AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s seniors find themselves in an envious position.
That the Tigers are in the BCS National Championship game is common knowledge by now. But forget any talk of “team of destiny.” To Dee Ford, “team of influence” is more fitting. And he should know. He’s one of 11 members of Auburn’s senior class who played during the national title-winning 2010 campaign. Of course, that also meant he was around for the middling 8-5 showing in 2011, as well as the train wreck that was last season, when the Tigers went 3-9 and didn’t win a game in SEC play.
Experiencing those ups and downs provides he and his fellow seniors a platform borne out of their remarkable story.
“Things are not just going to happen when you want it to happen,” Ford said. “ This team has a lot of influence right now, and we can relay that message to anybody: just keep fighting and follow your dreams.”
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How did the team get to this point?
It’s a four-year journey — from the peak of the college football world to its depths — that has come full circle.
2010: Heisman winner Newton refuses to let Auburn lose
Nothing could stop the Tigers three years ago.
Not an NCAA investigation.
Not the distractions and media crush caused by said investigation.
And there was a simple reason why Auburn overcame all of this: Cam Newton wouldn’t let them. The dazzling signal-caller had a season for the ages, throwing for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns and running for an additional 1,473 yards and 20 more scores.
Given how brilliant his season was, it’s no surprise it took Newton all of one game to make an impression. In his debut against Arkansas State, he combined for 357 yards (186 passing, 171 rushing) and five touchdowns — punctuated by a 71-yard touchdown run — in a 52-26 rout.
Steve Roberts couldn’t find enough superlatives to describe the quarterback he had just faced.
“I don't know if I have seen an individual performance better than Cam Newton's,” the then-Arkansas State head coach said in his postgame interview. “He is the best player I have ever seen live.”
Newton only continued to get better from there, helping the Tigers come out with narrow victories (by a touchdown or less) in four of their next five games. After winning a 65-43 shootout against Arkansas, a matchup versus LSU awaited.
And it was in this game that Newton provided arguably the signature highlight of his Auburn career.
With the contest tied at 10-all in the third quarter, Auburn had the ball at LSU’s 49-yard line. Faking a handoff, Newton dashed up the middle and cut to his right. He evaded one tackle — and kept his balance by placing his left hand on the ground — and juked two more defenders before accelerating past Patrick Peterson. Newton carried Peterson — who went on to be named a consensus All-American and capture both the Nagurski (top defender) and Thorpe (top defensive back) awards that season — into the end zone to put Auburn on top, in a game it went on to win 24-17.
The person least in awe of the twisting, turning, video game-like touchdown was Newton himself.
“It's just a play that is in my job description to make,” he said afterward.
After victories over Ole Miss, Chattanooga and Georgia, Auburn entered the Iron Bowl sitting at 11-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. Things looked bleak early on, as Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 advantage midway through the second quarter. But as he did so often that season, Newton spearheaded a comeback, accounting for all four touchdowns in the 28-27 win.
And in this victory, at least, the defense was extended every bit as much credit as the quarterback, as the Tigers allowed only three points in the final 30 minutes.
There was no such drama the following week in the SEC Championship game. Auburn beat South Carolina 56-17, which marked the largest margin of victory in the history of the conference title game.
With a 13-0 record in hand and a month layoff, the time in between the SEC championship game and the BCS title contest served as a victory lap on Auburn’s awards tour.
Newton picked up a plethora of honors: the Heisman, Walter Camp, Maxwell and Davey O’Brien trophies. Gene Chizik was recognized as the national coach of the year by multiple entities. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant. And dominant defensive tackle Nick Fairley snagged the Lombardi Award for the most outstanding lineman.
When the BCS national championship game finally arrived on Jan. 10, 2011, in Glendale, Ariz., Auburn took care of business, beating Oregon 22-19 to clinch its first national title since 1957.
“Fifty-three years, baby! This is for you," Chizik shouted to Tigers’ supporters in the stands in the postgame celebration. "War Eagle!"
For Newton, it was a joyful occasion, yes.
But after being dogged by unsavory NCAA allegations all season, he also felt a measure of vindication, for both himself and his team.
“Throughout this year, ain't nobody feel sorry for Auburn," he said. "And we got the last laugh."
2011: Youthful Tigers win eight games, suffer five lopsided losses
Auburn didn’t get the last laugh the following season.
Newton was gone. So too, was Fairley. They were part of a mass talent exodus after the national title run, as the Tigers lost more than 20 seniors. As such, Auburn was one of the youngest teams in the country in 2011, with 17 freshmen seeing playing time at different points in the season.
All things considered, the 2011 campaign wasn’t terrible — Auburn went 8-5 and finished the season on a high note, taking a 43-24 victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl versus Virginia.
Still, coming off a national championship, anything short of a repeat means the following season qualifies as a step back. And it was in the biggest matchups that Auburn struggled most: all five of its losses (Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama) came to teams that won 10-plus games.
To make matters worse, the Tigers were rarely competitive in any of them, losing those five contests by a combined score of 208-69.
Prior to the final rout — a 42-14 defeat to Alabama in the Iron Bowl — Chizik seemed to be pleased with what his team had accomplished up to that point.
“It's been challenging when you have such a young team. We've had some great victories and we've had some tough losses,” he told AL.com “There's been some ups and downs, but I see a young team growing. I see a lot of young guys whose future is extremely bright, guys who are learning every day.”
He also refused to use his team’s youth as an excuse.
“The thing the fans recognize is what they see on game day, which at the end of the day is the only thing that matters,” he said in the same AL.com interview. “But what I see on a day-to-day basis is guys coming out here hungry to be champions. They come out and they work every day and it's important to them to try and improve.”
As the team turned the calendar to 2012, players vowed the coming fall would be far different. The Tigers took it as a sign of disrespect they were picked to finish fourth in the SEC West at the conference media days in July.
“They said the same thing last year, they said we were going to win like four games or whatever," linebacker Daren Bates said before the opening of fall camp. "We don't pay attention to that because we know what we can do, what type of athletes we have, what type of players we have. All we have to do is go out there and play the games and it speaks for itself."
2012: Tigers hit rock-bottom, Chizik dismissed
Bates was right: Auburn’s play in 2012 spoke volumes.
The problem was, it resonated in the worst way imaginable.
Auburn won three games, its lowest total since posting the same number in 1998.
The Tigers went winless (0-8) in SEC play, the first time it didn’t beat a league foe in a season since going 0-for-6 in 1980.
Auburn mustered only 18.7 points per game, while allowing 28.3.
If not for a 31-28 victory against Louisiana-Monroe in the third week of the season, Auburn would likely have started 0-8. Game No. 8, coincidentally enough, is the moment many pegged as the point of no return for Chizik. Yes, the Tigers were already struggling mightily to that point. And yes, some had started to ponder whether Chizik’s job security might be in jeopardy soon.
But following a 63-21 home decimation at the hands of eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, the rumors emerged and morphed into full-blown questioning. On three different occasions during his postgame press conference, Chizik was asked about being on the hot seat.
Each time, he shed little insight.
“I’ve addressed that before, and I understand that’s everybody’s job to ask those questions,” Chizik said. “But I’ve got one concern: those guys in the locker room, and us trying to improve to get a win. So I’m not going there. ... It's not about me."
Much to Chizik’s chagrin, it was all about him once the clock hit zero in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 25. The Tigers fell to the top-ranked Crimson Tide 49-0, the second-worst loss they had ever suffered in the series, trailing only a 55-0 defeat in 1948.
One day later, Chizik was relieved of his duties by Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, who noted that he had made the recommendation not to retain the coach after “careful consideration and a thorough evaluation of our football program.”
Chizik put up no argument.
“I'm extremely disappointed with the way this season turned out and I apologize to the Auburn family and our team for what they have had to endure," Chizik said. "In my 27 years of coaching, I have gained an understanding of the high expectations in this profession. When expectations are not met, I understand changes must be made."
There were three majors components Jacobs said he would look for in the next coach: one with a proven track record, one who "plays by the rules” and one who would continue to emphasize — and more importantly, improve — academic success among football players.
Jacobs believed they found that man in a former Chizik assistant by the name of Gus Malzahn.
2013: Return to glory and second national title appearance
Malzahn made it clear from Day 1: He didn’t care about any aspect of the 2012 season.
He didn’t care how or why it happened. He didn’t care whose fault it was. He didn’t care about any single result, no matter how embarrassing it may have been.
Enter his “new day” mantra.
“Everybody has a fresh start and you’re going to earn the right to be on the field,” he said. “We just started it that way.”
It started in the spring, where Malzahn said the coaching staff pushed players to their limits. It was a strenuous process done to not only improve their endurance, but to figure out which players truly wanted to be part of the team.
“If not, they needed to do something different,” Malzahn said. “They did everything we asked and the guys that made it, they hung in there and played good football.”
“Good” isn’t a strong enough term for how the Tigers have played this year, though. “Great” or “excellent” is more appropriate. The stats tell part of the story. Pick one; it doesn’t matter which number, really. One could look at Auburn’s average rushing yards per game (335.7), which is tops in the country. Another could be the 8.5-win improvement over last season, tied for the biggest turnaround in NCAA history along with Hawaii, which went from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 in 1999. Or one could consider the Tigers’ success in games against ranked opponents (5-1) or in contests decided by eight points or fewer (6-0).
But Malzahn said the numbers pale in comparison to the gains he’s seen the team make in practice since the beginning of the year.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team come as far as we have,” he said. “The very first game, we were an average-at-best team. We were a work in progress probably the first half of the season. Our guys continued to improve. I probably can count on one hand practices our coaches weren’t happy with. Our players bought in to what we asked and they worked extremely hard and they earned the right to get here.”
It wasn’t hard for the team to buy in, according to Chris Davis. In the same meeting Malzahn pledged they would have the biggest turnaround in college football, he also made another promise: he would hire the best coaching staff possible.
In Davis’ estimation, that’s exactly what Malzahn did.
“Not just coaching-wise but as men, also,” Davis said. “You can look at every coach on the coaching staff as a father figure. For some people who have never had a father like me, I look at Coach (Melvin) Smith and ‘Coach Cheese’ (Charlie Harbison) as a father figure. They’re great men, they’re men of God and they really care about us.”
Along with putting their faith in the coaching staff, the Tigers also had to restore the belief in themselves.
“You want to come into every game thinking you’re going to win,” Ford said. “If you come in with that mindset, you can win it all.”
And here they are: on the brink of a second BCS title in four years. From a national championship to the cellar of the SEC and back again.
What a ride.
“It's been a big roller coaster,” Ford said. “ It really revealed who we were as individuals. And as a real team it revealed who we were. That's what caught my attention more than anything — because we fought through it together.”