AUBURN, Ala. — An unshakeable belief a team holds that it is incapable of losing isn’t built overnight.
Auburn owns that mentality now, and for good reason: In every close game it has encountered in 2013, it has emerged victorious. The proof is in the numbers: The Tigers are 5-0 in games decided by seven points are less. That improves to 6-0 in contests decided by eight points or fewer. In addition, the Tigers have six come-from-behind victories this year, which constitutes half of their 12 wins this season.
But how did Auburn develop this knack for pulling out close games?
It simply evolved over time.
As Alex Kozan tells it, the Tigers began the season with a simple mind-set: They would give maximum effort every game. Win or lose, opponents would know that Auburn left nothing to chance. More importantly, Kozan said, they wanted fans to walk away feeling the same.
“It’s coming in and making sure you give your best effort every single play and execute to the best of our abilities,” Kozan said. “If we do that, we think we have a great chance to win, just like any team does.”
After a pair of victories to start the season — which included a 31-24 escape against Washington State in the opener — things started to change. It went from the “best effort” mantra to “finding a way to win” regardless of the circumstances.
Players say they believed just out of faith in the coaching staff.
All they needed was to see it unfold in a live game for it to become more than just words.
“After we beat Mississippi State — we drove the ball down the field and scored at the end — guys really said, ‘You know what? We can win the game and we will find a way to win,’” senior fullback Jay Prosch said. “Ever since that happened, we’ve believed that.”
And of all the things the Tigers have accomplished this season, that’s the aspect that has impressed Gus Malzahn most.
“In the biggest, most pressure moments, they come through and they do it time and time again,” Auburn’s coach said. “That’s a tribute to those guys. There were times that things didn’t look good at all and (when) I looked on the sidelines (I) didn’t see anybody defeated, didn’t see anybody with their head down. They really believed and they found a way to do it.”
C.J. Uzomah appreciated the sentiment — that his head coach thought this year’s late-game successes meant praise should be reserved for the players. An instant later, the junior tight end shifted the credit back to Malzahn.
They simply don’t want to fail their coach.
“When we get into two-minute situations at the end of practice, there’s so much pressure on us from him — if he looks at us and he just stares at one player the entire time, we’re just like, ‘Oh, the world is looking at us,’” Uzomah said. “That’s what we feel like. I think that he gives us that sense of having to perform, having to pick it up. We can’t make any mistakes.”
Thus far, the Tigers haven’t erred. When the stakes have been highest and things couldn’t look bleaker, Auburn has prevailed.
Malzahn thought few teams have ever had to confront the myriad adverse situations the Tigers have conquered this year.
“I think if you look at our entire schedule, I would like to think we are battle-tested,” he said. “We’ve been in some true dog-fight games. We’ve been in some games where the pressure was on (us) on the road, at home, and our guys have responded. In big games I know they are not going to panic.”
If one describes Auburn as “comfortable” in nail-biting affairs, it would be fair to paint Florida State as “blissfully unaware.” While the Tigers have had to conjure up numerous game-winning fourth quarter drives and defensive stops, the Seminoles have barely had to break a sweat in the second half. That’s what happens when you average 53 points per game and allow just 10.7. In their closest game this season — which came on the road against Boston College on Sept. 28 — the Seminoles still won by double-digits, as they left with a 48-34 victory.
The pertinent question is, will Florida State’s lack of final period dramatics be a hindrance? And on the flip side, will it be a benefit for Auburn?
On that topic, the Tigers were split.
“I think it’s huge,” Uzomah said. “We know what to do in that situation. We’ve kind of performed in any situation possible — one second left or it’s Nick (Marshall) on a long ball on fourth-and-18 or going down and scoring on a two-minute drive. I think that helps us a lot, because the maturity of our team, we kind of know what to do and rally around each other in that situation.”
Sammie Coates couldn’t disagree more.
“I don’t really buy into that. I think we’ve just been out there competing,” the sophomore receiver said. “We never give up. I look at Florida State as a great team. They’ve been putting up crazy numbers. That’s one thing you’ve got to look at: They’ve been dominating. We’ve just got to take our game to their level and (do) what they’ve been doing.”
Then there was Kozan, who took a nuanced, middle-of-the-road approach.
“I view it as a little bit of an advantage, but at the end of the day, Florida State is still going to come and they’re going to prepare and they’re going to be ready to ball come the national championship, just like we are,” he said. “I think it might help us a little bit in the fourth quarter but they’re not going to quit. They know what’s at stake. We know what’s at stake. So it may help us a little bit, but Florida State is going to be ready.”
Prosch, however, provided a cautionary tale illustrating the downside of dominance. He thought back to his days at UMS-Wright Preparatory School in Mobile, Ala. During his senior season in 2009, the Bulldogs were rarely tested; they lost, yes, but even that wasn’t a close game, falling to Fairhope 41-21. By the time the third round of the state playoffs rolled around, UMS-Wright had outscored opponents by a margin of 478-201 in 12 games.
But locked in a tight contest with Handley, Prosch said his team was flummoxed.
The Bulldogs hadn’t been in that situation before — and it cost them.
“We lost to a team we shouldn’t have lost to, and I think it’s because we got in a close game — we lost by three points — and we just didn’t know how to finish,” Prosch said of the 13-10 defeat. “I definitely think that had an affect.”
Reese Dismukes, for one, didn’t have an opinion on the matter. It’s too difficult to compare, he felt. Who knows if the Tigers might have won with the same ease as the Seminoles given the same schedule? On the same token, Florida State might have struggled a bit more had it played Auburn’s slate. Only one thing was certain, Dismukes said: The Tigers are well-versed in end-game predicaments, particularly when things are touch-and-go.
In that area, at least, he didn’t mind giving his take.
“We’ve been in that situation before,” he said. “Hopefully if we’re in that situation again, we’ll win the game.”