AUBURN, Ala. -- As the deficit kept growing, so too did the doubt that even a team as resilient as Auburn could claw its way out of a 24-0 hole against Alabama last Friday.
That sentiment was lacking on the Tigers’ sideline, however.
“We knew we can get ourselves out of trouble,” safety Zac Etheridge said. “We just keep on fighting until that last second ticked off the clock. That’s what we do.”
Auburn, which plays South Carolina in the SEC championship Saturday, did find a way, rallying for a 28-27 victory in the largest comeback in school history.
It’s the latest -- and greatest -- in a series of comebacks in what has been an unconventional season.
The Tigers have come from behind to win eight of their 12 games this year, overcoming double-digit deficits to do so on four occasions, living as dangerously as any national title contender in recent memory.
“We tell them every week there’s storms you’ll have to weather in every game,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “Some storms obviously are worse than others. … And they hear that and they understand that. And watching them down on the field, there isn’t any panic.”
“You never want to be down in the first place,” left tackle Lee Ziemba said. “But, you know, if something does happen and you do get down, it’s never too many points to come back from.”
Auburn’s big comebacks have happened in a variety of ways:
After falling behind Clemson 17-0 in September, Auburn’s offense got in gear, scoring 21 third-quarter points and gaining 293 yards after halftime in a 27-24 overtime win.
The next week, South Carolina took a 20-7 lead in the second quarter, but the Tigers’ defense forced four fourth-quarter turnovers in a 35-27 victory.
Georgia raced to a 21-7 lead earlier this month. But Auburn scored on six of its final seven possessions, seizing momentum with a timely onside kick after halftime in a 49-31 win.
And last Friday, the Tigers had breakdowns across the board while falling behind Alabama 24-0 in the second quarter. A defensive resurgence (62 yards allowed in the second half) and quarterback Cam Newton’s offensive exploits (four touchdowns accounted for) resulted in one of the most memorable Iron Bowl finishes in history.
“It’s really being confident in one another,” right guard Byron Isom said. “There was never any bad body language around the team. That’s one thing we really harped on in this offseason.”
It’s a departure from last year, when three of Auburn’s five losses -- Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama -- were a result of struggles down the stretch.
“All the coaches talk about finishing,” Etheridge said. “That’s something we didn’t do last year. Obviously, this year we have been focused on finishing games. Once we get a feel for what teams are doing, what their game plan is, we play a lot faster and we just finish the game.”
A common thread in all of Auburn’s turnarounds has been defensive adjustments. In the four games Auburn trailed by double digits, opponents scored 82 points in the first half and only 27 in the second, something Chizik credits to defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
“A lot of teams come out early and try to attack us different ways,” Etheridge said. “They come out just throwing some stuff that we haven’t seen, and so they get a quick jump on us.
“But once we figure out what they’re trying to do to us, the game becomes slower and you are just able to play fast and build on what coach is calling on defense.”
Roof knows it’s something Auburn can’t do against South Carolina if it wants to get to the national championship game.
“There’s a very fine line between winning and losing,” he said, “and the further we go, the finer the line.”