AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn players milled around their dorm Saturday night, anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Big Ten championship game. They had done their part by disposing of Missouri in the SEC title game, but they still needed a little help from Michigan State. If Ohio State won, the Tigers were likely headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
But Auburn has proven itself to be a team of destiny. The grand finale wasn’t supposed to come in New Orleans. Instead, it was to take place among the roses in Pasadena, Calif.
Following that script, Michigan State stopped Ohio State on fourth down late in the game and clinched the Big Ten title. The Spartans celebrated their first outright conference title since 1987, but a more visceral celebration took place on The Plains where Auburn’s players realized they were indeed headed to the promised land.
“I was actually in the lobby of the dorm,” running back Tre Mason said. “A lot of guys were in there just watching the game. We were all just excited on that fourth down that Ohio State didn't convert. It worked out in favor of us.”
"I was dancing,” Dee Ford said, grinning. “I can't do it right now, but I did a little boogie."
On Sunday, it became official: No. 2 Auburn will play No. 1 Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. It’s quite an accomplishment for a team that finished 3-9 a season ago and didn’t win a single conference game for the first time since 1980.
“It's been something to watch, it really has,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “To see them grow, see them come together, see them believe in each other, it's really been something to watch and be a part of. I'm just extremely proud of them.
“We’re excited to be playing in the BCS National Championship Game against a very good Florida State team.”
At this time last year, Malzahn had just been hired as Auburn’s newest head coach. The season was already over. Players went home for the holidays, watching college football’s postseason from afar. It was only the second time since 2000 that Auburn failed to reach a bowl game.
“That's not really what you want to be doing,” Mason said of hanging out at home last December. “I’m just proud to be in this situation, happy to be in the national title [game].”
The turnaround didn’t happen over night. Malzahn scoffed at the idea that Auburn was mediocre at the start of the season, assessing his team instead as “below average” early on as the Tigers struggled to beat the likes of Washington State and Arkansas State and then needed a game-winning drive in the final minutes to knock off Mississippi State.
Then came a loss to LSU, Auburn’s only loss of the year and a loss the team gained confidence from with an inspired second-half comeback that fell short in Baton Rouge. Since then, Auburn has won nine straight and shown signs of improvement every week, culminated by wins over top-five teams in Alabama and Missouri in back-to-back games.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team come as far as we have,” Malzahn said. “We were a work in progress probably the first half of the season. Our guys continued to improve. They continued to work hard in practice, which is rare. I probably can count on one hand the practices our coaches weren’t happy with. Our players bought in to what we asked, and they worked extremely hard and earned the right to get here.”
Before the season, it would’ve been nearly impossible to find anyone who thought Auburn would find itself in the BCS title hunt. Turnarounds of that proportion aren’t supposed to happen overnight. But the players, even the ones who endured the chaos of last year, never doubted themselves. If they took it one game at a time, they knew they had a chance.
“I expected it,” Ford said. “We said we were going to find a way to win every game, and that's what we've done ever since that LSU game."