SEC champ Auburn one win away from improbable BCS dream
ATLANTA -- Kristi Malzahn sat on a chair in the tunnel beneath the Georgia Dome stands watching her husband's team on a television hanging from the ceiling. "Oh my goodness," she yelled. "GET HIM!" The first lady of Auburn football probably uttered that sentiment often on Saturday as she watched in solitude while Missouri rolled up 534 yards against Auburn's defense. But on this particular play, with less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Auburn's Kris Frost and Craig Sanders corralled Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham after a four-yard gain. On the next play, quarterback James Franklin's pass fell incomplete, and Missouri turned the ball over on downs. Then Auburn's Tre Mason blasted through Mizzou's defense for one last touchdown.
By the time the wife of one of the greatest turnaround artists in college football history emerged from the tunnel and onto the field, it was basically over. Gus Malzahn's offense had rumbled for 677 yards (565 on the ground), and Auburn had outrun Missouri for a 59-42 win and an SEC championship that would have seemed impossible a year ago. At this time last year, Auburn had wrapped a 3-9 season that included exactly zero SEC wins. Athletic director Jay Jacobs fired Gene Chizik and hired Malzahn, the team's offensive coordinator during the first three years of the Chizik era who has proven in 2013 that he was the brains behind Auburn's '10 national title. The Tigers needed one year and two miracles to get back atop the SEC. Now, they have their sights set higher.
Thanks to Michigan State's 34-24 victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten championship, voters and computers will likely place Auburn into the BCS title game against Florida State. The Tigers won't have to politick as they would have had the Buckeyes won the Big Ten title and finished 13-0. Shortly after Auburn's win -- and just as Spartans and Buckeyes kicked off in Indianapolis -- Jacobs offered his pitch to voters. "I have nine words," Jacobs said. "Strength of schedule. Strength of schedule. Strength of schedule."
As it turned out, Jacobs didn't need to deliver a stump speech. War Damn Sparty took its place alongside War Damn Miracle and the Immaculate Deflection. Mascot Aubie ran around the Georgia Dome floor on Saturday night dressed as an angel, and those wings looked strong enough to fly him to Pasadena. "This," Jacobs said, "is a team of destiny."
This week was more drudgery than destiny. The Tigers had to come down from the highest of Yellowhammer State highs -- a once-in-a-lifetime, last-second Iron Bowl win that clinched the SEC West title, knocked Alabama out of the national championship picture and thrust Auburn into the BCS title hunt. Awaiting them was a Missouri team blessed with the SEC's top sack artist (Michael Sam), three backs (Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy) averaging at least 6.2 yards a carry and two freak receivers (Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington) averaging at least 14 yards a catch.
For most of the game, Mizzou matched Auburn big play for big play. A cameraman-fooling set of fakes from Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall that opened up Sammie Coates for a 38-yard touchdown catch was followed by a 28-yard scoring pass from Franklin to Green-Beckham. A 79-yard Auburn touchdown drive that took 47 seconds was followed by a 55-yard Green-Beckham scoring reception. After six lead changes, Auburn finally took the lead for good on Corey Grant's two-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Missouri cut the deficit to three with nine seconds remaining in the third, but Mason scored half of his four touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Mason, whose father, Vincent, is a member of pioneering hip-hop group De La Soul, carried 46 times for an SEC title game-record 304 yards. The younger Mason likely will find He, Himself and Him on a few Heisman Trophy ballots following a season in which he broke Bo Jackson's program record for all-purpose yards. "You're looking at one of the top running backs in college football, and he proved it again today," Malzahn said. "Usually, the best players on the best teams have a chance at [the Heisman], and you're looking at one of those guys right here."
Jackson was on hand to see Mason break his record, and as the clock ticked down, the 1985 Heisman winner walked the Auburn sidelines shaking hands with each 2013 SEC champion. Even four months ago, the idea that Auburn would be in the Georgia Dome under a rain of confetti seemed preposterous. The Tigers were horrendous in '12. They checked out on Chizik and lost their final three SEC games by a combined score of 150-21.
When Malzahn arrived after a season as Arkansas State's head coach, he told the players it was a "new day." He said he had to do a lot of "Dr. Phil-ing," but he and his staff convinced the Tigers they didn't need to rebuild. They could win immediately. The arrival of junior college transfer Marshall, who played defensive back at Georgia in 2011 before being dismissed by the Bulldogs, gave Malzahn -- whose offense was born on the high school fields of Arkansas -- a chance to craft a run-heavy scheme that forced defenses to play perfectly to contain the Tigers. "You've got to be in the right place at the right time," Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said of Malzahn's offense. "It's like the old wishbone triple option, but you've still got all that formation deception going on. It's very difficult, even if you're playing well, to be in the right place."
Even as the Tigers got better, it never seemed easy. "We've had so many times where they could have let go of the rope in games or at certain points of the season," Johnson said. "We've had a lot of adversity... and they just keep finding a way to win."
Now, Auburn is one win away from a national title. After Saturday's victory, Malzahn sat next to Mason at a press conference. "[Since] that first team meeting, we came a long way, Tre," Malzahn said. "Didn't we?"
A few feet away, Kristi snapped a photo with her phone and tweeted it out. Only one word accompanied it. "Surreal," she wrote.