AUBURN, Ala. -- When Gus Malzahn stood at the podium during his introductory press conference last December, he said his goal was to ‘play championship football like Auburn expects.’ It sounded great, but how realistic was that?
Across the state, Alabama was on the verge of winning its second national championship and third in the past four years. Auburn, on the other hand, was coming off a dreadful 3-9 season, the program’s worst finish in over 50 years. It didn’t look like the Tigers were going to be competing for championships any time soon.
But here they are, 12 months later, headed to Pasadena, Calif., to play Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team come as far as we have,” Malzahn said.
Auburn isn’t just a year ahead of schedule. It’s two or three years ahead of schedule. Some people questioned whether Malzahn would ever get the Tigers to this point. After all, he was coaching high school football less than a decade ago, and his experience as a college head coach consisted of one year at Arkansas State.
However, he’s a proven winner. He’s won at every stop he’s made, and it was no different this season on the Plains.
It was a season that was kind to Auburn as far as injuries, and the ball bounced its way on certain occasions, but it was no fluke. The Tigers are in the national championship game for a reason, and the scary thing for the rest of the SEC is that they’re not going away. They could be even more dangerous in 2014.
The offense, which averaged 40 points per game and led the conference in rushing, has only one senior in the starting lineup -- H-back Jay Prosch. The rest of the unit is able to return next season, but a few key players still have decisions to make regarding their future and the NFL draft. Running back Tre Mason is one of those players.
“I’m not sure,” he said recently when asked about the NFL. “I’ve been talking to my family, talking to a couple of guys I know [who] are already there. I’ve been discussing those things with them, and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, leave it in God’s hands. He’s going to make the right decision for you.’ I’m just going to let time wind down.”
Mason leads the SEC with 1,621 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns. On the heels of his 304-yard performance in the conference championship game, he was invited to New York City for last weekend’s Heisman Trophy presentation. If he opts to leave early for the NFL, it would be a devastating blow for Auburn but one the Tigers could still recover from.
They will have Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant back for one more season, and it could also open the door for ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas, who is currently committed to Auburn. The in-state prospect rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior, despite missing several games due to injury.
The offense, though, is still run by the quarterback, and Auburn has one of the league’s best in Nick Marshall. The junior-college transfer arrived on campus over the summer, won the starting job and never looked back. He threw for 1,759 yards, rushed for 1,023 yards and scored 23 combined touchdowns. Imagine if he had gone through spring practice.
Next season, Marshall's numbers could be even more gaudy when he has a year of experience under his belt. It's not crazy to consider him an early candidate for the 2014 Heisman Trophy. It doesn't hurt that all five starters on the offensive line are eligible to return as well.
This week, Auburn began practice for next month’s BCS title game. It’s obviously a monumental game for the program, but win or lose, the Tigers have the players and the coaching staff to make a run at it again next year. And possibly the year after that. As long as Malzahn's in town, the AU program has what it takes to be playing championship football for a long time.
“While this season has been remarkable, I'm equally excited about the future of our program under his leadership,” athletic director Jay Jacobs said. “The future of Auburn football is very bright.”