Auburn's Bizarre Path to the BCS Championship

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Auburn's journey to the national title game is one of sports' all-time great stories.

Auburn's Bizarre Path to the BCS Championship

Has anyone had a crazier calendar year than the Auburn Tigers? Ever?

Who else is in the mix? From college football, Ohio State's 2002 squad would qualify. So, too, would Auburn's '10 team and the LSU Tigers of '07. The '69 New York Mets? The '97 Florida Marlins? The Joe Namath Jets? Eli to Tyree? How about the eighth-seeded 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings? Villanova in '85? (Okay, maybe that last one is in the ballpark)

In a year and two weeks, the Auburn Tigers have gone from winless in conference play to hiring a new regime to afterthought in the SEC West to sudden contender for the conference crown to Pasadena-bound for a shot at the BCS national title.

It’s one of the most improbable stories in all of sports much less college football. Who would be a more unlikely national champ? A two-loss LSU team that backed into the title game on the final day in '07 is a surprising and unlikely story but pales in comparison to this team should Gus Malzahn lead War Eagle to a national title over Florida State.

Here is a timeline of the roller coaster Auburn fans have been on over the last 12 months:

Nov. 24, 2012: Auburn loses the Iron Bowl 49-0
Alabama routed the Tigers in the regular-season finale last November in epic and historic fashion. The 49-point win was the most lopsided Iron Bowl final in 64 years (1948) as Auburn set season lows in yards (163) and yards per play (3.8). The game capped the worst season of football in school history and the worst by a team two years removed from a national championship.

Nov. 25, 2012: Gene Chizik fired as Auburn’s head coach
One day after the worst Iron Bowl defeat in six decades and its first winless SEC season in school history, athletic director Jay Jacobs made the move to remove head coach Gene Chizik. Auburn finished 118nd nationally in total offense with a pathetic 305.0 yards per game. The Tigers finished ahead of only a historically bad Tennessee unit in the SEC in total defense at 420.5 yards per game.

Dec. 4, 2012: Gus Malzahn is hired as Auburn’s new head coach
The patron saint of Auburn football returned home after one season as the head coach at Arkansas State. After three years and a BCS national title on The Plains, Malzahn left town for only one season. In his one season as a head coach in college football, he led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 (7-1) mark and a Sun Belt championship. So 10 days after firing a coach who won a national title, Auburn hires Malzahn to be its new head coach.

Jan. 14, 2013: Nick Marshall commits to Auburn
A big part of the problem on The Plains in 2012 was quarterback play. The Tigers finished 13th in the SEC at 156.6 yards per game passing and was ahead of only South Florida (7) and Army (4) nationally in touchdown passes (8) — the same number as option teams Air Force and Navy. Unbeknownst to many, the answer to the Tigers' passing problems came in the form of a middle-of-the-pack three-star junior college quarterback from Garden City (Kan.) Community College. A month before National Signing Day the No. 43-ranked JUCO prospect in the nation picked Auburn over Indiana, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Arkansas State.

Feb. 6, 2013: Auburn signs No. 10-rated recruiting class
Despite the worst season in school history, Malzahn somehow lures a top-10 recruiting class to Auburn. It was a strong finish for the Tigers' new head coach, as he inked instant impact names like Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel near the end of process. This at the end of a winter in which the top linebacker in the nation, Reuben Foster committed to both Auburn and Alabama — and tattooing himself with an Auburn logo — multiple times before eventually signing with the Crimson Tide. In this class of 24 signees, the aforementioned Marshall was ranked as the 17th-best player of the group (247Sports).

April 20, 2013: Auburn spring game sets records
Spring football practice at Auburn culminates with a record-setting game late in April. The Tigers had the most popular, most-attended spring game in the nation, hosting a record 83,401 people at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Among the headlines, Jonathan Mincy gets ejected from the game for targeting teammate Dimitri Reese. It’s not easy to get kicked out of a spring game.

Aug. 17, 2013: Nick Marshall named starting QB
Enrolling with the rest of the freshmen in the summer, Marshall entered a heated quarterback battle with Jonathan Wallace, Kiehl Frazier and incoming true freshman Jeremy Johnson. Midway through fall camp, Malzahn had found his guy in Marshall and the JUCO passer’s story comes full circle. Marshall signed with Georgia as an elite four-star “athlete” in 2011 out of Rochelle (Ga.) Wilcox Country before getting kicked out of school for reportedly stealing money from teammates — one of the lowest things you can do in a locker room.

Aug. 17, 2013: Preseason AP Poll released
On the same day Marshall is named the starter, the preseason AP Poll was released. There were 43 teams that received votes in the AP Poll and Auburn wasn’t one of them. For the record, Athlon Sports picked Auburn No. 42 in its preseason magazine. Only Notre Dame in 2012 had ever made it to the BCS title game as a preseason unranked team, so odds for Auburn to make the title game were slim-to-none. 

Sept. 14, 2013: Auburn tops Mississippi State in the final 10 seconds
After a lackluster win over Washington State in Week 1 and a drubbing of Malzahn's former charges (Arkansas State) in Week 2, a glimpse of Auburn’s storybook season begins with a 24-20 win over Mississippi State. Marshall connected with tight end C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds left in the game to win the Tigers' first SEC game since topping Ole Miss in October 2011 (10 games). The 120 yards rushing will eventually finish as the worst rushing performance of the season for Malzahn’s zone-read attack.

Sept. 21, 2013: Auburn loses in Baton Rouge to LSU
An unimpressive first month of the season comes to an end when LSU physically pushes around the Tigers in a 35-21 easy victory. LSU was in complete control for most of the game but Auburn fought hard in the second half and finished with 437 yards of offense and 5.1 yards per play against the normally very stingy Bayou Bengals defense. With a loss just two games into the SEC season, Auburn becomes an afterthought in the West Division race.

Sept. 21, 2013: Michigan State loses to Notre Dame
In controversial fashion with more than a few questionable calls, Notre Dame wins a non-descript game over Michigan State that at the time no one thought would matter in the grand scheme of things. The 17-13 victory by the Fighting Irish would eventually be the only loss for the Spartans and likely kept Michigan State out of the BCS title game. Most believe a perfect Big Ten champ would have been ranked ahead of a one-loss SEC champ.

Oct. 5, 2013: Auburn survives a scare from Ole Miss
After a week off to lick their wounds provided by LSU, Auburn bounces back with a dramatic win over Ole Miss. The 30-22 win over No. 24 Mississippi was the first win for Auburn over a ranked team in two years and gives the Tigers more wins in 2013 (4) than it had in all of 2013 (3). Marshall carried 14 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns in the key divisional showdown.

Oct. 12, 2013: Utah upsets No. 5 Stanford
The Cardinal would go on to lose to USC in Los Angeles later in the year but many believe a one-loss Stanford team would have gotten the nod over a one-loss Auburn team. Stanford played arguably the toughest schedule in the nation (among contenders) and if not for a last-second, goal-line stand by Utah in Salt Lake City, Auburn might not have landed in the BCS title game. Stanford finished the year as Pac-12 champs and ranked No. 5 in the nation and the loss to a 5-7 Utes team eliminated them from BCS contention.

Oct. 18, 2013: Louisville loses to UCF 38-35
A preseason top 10 team, Louisville would go on to finish 11-1 with its only loss coming to UCF 38-35 in mid-October. Had the Cardinals finished unblemished, many would have voted Louisville into the title game over Auburn despite UL’s mediocre schedule (although, I would not have been one of them).

Oct. 19, 2013: Tre Mason and Dee Ford save the day in College Station
Trailing 41-38 with five minutes to go on the road against the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Auburn turned to tailback Tre Mason to save the day. The Tigers put together a 13-play, 75-yard drive that took 3:46 off the clock and culminated in a five-yard, game-winning Mason touchdown run. Auburn ran the ball 10 times, including six Mason carries, on a drive that defines Malzahn’s relentless offensive system. On the ensuing possession, Dee Ford sacked Johnny Manziel twice on the final series with No. 7 Texas A&M knocking on the door of the red zone, including a fourth down play that ended the game. The national stage welcomed Auburn to the party following this performance.

Nov. 16, 2013: The Prayer on the Plains is answered
In the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, Auburn dominates Georgia for three quarters before the Dawgs come storming back in the final period. Aaron Murray leads his team to three touchdowns, including a gusty fourth down touchdown run to take the lead with less than two minutes to play. On the next possession, Auburn could muster only five yards on six plays in a minute and a half of time. It left the Tigers with a 4th and 18 with 25 seconds left and needing a miracle to survive. Then Nick Marshall heaved a prayer into the Auburn night air that was tipped into infamy by two Georgia defenders. The ball landed gingerly into Ricardo Louis’ waiting arms and he strolled into the SEC history books with one of the most dramatic finishes in conference history.

Nov. 23, 2013: Baylor loses 49-17 to Oklahoma State in Stillwater
An undefeated No. 4-ranked Bears teams went into frigid Stillwater and was totally dominated by Oklahoma State. The 49-17 loss would go on to be Baylor’s only loss of the year and knocked Art Briles’ bunch out of the BCS title game. An undefeated Baylor team would likely have gotten the berth over a one-loss Auburn team.

Nov. 30, 2013: Auburn shocks the world in the Iron Bowl
What else can be said about this game that hasn’t already been written? The ending is second only to the famed 1982 Stanford-Cal “Band is out on the field” game in terms of being the most bizarre finishes in NCAA history. But when it comes to the gravity, importance, passion and history of the “Kick-6,” no game may ever compare to the 2013 Iron Bowl. The SEC West title, a spot in the SEC championship game and claim to a spot in the BCS title game, as well as in-state bragging rights, were all hanging in the balance and Auburn returned a missed field goal 109 yards on the final play of the game to beat the two-time undefeated defending national champions? Nothing may ever come close to matching that type of resume.

Dec. 7, 2013: Auburn sets records against Missouri in Atlanta
Auburn set 16 SEC championship game records by rolling through a highly regarded and equally effective Missouri Tigers defensive line. Tre Mason rushes 46 times for 304 yards and four touchdowns — all SEC title game records — in the win. The performance sent Mason to New York as a Heisman finalist. Malzahn becomes just the third head coach in SEC history to win a conference title in his first season in the league and it won him the Home Depot National Coach of the Year award. Now, the Tigers and the rest of the nation sat back to watch what would happen in Indianapolis…

Dec. 7, 2013: No. 2 Ohio State loses to Michigan State
War Eagle prayers were answered in Lucas Oil Field late on Saturday night when Michigan State totally outplays the No. 2-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Common logic would assume that a 13-0 Ohio State team that had won 25 straight games overall would have played in the BCS national title game against Florida State. But the Spartans ended that discussion in short order by hanging on to defeat the Bucknuts 34-24 in the Big Ten Championship Game, opening the BCS door wide for the Auburn Tigers.

The win by MSU capped a remarkable calendar year for Auburn fans. From complete and utter depression and disappointment to extreme jubilation in just 12 months, no doubt, it's been a wild ride on The Plains. The phrases “Team of Destiny” and “Football Gods” get tossed around liberally with this War Eagle squad and for good reason. What this team has been through and accomplished over the last year is as extraordinary a story as any in the history of sports.

And the final chapter has yet to be written. Tune in January 6 in Pasadena for what Tiger fans are hoping will be an epic finish to a once-in-a-generation tale... for the second time in four years.

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