AUBURN, Ala. -- To say it was expected is disingenuous. Not outside of the Auburn locker room, that is.
Few, if any, national pundits brought up the Tigers when talking about the SEC title before the season, let alone the national title.
It made Monday’s 22-19 victory against Oregon in the BCS title game, the capper to a 14-0 championship season, all the sweeter.
“When you go in the locker room and you look at 100 guys that 15 weeks ago nobody would have gave a dime for to win a national championship, which is fact, and you see them look at you and your coaches are saying thank you to the players and the players are saying thank you to the coaches, that’s family,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
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“And you’ve brought these guys from point A to point Z. I get a lot of joy out of that.”
It was a memorable season for the Tigers, who the Associated Press ranked 22nd and the coaches 23rd in the preseason, behind four and five other SEC teams, respectively.
But Auburn proved everybody wrong time and time again on the field, pulling out a series of close victories to keep its record unblemished, slowly rising in the rankings before, when all was said and done, it sat alone at No. 1.
“I don’t think you can have great teams without having some great players at some positions, coaches that know how to use them and the team chemistry that just comes together and allows the team to be a great team,” Chizik said. “I think those three things are really important. Like I said, I have been involved in a lot of games with a lot of teams that have all three of those things. Certainly this team is no exception to that.”
This year’s Auburn team had a distinctly different style than its 2004 predecessor, which steamrolled opponents, rarely, if ever, trailing during its perfect run.
The 2010 Tigers lived on the edge. They trailed in 10 of their 14 games, overcoming double-digit deficits against Clemson (17-0), South Carolina (20-7), Georgia (14-0) and Alabama (24-0).
Nine of their games weren’t decided until the fourth quarter, but the Tigers found a way every time, escaping by the skin of their teeth three times on Wes Byrum field goals -- in overtime against Clemson, on the road at Kentucky and for the crystal football against Oregon.
Along the way, two players grew into all-time greats.
Quarterback Cam Newton went from tantalizing curiosity in the spring to the Heisman Trophy winner in a span of eight months, collecting SEC and national awards aplenty while shattering school records for rushing touchdowns (20), passing touchdowns (30), touchdowns responsible for (51), total offense (4,327) and rushing yards by a quarterback (1,473).
Coaches didn’t know exactly what they had in the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton right away -- they didn’t let defenses try to tackle him on running plays in the spring -- but they soon found out.
In the opener against Arkansas State, Newton took a naked bootleg on a broken play, had open field in front of him and effortlessly ran 70 yards for the touchdown.
“During the timeout, I told coach (Trooper) Taylor, ‘Hey, this guy’s got it,’ ” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. “And he got better and better as the year went on.”
Newton would only add to his highlight reel the rest of the season -- the Superman leap into the end zone against South Carolina, the bob-and-weave touchdown run against LSU, the touchdown catch against Ole Miss -- taking the suspense out of the Heisman Trophy presentation, which had become a mere formality.
But he wasn’t alone. On the defensive side of the ball, Nick Fairley went from an occasionally motivated backup to perhaps the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, putting together a season that drew comparisons to his position coach, Tracy Rocker, a College Football Hall of Famer.
Coaches saw it in the spring.
“He started to tell everyone where to line up and he knew where to line up immediately, and I said that was a great sign,” Rocker said. “And then going to fall practice, he was practicing at a different speed. The game had slowed down for him. And assignment-wise he got better and better, and then once he got the interception against Mississippi State, the light was on. After that I got out of coaching.”
The MSU game was Fairley’s coming out party. The junior had five tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and, yes, an interception he tipped in the air to himself in Auburn’s narrow 17-14 victory.
It was only the start. By the end of the season, he lived in the opposing backfield, finishing with a school-record 24 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks, numbers that led the SEC and earned him the Lombardi Trophy.
His best performance might have been his last. Fairley had five tackles, three for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble against Oregon, which was the much-maligned defense’s shining hour.
Add it all together, and it turned into a national championship season, one Chizik described after the BCS title game.
“For you to be able to sit up at a table with a bunch of young guys that week-in and week-out did every single thing we asked them to do and defied all odds and did all the things that people told them they couldn’t do,” Chizik said, “that’s the satisfaction in the moment that I have right now.”