AUBURN, Ala. -- The biggest turnaround in college football is happening on the Plains right now as Auburn, who started 2-7 a year ago, is sitting at 8-1, No. 9 in the BCS standings and in control of its own destiny in the SEC West.
But none of it would have been possible if not for what took place on Sept. 14.
The Tigers started the season 2-0 but were trailing Mississippi State 20-14 with less than two minutes to play. Gus Malzahn had come in and preached to the team that it was a new day at Auburn University, but how could the team buy in if they lost their 11th straight SEC game?
Quarterback Nick Marshall led the Tigers on a 12-play, 88-yard drive that was capped off by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to C.J. Uzomah with just 10 seconds left. The 24-20 victory was Auburn’s first in the SEC in nearly two years, and it set the tone for the rest of the season.
“That was a huge win,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, it’s kind of the way we won that game. We were able to come back. There was a lot of pressure on our kids at home, and I think our crowd was still trying to figure out who we were as a team. I think that gave everybody a good shot in the arm moving forward.”
One drive and these Tigers had reason to believe their new head coach.
In the past decade, Auburn and Mississippi State have opened conference play against each other every year, and the game tends to be a barometer of how the season is going to play out. In all three of Auburn’s 10-win seasons since 2004, the Tigers opened with a win over Mississippi State. Last year, the season fell apart after a loss to the Bulldogs.
So when Marshall threw the game-winning touchdown pass, the rest of the team knew just how important that moment was.
“Statistically, if you go back, if we lose to them we always have a terrible year,” center Reese Dismukes said. “If they lose to us, they have a terrible year. That's always a big one to win. That was really the starting point, the foundation for our season -- that win right there.”
Said defensive back Ryan White: “It’s a huge confidence boost. That’s all we talked about -- this game could make us or break us -- sort of like it did last year.”
It’s safe to say this year’s game has made the Tigers. Although they lost to LSU the following week, the Tigers have since run off five straight victories. The team’s confidence seems to grow with every game, and it will be needed as the Tigers prepare for their final three games, starting with a trip to Tennessee this weekend.
And while the Tigers feel good about where they are going, Malzahn says the mentality hasn’t changed.
“… I really feel like this team’s grounded,” Malzahn said. “They bought into taking it one game at a time. I don’t hear anybody talking about anything looking forward. That’s a lot of maturity from our older guys as far as leadership. They’ve done a very good job in that area.”
But the excitement around the program is back. As Malzahn noted, the fans didn’t know what to make of this Auburn team in that SEC opener against Mississippi State. Even the players were a little unsure of how good this team really was. Now, six wins later, there’s a belief that the Tigers can beat anybody.
“When you start winning games, that brings more and more people to believe in what's going on here,” Dismukes said. “Everybody has joined in together and really taken a part. Everybody is getting better each week.”
Funny what a game-winning touchdown drive in September can do for you.