Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - A year removed from a winless season in conference play, the Auburn Tigers are just one victory away from clinching a spot in the SEC Championship Game.
Granted, that one win will not come easily, as the Tigers host the top-ranked and two-time defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday, Nov. 30, and thanks to Auburn's surprising rise to national prominence this season, next week's matchup is arguably the most important Iron Bowl in the 78-year history of the series.
It's safe to say that no one expected Auburn (10-1, 6-1 SEC) to be in this position fresh off its worst season in more than 60 years, as the 2012 team went just 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC. The dreadful campaign prompted the firing of head coach Gene Chizik, who had led the team to an unblemished 14-0 mark in 2010 on its way to the BCS National Championship. With the program falling so far in such a short amount of time, the administration realized that the only solution was the tear up the blueprint and start from scratch.
As it turned out, as quickly as it took for Auburn to descend into darkness is about as fast as it was able to pull itself out of the abyss. Enter first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, who served as the team's offensive coordinator from 2009-11, and orchestrated the Cam Newton-led offense during the 2010 championship run. He was able to parlay his success at Auburn to land the head coaching job at Arkansas State and started his career off with an outstanding 9-3 mark and a Sun Belt Conference championship. Just a year after he left AU, the school brought him back to replace Chizik.
With the help of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who held the same position the year prior at Arkansas State, Malzahn re-implemented the no- huddle, run-heavy offense that was so successful in 2010, and the return on investment became evident early on as the Tigers streaked out to a 3-0 start, matching the previous year's win total midway through the month of September. However, the squad ran into a buzz saw on Sept. 21 at nationally-ranked LSU, falling 35-21. It was at that point that many assumed that while Auburn was a nice story early on, it was not yet ready to once again compete with the big boys in the SEC.
But instead of wallowing in that tough early-season loss, the Tigers rallied around it to the tune of six straight victories, which included a fourth- quarter comeback at nationally-ranked Texas A&M on Oct. 19, 45-41. Since making their season debut in the national polls on Oct. 13, the Tigers have slowly climbed up the ranks with each passing week, as they currently sit at No. 7 in the AP poll and sit sixth in the BCS Standings.
Auburn's season reached new, and frankly unbelievable, heights last week versus Georgia. It appeared well on its way to an easy victory, up by 20 points early in the fourth quarter, but Malzahn's club collapsed down the stretch by allowing the Bulldogs to score three unanswered touchdowns to take a 38-37 lead with less than two minutes to play. The Tigers' magical run looked to be over, as they faced a 4th-and-18 with 36 seconds left, but after Nick Marshall's desperation heave down the field was tipped by a UGA defender, it miraculously fell into the hands of Ricardo Louis, who ran it in for a 73- yard touchdown to give Auburn the improbable win.
"The only thing that was going through my mind was try to make a play," Louis said on what is already being deemed as Auburn's version of 'The Catch.' "At first I was going to try and jump for it, but they took the angle, so I just kept my eyes on the ball over my shoulder and watched the ball all the way in ... It was unbelievable."
In the superstitious world of sports, it's difficult not to wonder after a play like that if Auburn is simply this year's team of destiny. But while good fortune may have been on its side for one shining moment, Malzahn is adamant that, with this squad, all the good fortune that comes its way is well deserved.
"I believe if you work hard and you have a team that is completely 100 percent together and all the coaches, everybody is on board, then you have a chance to do something special."
With the theatrics of last week's win in the rearview mirror, the Tigers now set their sights on the Crimson Tide, who are rolling along with a perfect 10-0 ledger, although the reigning champs started to show some chinks in the armor last week at Mississippi State. The offense sputtered by committing four turnovers, including two interceptions by A.J. McCarron for just the third multi-pick game of his career. The Auburn defense has played very well this season (22.0 ppg, 17 takeaways), and the team will certainly get a boost playing at home.
The Tigers' biggest challenge will come on offense, as it will be strength versus strength when their third-ranked rushing attack (320.3 ypg) butts heads with Alabama's third-ranked rushing defense (91.1 ypg), and it remains to be seen how Tre Mason (1,158 yards, 17 TDs) and Marshall (1,530 passing yards, 823 rushing yards, 18 total TDs) fare against the stout 'Bama front. But talent and personnel aside, Malzahn acknowledges that with this group of players, anything is possible.
"This team has the 'It' factor," Malzahn said. "That's just the bottom line. They complement each other very well. Offensively, defensively and special teams, they step up when they have to. They are a joy to coach. I told them that I think we're in the midst of something special."