SEC: Ryan Smith

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 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.
Dee Ford has seen it all during his time at Auburn -- the highs and the lows.

As a freshman, he won a BCS national championship. Two years later, he endured a 3-9 season and the coaching change that ensued. But the senior defensive end stuck around and finished his career as a part of this year’s Auburn team that came a play or two away from winning a second national championship in the last four years.

[+] EnlargeWinston Sacked
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNosa Eguae ended his senior season in the same way he ended his freshman season in 2010 -- starting for Auburn in a BCS championship game.
“It's been a big roller coaster,” Ford said prior to Monday’s title game. “There's a message behind it. Things aren't going to work out when you expect it to. It’s really revealed who we are as individuals and who we are as a team.”

Things didn’t work out for the Tigers in Pasadena. They ultimately fell short of the ultimate goal, losing to Florida State in the national championship, but it was still a season to remember for Ford and the rest of that senior class. After everything, they went out on top.

“It means a lot for me to go out (like this) my last year,” Ford said after the game. “In the entire time, we set a goal to have the biggest turnaround in college football history, and it was an amazing journey for me. I'm definitely proud to be an Auburn Tiger right now. We didn't win, but at the end of the day, I'm still proud of my team.”

It was the same sentiment shared by all 15 seniors. The majority of them were there for the 2010 national championship. They all went through last year’s difficult season and finished this season on top, despite the loss to the Seminoles.

It was a journey that brought them closer together.

Ford’s partner on the defensive line, Nosa Eguae, is also a senior. In fact, he was the only starter from the 2010 team still on the roster. On Tuesday, Eguae addressed his fellow seniors in an open letter to the fans that he shared with multiple media outlets.

“This is the last time my brothers and I will get to spend a day with each other,” Eguae said. “For tomorrow, we will go our separate ways and pass the torch to the next group of seniors that will lead and fight for the greater good of the family. From tragedy to triumph, I could not ask for a better group of men to ride off into the sunset with.”

In addition to Eguae and Ford, the senior class that has grown so close together includes the likes of Steven Clark, Chris Davis, Jake Holland, Cody Parkey, Jay Prosch, Ryan Smith and Ryan White -- all who started or made an impact at some point during the season.

It’s a group that could have won two national championships during their time at Auburn but will still leave behind a legacy that will affect the program for years to come.

“There will be a lot of great things and great memories that our seniors have led us to be,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were just on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons, but there's so many great things that we'll take. I just told the seniors they laid the groundwork for our program moving forward, and our program is very bright right now.”

With nine starters returning on offense, pending Tre Mason's decision, and seven starters returning on defense, the Tigers should be among the nation’s elite teams again next season. They’re ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2014. But it will be up to the seniors-to-be to provide the leadership.

Center Reese Dismukes, a three-year starter, knows he’ll be counted on as a leader again next season, but he showed his appreciation to the departing seniors after Monday’s game.

“Proud of my teammates and coaches,” the Auburn captain tweeted. “We fight and fight til the end. Thanks seniors for all you’ve done for this program.”

The torch has been passed.

Five things: Auburn-Missouri

December, 7, 2013
Before the season, Auburn was predicted to finish fifth in the SEC West and Missouri sixth in the East. Now both teams are ranked in the top five of the BCS standings and will play Saturday to determine the SEC champion. Here are five things to watch from the game.

Unlikely QB matchup: At this time last year, James Franklin was sitting at home after missing the season finale with a concussion. Nick Marshall was about to embark on a recruiting visit to Indiana. On Saturday, the two will meet in the SEC championship game. It was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback in the SEC with names such as Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and even Zach Mettenberger, but it was Franklin and Marshall who emerged from the pack. Franklin has battled injuries all season but returned in time to lead Missouri past Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Marshall is the conductor for the league’s top rushing offense. He leads all SEC quarterback with 922 yards rushing and has accounted for 21 touchdowns on the season.

Playing tall: Neither Chris Davis nor Jonathon Mincy are quite six feet tall, but the duo will be asked to cover Missouri wide receivers L'Damian Washington (6-4) and Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6) on Saturday. It’s a tall order for the Auburn cornerbacks. Washington, in particular, has been difficult to defend this season. He leads all Mizzou receivers with 14 receptions on passes of 15 yards or more. At 6-2, safety Ryan Smith is the tallest player in AU’s secondary and could play an integral role on the defense. Auburn has 12 interceptions on the season, a dramatic improvement from last season, when the Tigers had just two.

Turnover streak: Auburn has only turned the ball over 16 times this season, which ranks in the top half of the SEC, but it faces a Missouri team that has forced a turnover in 42 straight games, the longest current streak in the nation. The last time Missouri failed to forced a turnover was in October 2010 against Nebraska. It will be important for Marshall and the running backs to protect the football as Missouri is 15-5 during the streak when it wins the turnover battle. However, the Auburn defense has also had a knack for forcing turnovers this season. The Tigers had caused a turnover in eight straight games prior to last week's game against Alabama. Whoever wins the turnover battle Saturday should have the advantage.

Special teams: How important are special teams? Just ask Alabama. The Crimson Tide not only missed four field goals against Auburn last week, but the last one was returned over 100 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Missouri can’t expect for that to happen again, but the East winner has had its share of kicking issues this season. If Andrew Baggett makes a field goal against South Carolina, the Tigers could still be undefeated and in the driver’s seat for a spot in the BCS title game. Since that game, Baggett is just 2 for 4 on field goal attempts. Kickoffs could also play a factor. Missouri and Auburn rank 100th and 101st in kick return defense nationally, and both teams rank in the top 25 in returns.

Home-field advantage: It’s 700 miles from Columbia, Mo., to Atlanta. It’s just over 100 miles from Auburn to Atlanta. Needless to say, it could be a pretty Auburn-heavy crowd inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday. Not only that, but Auburn has plenty of experience playing in that stadium. The Tigers are 5-4 all-time in games at the Georgia Dome and have played there three times in the past four seasons, including a 56-17 win over South Carolina in the 2010 SEC championship game. Meanwhile, Missouri has never played in the Georgia Dome. It didn’t help that “visiting” Tigers missed their walk-through on Friday.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
Almost nobody thought these two teams -- neither of which even reached bowl eligibility a season ago after going a combined 2-14 in SEC play -- would be here when the season started, but here we are. No. 3 Auburn (11-1) and No. 5 Missouri (11-1) will meet in Atlanta on Saturday with an SEC championship, a BCS bowl berth and maybe a spot in the national championship game at stake.

Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday's showdown at the Georgia Dome:

Possible hangovers: One could hardly blame Auburn if it entered this game a bit flat. Gus Malzahn's Tigers are coming off consecutive miracle wins against their biggest rivals: Georgia and Alabama. Chris Davis' missed field goal return for a touchdown against the top-ranked Crimson Tide resonated outside the sports world, considering that it was a subject on conversation on “The View” and the “Today” show and not just on sports highlight shows. Likewise, an emotional win against Texas A&M prompted the home fans to empty onto the field after Missouri clinched the SEC East title last Saturday. If one of these teams starts slowly Saturday, it could easily find itself facing a big deficit early in the game.

Defending the run: If Missouri is able to slow down Auburn's powerful running game (No. 5 nationally at 318.2 YPG), it will be in a small group of defenses that has been successful in that endeavor this season. Alabama -- which entered last week's game ranked fourth nationally against the run -- couldn't do it, as Auburn ran 52 times for 296 yards. In fact, Auburn has run for at least 200 yards in all but one game this season. Tre Mason (237 carries, 1,317 yards, 18 TDs) is the league's top rusher at 109.8 yards per game and quarterback Nick Marshall (140-922, 10 TDs) is eighth at 83.8 YPG. Meanwhile, Missouri -- which is 14th nationally against the run (119.1 YPG) has yet to allow 200 yards in any game. Let's not forget about the other side of this token, however. Missouri's offense performs with more balance than Auburn's, but its running game has been extremely productive, as well. Missouri ranks second in the league in rushing offense (236.2 YPG) with Henry Josey (153-951, 13 TDs) leading the way and ranking ninth in the league with 79.2 yards per game.

Auburn secondary against Missouri's big wideouts: Auburn has done a good job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but its secondary has been erratic at best. The Tigers surrendered 277 passing yards and three touchdowns to Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron last week -- including a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper -- and gave up 415 yards to Georgia's Aaron Murray in the previous game. Overall, Auburn ranks second-to-last in the SEC against the pass (256.7 YPG), which is a scary sign with Missouri's big, talented receiving corps on deck. The Tigers have the No. 5 passing offense in the league (252.6 YPG), featuring L'Damian Washington (44 catches, 824 yards, 10 TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (49-686, 10 TDs), who rank seventh and 12th, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards per game. Senior Marcus Lucas (50-596, 2 TDs) ranks 10th with 4.17 catches per game.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
Zumapress/Icon SMIMichael Sam and Missouri's defensive front will be tested by Auburn's powerful run game.
Containing quarterbacks: Marshall's emergence has been one of the leading factors in Auburn's revival after last season's dismal results. Not only is he poised to become a 1,000-yard rusher, but he has made some enormous plays in the passing game -- and not just the miracle pass for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to Ricardo Louis against Georgia. He hit Sammie Coates with a crucial game-tying touchdown pass in the final minute against Alabama, went for 339 yards -- including the game-winning touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining -- against Mississippi State and made some huge throws in the road win against Texas A&M. He has fumbled 11 times this season (and only lost four), however, so Missouri's turnover-happy defense (SEC-high 27 takeaways) will most certainly look to generate some momentum off Marshall turnovers. On the other hand, Mizzou's James Franklin creates major matchup issues of his own. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound quarterback earned the nickname “Frank the Tank” with his physical running style, although it would be understandable if he hesitated to put his shoulder down Saturday after missing four games with a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia. Franklin was a combined 30-for-47 for 375 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Ole Miss and Texas A&M since returning from the injury and also rushed 26 times for 122 yards in those two games, so he appears to be back to the form that makes him so difficult to corral.

Defensive playmakers: Few defensive players, if any, have made a bigger impact around the SEC this season than Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam. He leads the league with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss, while fellow defensive lineman Markus Golden is fourth with 13 TFLs and Kony Ealy (9.5) and Shane Ray (9.0) aren't far outside the top 10. If Auburn's typical form holds, Mizzou won't have much of a chance to add to its SEC-leading sack total, but its defensive front will be the determining factor in whether it can handle Auburn's running game. Aside from defensive end Dee Ford (eight sacks, 12 TFLs), Auburn doesn't have many defensive players whose individual stats jump off the page. But a deep defensive line and playmakers like Robenson Therezie, Ryan Smith and Davis have combined to deliver some clutch plays when the Tigers needed a boost the most.

AUBURN, Ala. -- On Tuesday, less than 72 hours after his game-winning field goal return to beat Alabama, Chris Davis tweeted: “When something is taken from your grasps, it's not punishment, but opportunity for your hands to receive something better.”

He could be referring to his own missed opportunity at the 2010 BCS national championship game or the multiple injuries he’s battled during his time at Auburn. But maybe it goes deeper. Maybe Saturday’s incredible field goal return was part of the reward for everything he has been through. For his youth in a tough neighborhood, his trials at Auburn and devotion to a family that has become his center point.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis has made an impact on special teams, but is also Auburn's leading tackler and top defensive back.
“Chris is a champion,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the game. “He’s one of our seniors, and he’s had his ups and downs."

Davis grew up in inner city Birmingham and attended Woodlawn High School, a school not known for producing Division-I athletes. Sure, its alumni include legendary coach Bobby Bowden and David Langner, the hero from the 1972 Iron Bowl, but the demographics have changed significantly since those days.

The school no longer offers the same opportunities it once did, and according to former coach Bruce Breland, it was easy to get caught up in the wrong crowd. But Davis was different.

“He stayed to himself as far as not allowing any of the outside distractions that could’ve pulled him away,” Breland said. “He stayed focused on his grades. He carried himself well. He dressed nice. You never saw him hanging around any of the bad kids.

“In fact, you’d see him sometimes maybe talking to someone else about being disappointed in them and about them not going to class.”

Davis’ wisdom did not belie his gifts on the football field. He did a little bit of everything for Woodlawn. He played quarterback, running back and wide receiver. He even played defense in critical situations when the team needed a stop. But above all else, he was most dangerous in the return game.

From Recruiting Nation’s scouting report: “A gifted and talented return specialist that fields the football and darts north and south, often jetting by the coverage units; makes sharp cuts without losing speed. Shows the talents to take the ball back the distance for six points.”

But even with his skill set, things didn’t come easy once he enrolled at Auburn in 2010.

As a freshman, he played sparingly on defense and special teams, yet he found a way to make an impact in every game along the way. Every game except for the BCS national championship. He dressed out against Oregon and rolled his ankle on the opening kickoff, missing the rest of the game. The Tigers won, but it was painful having to watch from the sideline.

“He was disappointed that he hurt his ankle, but he was still thrilled to death for the team,” Breland said. “He wasn’t selfish about it.”

Davis started 11 games at cornerback as a sophomore. He finished with 60 tackles, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. However, much like what happened to the rest of the program at Auburn, he went through a difficult 2012 campaign, riddled with injuries, and only started six games. Gene Chizik and most of the coaching staff was fired after the worst finish since the Tigers went 0-10 in 1950.

It didn’t faze Davis, though. He was determined to return to form as a senior under Malzahn, a fresh start proving to be just the thing the team needed.

Not only has Davis been able to stay healthy, he’s exceeded expectations in his final season. He currently leads Auburn with 65 tackles and 12 pass breakups. He’s developed into the team’s most dependable cornerback and arguably the most important player on the defense.

“He's a very physical corner,” Malzahn said. “He's a very good tackler. He's meant a lot to our defense this year.”

But after Saturday’s game, he’ll be remembered more for his iconic play on special teams. It has made him a rock star on campus. On Monday, he received a standing ovation from his geology class. He might not ever have to buy a drink on campus again. He’ll go down in history for his return that beat Alabama.

“He’s a hero around here right now,” said fellow defensive back Ryan Smith. “He’s on top of the world.”

To Smith, there's no one more deserving of the fame and recognition than his roommate and the team's senior captain.

“We didn’t know each other before we came here, but now we’re just like brothers,” Smith said. “I love him like a brother. He’s a great role model on and off the field. He tries to do the right things. It’s paying off for him because everything he’s getting, he deserves.”

For Davis, that sense of family rings true. He stuck out tough times with his teammates and came through for them as he has done all season. As for the play that will have Davis in Auburn lore forever? Davis’ penultimate moment came in front of his 3-year-old son and could provide both with something better.

"You know, I play for a whole lot of people instead of me,” Davis said. “I've got to provide for my family, and through this game, I've got a good chance of doing that. That's why I go out every Saturday and play like I do."

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."

What we learned in the SEC: Week 2

September, 11, 2011
Fresh off a couple of wild ones, we take a look back at what we learned in the SEC in Week 2:

1. Auburn’s pride is alive and well: You don’t win as many games in the fourth quarter as Auburn has in the past two years without a pride that runs deep and the kind of resolve that only gets stronger when things look bleakest. A lot of the names have changed on the Plains, but nothing has changed when it comes to this team’s ability to make plays in the fourth quarter to win games. Sure, the defense has given up a ton of points and a ton of yards through two games. But when the Tigers have to make a play, somebody is there to make it. That somebody Saturday was sophomore safety Ryan Smith, who’d yet to make a tackle on defense coming into this season. And for that matter, he didn’t even go through spring practice because of personal issues. But with Mississippi State’s 240-pound quarterback Chris Relf barreling toward the goal line on what would be the final play of the game, Smith delivered a textbook tackle and stuffed Relf mere inches from the goal line, preserving Auburn’s 41-34 victory. They may be living dangerously, but the Tigers just keep on winning. And in case you hadn’t heard, that’s 17 in a row, the nation’s longest active winning streak.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswireAJ McCarron was cool under pressure against Penn State on Saturday.
2. McCarron’s the man: His statistics weren’t eye-popping, but the way AJ McCarron managed the game, ran the offense and made key throws told you all you needed to know about the Alabama quarterback battle. There no longer is a battle. McCarron is the Crimson Tide’s quarterback. On the heels of five turnovers by the Tide in the opener, McCarron didn’t throw any interceptions Saturday in the 27-11 win over Penn State, and he also didn’t take a sack. His arm strength and accuracy were on display when he threaded a 5-yard strike to tight end Michael Williams for Alabama’s first touchdown. There was a lot of restlessness among Alabama fans about the need to settle on one quarterback, either McCarron or Phillip Sims. But Alabama coach Nick Saban wanted to see them both in games, and now that he has, it’s McCarron’s show. That doesn’t mean Sims will be forgotten about. Saban is smart enough to know that somewhere along the way you’re probably going to need your second quarterback to come in and win a game for you, which is why the Tide will continue to develop both quarterbacks. But two games into the season, we have our answer on who the starter will be.

3. Winning ugly: South Carolina has given up 79 points in its first two games and has been asleep at the wheel in the first quarter in each of those games. Yet the Gamecocks are 2-0, both wins coming away from home, and haven’t come close to playing their best football yet, particularly on defense. They’re more talented than they’re playing on defense but have made enough big plays to get by. That’s a formula that usually catches up with you in this league. Still, the Gamecocks head home for four straight games after outlasting Georgia 45-42 on Saturday. They’ll be favored in all four games -- Navy, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Kentucky -- and could easily go into that Oct. 15 game at Mississippi State with a 6-0 record. But to do something really special this season, they’re going to have to start playing more consistently in all three phases and eliminate some of the busts on defense. Ellis Johnson, the Gamecocks’ assistant head coach for the defense, didn’t mince words following the Georgia game. “I’ve never been so proud of a bunch of a kids, but at the same time, so disappointed in some of them,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some guys playing really well, but we’ve got some guys out there that can’t function right now. … There were times when some of our best players had a chance to make a play and would get the water cut off. They’re not getting it done.”

4. Georgia’s not dead yet: The Bulldogs might have dug themselves a 0-2 hole, but they improved as a football team in Saturday’s 45-42 loss to No. 12-ranked South Carolina and will be a tough out the rest of the way if some of their younger talent continues to develop. There’s no question who Georgia’s top playmaker is. Freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell rushed for 118 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown, and he also caught a 17-yard touchdown pass. He’s going to improve and really opens things up for this offense. The Bulldogs also need to make a commitment to getting Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith more touches on offense. Todd Grantham’s defense took a big step forward and gave up only three touchdowns. One of those came after South Carolina returned a fumble 56 yards to the Georgia 5. Three of the Gamecocks’ touchdowns were nonoffensive touchdowns. It’s not going to be easy for the Bulldogs these next few weeks, and the climate won’t be real pleasant in and around Athens. But if they can stick together, they can be a factor in the East race. Their schedule isn’t a monster the rest of the way, and there’s no denying the talent on this team.

5. Vols flying under the radar: The 2012 season was supposed to be the year when Tennessee would return to serious contention in the SEC. But after two games this season, it’s obvious the Vols are plenty explosive on offense, improving on defense and dead-set on being a factor in the East race this season. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray has been sensational. He threw four more touchdown passes Saturday in Tennessee’s 45-23 win over Cincinnati and has now thrown 22 touchdowns in his past seven games dating back to last season. He has NFL arm talent, but has also been much more accurate this season. As good as Bray has been, his receiving tandem of Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers have been just as impressive. There hasn’t been a better combo in the SEC to this point or a combo that complement each other as well as Hunter and Rogers do. The real season for Bray, Hunter, Rogers and the rest of the Vols begins Saturday in Gainesville. Second-year coach Derek Dooley is still looking for his first signature win since coming to Knoxville. Getting it in the Swamp would be a heck of a place to do it, especially when you consider that Tennessee has lost six in a row to Florida.
AUBURN, Ala. -- All week, Auburn’s football players heard how their winning streak would end. They heard that they weren’t physical enough or tough enough to stop Mississippi State and it’s red-hot offense.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's defense
John Reed/US PRESSWIREThe Auburn defense stopped Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf just short of the goal line on the final play of the game.
Yet when the game was over -- for a second time -- Saturday, the Tigers were pounding their chests as Jordan-Hare Stadium erupted at the sight of the 41-34 win. And those same Bulldogs, who were meaner and tougher, were left battered and beaten on the Plains.

“We beat a good football team today. It’s that simple,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “It’s really good to see a group of young guys figure out different ways to win.

“There are a lot of young guys right now that are learning what it takes to continue to fight every down and have a chance to win in this league. That was a fight out there today. That was a brawl out there today. It was hot, it was physical, both sides were tired. It really became like one of those old heavyweight fights and it’s the last man standing.”

This team is young and inexperienced, but it’s also resilient and it knows how to play for four quarters. More importantly, it finds ways to win.

Only Auburn could rush for a measly 78 yards in the first game against what should have been an overmatched Utah State team and then rebound to put up 235 rushing yards against Mississippi State.

Only Auburn could fly out to an early 14-0 lead, only to watch the Bulldogs score 21 straight, yet find a way to lead by seven at the half.

Only Auburn could have a player in backup safety Ryan Smith, who has had more attention given to his off-field trouble than his actual football career, come through with literally a goal-line stand as time expired against the ultimate bruising quarterback in Mississippi State’s Chris Relf.

The Tigers have won a nation-leading 17 consecutive games -- 10 by eight points or less. These cardiac cats don’t care how they win as long as they win.

“We’d prefer to win football games a lot differently than we are, but I’m going to tell you, there’s something to be said for knowing that you can fight down until the end and it doesn’t look good and still be able to win a game,” Chizik said.

The Tigers did it by playing Mississippi State’s game. They had a run-first attitude and double last week’s number by the middle of the third quarter. Sophomore Michael Dyer, who had just 57 yards a week ago, had almost all of that on one carry (52) and finished the day with a game-high 150 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.

Sidekick Onterio McCalebb had 68 on the day.

Chizik and his players said there were no adjustments made in practice -- no wrinkles added. The goal was to get tough(er) and put a strong emphasis on the run.

The offensive line, which battled through injuries this week, switched parts around, but mainly it intensified its attitude. This group felt insulted by talk of it not being physical enough to deal with Mississippi State’s line.

“We were disrespected, but we came out with little chips on our shoulders and it helped out,” center Reese Dismukes said.

“There’s a lot of people who doubt us out there, but there’s no doubt on this team. We come out each week and we prepare to win.”

Defensively, this group was laughed at. Utah State registered 448 yards (227 rushing) last week and the Tigers needed a perfect onside kick to win. This week, you could feel the anxiety growing in the stands as the Bulldogs marched behind their running game. Mississippi State gained 333 rushing yards (135 from Relf and 106 from running back Vick Ballard), but when they needed a final one, Auburn stood tall.

Actually, Smith, who stopped Relf on the quarterback keeper, went low and after a review, the Tigers went from disregarded to 2-0.

Does this team need improvements? You betcha. But for now, the Tigers have the record they want.

The disdain will no doubt continue, but it will only serve as more motivation.

“That’s just how it goes,” Dyer said, “but we play Auburn football every Saturday.

“Our team thinks about it every day and night how people don’t count us in this year, and that’s fine. We just take that and we run with it and we fight for Auburn.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- What a game on the Plains as Auburn beat Mississippi State 41-34, thanks to last-second goal-line stop by the Auburn's Ryan Smith, who stuffed Chris Relf on the run.

Both running games came to play as the teams combined for 568 yards on the ground. Auburn's Michael Dyer led all rushers with 150 yards and two touchdowns.

I'm heading down to talk to players and coaches. Soak in your win Auburn fans. The Cardiac Cats are alive and kicking.