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AUBURN, Ala. – The Auburn Tigers couldn't help but ponder what's coming even in the midst of a wild celebration.
Even with an open date ahead. Even after a last-gasp win over Georgia. It's the Iron Bowl, after all, and an especially huge one.
The sixth-ranked Tigers barely cleared the last hurdle with a 43-38 win Saturday over the Bulldogs before turning their sights toward the game with No. 1 Alabama in two weeks. The winner plays for the Southeastern Conference title, and perhaps a shot at the national championship.
"Of course we're going to enjoy this win," tailback Tre Mason said afterward. "But we started thinking about it (the Alabama game) as soon as that clock hit all zeroes. Coach (Gus) Malzahn said, 'Onto the next,' in the locker room."
This one wasn't settled until the clock hit all zeroes, even after Auburn (10-1, 6-1 SEC) surged to a 27-7 lead. Ricardo Louis caught a desperation heave from Nick Marshall that deflected off Josh Harvey-Clemons' hand in double coverage. The result was a 73-yard touchdown on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds left that will go down as one of the more memorable plays in SEC history.
Then it was onto the next for a team that Malzahn has led from 3-9 to being ranked sixth in the nation.
"This team, they're special," Malzahn said. "This is a special group. They've been through a lot, and they rallied. They came together. They believed in each other. They bought into the fact to get better each game, each practice. I told them before the game, I said, 'We've been building up to this moment.' Our moment was to be able to play these guys."
The next moment is significantly bigger. Georgia had hammered the Tigers two years running, but so has the Crimson Tide. Alabama won 42-14 two years ago and 49-0 last season and is seeking its fourth national title in five years.
The unbeaten Tide had a more mundane performance in a 20-7 win over Mississippi State that was the tightest margin Nick Saban's team has faced since Sept. 14, a 49-42 win over No. 9 Texas A&M. Alabama faces FCS team Chattanooga in a tuneup Saturday.
Malzahn joked after the game that it was "definitely a Waffle House night." But he said Sunday he planned to go to church "and after church I will flip the switch" from Georgia to Alabama.
"That one aged me," Malzahn said. "I've lost some years off my life."
This Auburn team has undergone a metamorphosis under Malzahn. Marshall, who has two game-winning TD passes in the final seconds, and Mason have powered the nation's no. 3 rushing offense.
Marshall accounted for 229 passing yards, 89 rushing yards and three total touchdowns against Georgia. Mason ran for 115 yards and a league-leading 18th touchdown. And then there's Louis, a shifty runner who has been touted by the coaches all season as a potentially key playmaker.
He ran for 66 yards on five carries and caught four passes for 131 yards. Louis accounted for Auburn's two longest plays, a 32-yard run and the 73-yard catch.
For all that success in Malzahn's up-tempo offense, a more notable difference from last season's team might have been the confidence remaining even after blowing a 20-point lead.
"This team is very unique," he said. "There's a lot of tension and pressures since the momentum had swung, but they had bright eyes in the huddle. It was really unbelievable."
Auburn has made a habit out of dramatic finishes. The Tigers beat No. 9 Texas A&M on Mason's 5-yard touchdown run with 1:19 left, topped Mississippi State on Marshall's touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining and had late defensive stands against Washington State and Mississippi.
Malzahn doesn't buy into the talk of Auburn having good karma or being a team of destiny.
"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," he said.
Winning the Iron Bowl would be high on that list.