2012 was a rough year for Auburn fans. 0-8 in SEC play and 3-9 on the season makes for some serious coaching controversy in southeastern Alabama.
And then there was Gus Malzahn.
After Malzahn left to become the head coach at Arkansas State, the Auburn football program, then under Gene Chizik, took a turn for the worse. Just two short years after winning a national championship, the Tigers went winless in the unforgiving world of the SEC. So, how did Malzahn do it?
The answer is simple really: talent and the bit of refinement done during his one-year sabbatical at Arkansas State. Malzahn was available and knew the territory, having shaped Cam Newton during his Heisman winning season in 2010. He was ready to clean house and work toward revamping the Auburn program. Chizik’s coaching staff and strategies had turned stale. Malzahn has the gift of constructing an offensive powerhouse with the talent he is given. That all-or-nothing style of offense gives the Tigers an edge that is virtually unstoppable to many teams. Even though the Auburn offensive strategy has proven effective on the winning front, their unimpressive defensive strike makes it difficult to prevent a scoring drive from other offensively talented teams in the SEC. Matchups with favored opponents became games that relied on last possessions. Auburn is no stranger to close games and immaculate upsets. And, boy, were there upsets.
Georgia’s visit to Auburn was a tough one for Malzahn’s newly revved up offense. After a cutthroat and heart pounding game, Ricardo Louis scored on a deflected 73-yard pass on fourth and 18 with 25 seconds left to lift No. 7 Auburn to a stunning 43-38 victory over No. 25 Georgia. Auburn relied solely on Georgia mistakes and their punishing running game to win, and at one point outgained Georgia 170-4. In the end, both teams found their offensive niche, running for 566 and 532 yards respectively. However, the defense just wasn’t there. If offense is your thing, Auburn and Georgia are your teams. The Auburn visit to Alabama ended in a similar fashion. Many well-informed sports fans are familiar with the petition filed by angry Alabama fans concerning the status of Chris Davis’ 73-yard return of the Alabama missed field goal. Upon slowing down the video to analyze said play, it is clear that Chris Davis remains in bounds the length of the field. Malzahn did it again. He somehow managed to orchestrate an amazing upset with his genius offensive complexes and a stroke of luck.
Auburn had officially upset their way into the SEC Championship game against SEC newcomers, the Missouri Tigers. Missouri fought hard at first, but in the 4th quarter their fervor fell flat. Auburn relied on their strong offensive line, a whole lot of run game, and the slacking Missouri response to lead them to yet another win. Junior Tre Mason set all rushing records with his 4 touchdowns on 46 touches and 304 yards. The Auburn team as whole set an SEC Title game ground record with 536 yards. As far as Heisman Trophy contention for the junior running back from Palm Beach, FL, the ballots were simply turned in too early for Mason to stand much of a chance. Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com tweeted shortly after the game stating that “Tre Mason gave every early Heisman voter 304 reasons why you don’t send in your ballot until all the game are played.” The Auburn Tigers defeated the Missouri Tigers 59-42 and were then pleased to witness Michigan State end the Ohio State winning streak, confirming their trip to the last BCS National Championship game (Can I get a hallelujah?) against the Florida State Seminoles.
Florida State will surely give the Tigers a run for their money. Jameis Winston’s recent Heisman Trophy win will give the Seminoles an edge that may be difficult for the Tigers to match. Though football is a game of skill, it is also a game of analysis. Which team will find the holes in their opponent’s approach fast enough to create and execute a winning response? We will just have to wait until January 6th to find out.
One thing is for sure, Auburn and Florida State weren’t the favorites amongst the numerous predictions cast throughout the 2013 season–some claim that though these teams have proved themselves, this matchup is pure accident. Isn’t this why the NCAA has decided to do away with the BCS? All teams with a perfect record legitimize their position in the title game. In the end, it is all about the turnout and the experience. Remember, college football is an industry.
Even though every team in the SEC is a rival to the next, Auburn will have the backing of the entirety of the powerhouse conference’s fan-base (yes, even the Alabama fans will cheer on the Tigers). Though it is difficult to speak for the rest of the country, it is obvious that many will choose to cheer for the non-SEC Seminoles, simply because they are not a part of the conference that has begun to develop its own era.
Speaking of the SEC, now that Malzahn has led Auburn to a BCS National Championship, what will happen in regards to their place in the conference in the next few years?
With complete 180° spin from the 2012 disaster to the 2013 winning frenzy, the Auburn Tigers pose a threat to the likes of SEC ranking climbers once again. As for Malzahn, the football gods are really looking out for him. Though it is clear that Malzahn is a talented and gutsy coach, the only way to have a truly successful team is to develop a no-nonsense defense to match an incredibly successful offense. There is no doubt that Auburn is back, but for the extremely excited Tiger nation to maintain a celebration-worthy winning streak, Malzahn must choreograph a program that encompasses not only his aptitude for beautiful offensive design, but also the coaching capacities of his fellow coaches. Opposing coaches are on a mission to ascertain the secret to the Auburn turnaround. A perfect offense can only get the Tigers so far. SEC coaches will stop at nothing to uncover just how to defeat a threat to their success. Malzahn will undoubtedly drill his team about the protection of the Auburn program during the offseason. Even the most successful of teams have room for improvement.
More than anything, the Auburn Cinderella story demonstrates the evolution of football. Coaches and players no longer rely solely on playmaking and skills. The game of football is now a matter of strategy, reasoning, skill, and prayer that everything will come together to produce sensational football. Regardless of conference bias, BCS disagreements, and the number of other noteworthy teams, the Auburn Tigers deserve congratulations and praise for their year of sensational football.