in turn, Corey has become an integral part of the rushing attack. He's one of four Tigers with more than 500 yards rushing, and he leads the SEC in yards per carry (9.9) with a minimum of 50 attempts. He had 53 yards and a touchdown on just six carries last week against Georgia.

"He's one of the faster guys probably in college football," Malzahn said. "He's been a speed guy, but he's gotten a lot better at running in between the tackles and doing the things that a normal running back does. He's an outstanding player and an even better person."

It would have been easy to stay at Alabama. He might never have seen the field, but he'd have been part of two national championship teams. Some of his teammates knew they were never going to play but stayed anyway for the shot at getting a ring.

But that's not Corey. His father once asked him about the rings, to which he responded, "Daddy, it don't make no difference if you're not happy."

Corey's finally happy, and he'll get his shot against his former team this Saturday in the Iron Bowl. If Auburn wins, he might even get a chance to play for a ring.

Video: SEC Game of the Week

November, 27, 2013
PM ET writer Greg Ostendorf breaks down the Iron Bowl between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn in the game of the week.