Success is a matter of perspective.
Two years ago, Auburn finished the regular season 8-4 with losses to Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama in the final month, and it was considered a disappointment. The Tigers were coming off an appearance in the BCS national championship game the year before, and three losses in the final four games just wasn’t going to cut it. They settled for a trip to the Outback Bowl.
This year, the résumé looks eerily similar. Auburn is 8-4 again heading into its bowl game, and three of the four losses came against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama.
But the feeling of disappointment has turned into excitement for Auburn players and coaches. Despite four losses, the Tigers still finished No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and as the second-highest ranked team in the SEC, they’re headed to New Orleans where they will face No. 7 Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“We’re tickled to death to be playing in the Sugar Bowl,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said during Sunday night’s Sugar Bowl teleconference.
Malzahn isn’t one who you’d say is “tickled to death” often. But considering where this team was in the month of September -- 1-2 heading into a pivotal game against LSU, with jobs on the line -- Malzahn’s enthusiasm is understandable.
The Tigers went from a team that some thought might not even play in a bowl game to a team now playing in a New Year’s Six bowl.
“There are high expectations here at Auburn, and I have high expectations,” Malzahn said. “We got off to a tough start, and obviously we played a very good schedule early on with Clemson being one of those teams and almost beat them. But our guys really rallied. We had a very young team. We had very few starters back on offense, and it kind of took some growing.”
Auburn still needed some help down the stretch, though. The Tigers won six straight games beginning with that LSU game back in September, but after losing two of their final three games, there were multiple teams in the conference who had a shot at snatching the Sugar Bowl bid.
Had LSU scored from the 1-yard line on the final play against Florida, it likely would’ve been those Tigers making the short trip to New Orleans. Had Tennessee not lost to Vanderbilt in the season finale, the Volunteers would have probably represented the SEC in the game. And if Florida had beaten Florida State or even played close against Alabama, there’s a chance the Gators would have finished higher in the rankings than Auburn.
However, none of those things happened. And as a result, it’s Auburn who will have the opportunity to play in next month’s Sugar Bowl.
“We’ll definitely be motivated,” Malzahn said. “Our team is extremely excited to be playing in a game like the Sugar Bowl. That’s a very big deal, and our players understand that. We’ve got really strong leadership on this team. We’ll be ready to play, and we'll have to be ready to play.”
The Tigers should be healthy, too. Injuries to quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway significantly affected the offense in losses against Georgia and Alabama, but Malzahn said he’s pretty certain both players will be close to 100 percent by the time Auburn plays its bowl game. In fact, he thinks the whole team should be close to 100 percent by then.
Was it a down year in the SEC? Sure. Is Auburn worthy of a spot in the New Year’s Six? Maybe not. But this team is plenty excited to be there, and when healthy, they proved they can be as dangerous as any team in college football.