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THEY GATHERED IN THE OFF-CAMPUS APARTMENT OF AUBURN'S MOST IMPORTANT offensive player, sitting on couches, riveted by what they were seeing on the big-screen television. When Michael Dyer hosted about a dozen of his teammates one evening this spring to watch a replay of the Tigers' 22--19 win over Oregon in the BCS national title game last January, Dyer, a sophomore, had a simple message for everyone in the room: We can win it all again.
"We'll have a lot of new faces this season, but now we know exactly what it takes to win the national championship," says Dyer, Auburn's second-leading rusher in 2010. "I'm personally going to take a bigger leadership role because we don't have guys like Cam Newton around anymore. But we still believe in ourselves."
For the Tigers to be contenders in the fierce SEC West in 2011, Dyer will need to have a monster season. Last year the 5' 9" 206-pounder set a Tigers freshman record by rushing for 1,093 yards, surpassing Bo Jackson's 829 yards in 1982. Dyer's most memorable performance came when it mattered most: in the national championship game. He ran for 143 yards against the Ducks, including a 37-yard one-off that was the signature play of the game. With a little more than two minutes remaining and the score tied at 19, Dyer took a handoff from Newton and, after a short gain, was seemingly wrestled to the turf by Oregon rover Eddie Pleasant. For a few heartbeats everyone stopped. But Dyer's knee never touched the ground, and as his coaches yelled, "Go! Go! Go!" from the sideline Dyer took off down the field. An official review confirmed that Dyer never went down, and five plays later Auburn kicker Wes Byrum booted the game-winner from 19 yards.
"That play was indicative of our season because Mike never gave up and kept pushing ahead," says Gene Chizik. "He's going to be a key player for us and a big part of our offense."
This off-season Dyer focused primarily on one task: increasing his speed. To that end nearly every morning this spring and early summer he could be seen on the Tigers' practice field with several other players, running one sprint after the next and pulling chains that were connected to heavily weighted sleds. "I'm just trying to get the ligaments in my legs stronger," Dyer says. "If they need me to carry a heavier load this season, I want to be ready for that."
"It seems like Michael is getting stronger and faster every day," says sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae. "He looks like someone who is going to have a big year."
Chizik envisioned Dyer being his bell-cow back when he recruited him out of Christian Academy in Little Rock. After Dyer rushed for 2,502 yards and 31 touchdowns as a high school senior, Scouts, Inc. named him its No. 1 overall running back in the nation. Why did he choose Auburn? He wanted to play in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's fast-paced, single-back offense—Dyer's high school team ran a similar system—and he believed he could help the Tigers win a national title. A year later his wildest dream has already come true.
"My first year here couldn't have gone any better," Dyer says. "Now we've got a lot of work to do to accomplish all that we believe we can."