AUBURN, Ala. — Give screenwriters as many chances as you’d like, and they still wouldn’t have been able to conjure up something as unbelievable as the way the latest edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry unfolded.
But why not at least rehash the story arc?
In it, the protagonist is none other than Nick Marshall, Auburn's starting quarterback, pitted against his antagonist (and former team) in Georgia. In the early going, Marshall and the Tigers had no issues running out to a 24-10 halftime lead. Once it was stretched to 37-17 less than three minutes into the fourth quarter, the contest looked all but over. But that would have been too easy.
Thus, drama had to be inserted to force Marshall to work a bit harder.
And it is at this point where Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs’ hobbled-but-resilient offense was at its best, scoring three touchdowns in the span of 10:50 to take a 38-37 advantage with just 1:49 to play. As all stories such as this one do, it’s on the main character to either come up with a game-winning play and fulfill his role as the hero or fall just short in a valiant effort.
By now, most know how this tale ended.
Fourth-and-18. 36 seconds to go. After back-to-back timeouts, Auburn needed nothing short of a supernatural event to take place to avoid what would be an epic collapse. Thanks to Marshall and co-star Ricardo Louis, the Tigers got exactly the miracle they were hoping for, as they connected on a 73-yard scoring strike — with an assist from Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, who tipped the ball just enough to put Louis in a position to catch it — to help Auburn pull off one of the inconceivable last-minute victories one could ever imagine.
And that, perhaps, is the most absurd part of it all: that it actually happened.
As much as the events above sound like a trailer for a Disney movie, everything took place exactly as described. Yes, the moment that has been discussed more than any other is the tipped and bobbled Hail Mary prayer, but it just fits into a grander scheme of happenings that sound almost too good to be true.
You could almost say it was stranger than fiction.
If nothing else, the Marshall-to-Louis touchdown for the ages should have put to bed any doubts about this year’s Auburn team. As head coach Gus Malzahn said afterward, Auburn simply has the “it” factor. Yes, these Tigers own that always intangible, hard-to-put-into-words element that championship squads seem to possess.
The same could be said of Marshall.
No Tiger oozes the “it” factor Malzahn alluded to more than his junior signal-caller. Last Saturday marked the third time this season the Georgia native has authored a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. At this point, the coaching staff and his teammates are of the belief that regardless of the circumstances, Marshall is going to find a way to win.
Just listen to the Tigers’ coordinators talk about him.
“(I) don't want to say any one person flipped this program,” said Ellis Johnson, who heads up Auburn’s defense, “but I think if you look at what (Marshall has) done, and where we were before him and after him, I think you have to honestly just say it's been unbelievable.”
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee took it a step further, invoking the names of both Michael Jordan and Cam Newton.
“I don't think it's fair to compare Nick in that point yet,” Lashlee said, “but what he has done is win in some clutch moments that a lot of people don't.”
The only thing separating Marshall from Jordan and Newton (at this juncture) is the championships the latter duo both produced during the course of their careers. With his go-for-broke heave to Louis, Marshall has put himself in position to match that dynamic duo and help Auburn add some more hardware to its trophy case — that of the SEC title and possibly national variety — provided it can knock off top-ranked Alabama in next week’s Iron Bowl.
There's no question the Crimson Tide will enter as the favorites. That's the respect the two-time defending national champions have earned. But bear one thing in mind.
If people are betting at their own peril, then the most far-fetched narrative might not have been penned just yet.