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From 3-9 to 11-1: How did Auburn get here?

By Jerry Hinnen | Staff Writer

Chris Davis's touchdown was only the latest incredible development for Auburn. (USATSI)
Chris Davis's touchdown was only the latest incredible development for Auburn. (USATSI)
You got a time machine handy? Yes? Great. If you want to have some fun, travel back to the precise end of the 2012 Iron Bowl. Find an Auburn fan. Tell him or her that the 3-9 Tigers team he or she just watched ground to fine dust by the eventual national champion Tide -- the final score of 49-0 was far too kind to Auburn -- would, at the end of next year's meeting, have dethroned undefeated Alabama as SEC champions to wrap up an 11-1 season and keep the Tigers in the thick of the national title hunt.

The reaction should be fun. But if you don't have a time machine, it's worth taking a step back after the whirlwind of miracles surrounding Auburn over the past few weeks -- and given how far the Tigers have come from their 2012 praftfall, the entire sequence of events leading up to next week's appearance in Atlanta might be labeled "miraculous" -- to figure out how exactly Auburn got here, how the Tigers pulled off the biggest turnaround in the SEC's history. A timeline:

Oct. 27, 2012: Texas A&M 63, Auburn 21. We'll go back a few weeks before the Tigers' season-ending shutouts to both Georgia and Alabama --by a combined score of 87-0 -- to the night when the writing was on Gene Chizik's wall. The Tigers were cleanly filleted by Johnny Manziel and Co. to the tune of a 42-7 halftime deficit, and the atmosphere inside Jordan-Hare Stadium was reduced to "morgue-like" within minutes of kickoff. Chizik was never really coming back after that.

Nov. 25, 2012: Gene Chizik is fired. Chizik leaves just two years after winning a national championship ... and with a 2-22 conference record across three seasons at Iowa State and Auburn in which Gus Malzahn was not his offensive coordinator.

Dec. 4, 2012: Gus Malzahn is hired. Auburn doesn't waste too much time in bringing Malzahn back from Arkansas State after his single Sun Belt championship season in Jonesboro. Malzahn, in turn, wastes little time in hiring well-respected, veteran assistants like defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, defensive line coach Rodney Garner and receivers coach Dameyune Craig.

June 24, 2013: Nick Marshall enrolls. The former Georgia defensive back and JUCO transfer, who signed with Auburn over Kansas State in February, hits campus to start classes (and workouts). He'll be named the Auburn starting quarterback in fall camp. And against Alabama Saturday, he'll account for 99 yards rushing, three total touchdowns, and the game-tying touchdown pass with 2 minutes to play.

August 31, 2013: Auburn 31, Washington State 24. Malzahn and Marshall's debut is far from auspicious, as the Tigers need a flurry of Connor Halliday interceptions to finish off a comeback victory at home over a team expected to finish towards the Pac-12 standings.

Sept. 14, 2013: Auburn 24, Mississippi State 20. In the first sign that Auburn might have a future in this death-defying escape business, Marshall drives the Tigers 88 yards in the dying moments, throwing the winning TD to C.J. Uzomah with just 10 seconds to play. But four-point home wins over the Bulldogs aren't the stuff of championship seasons, are they? That seems confirmed the following week, when Auburn is game but can't mount a second-half comeback and loses 35-21 in Baton Rouge.

Oct. 19, 2013: Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41. Malzahn and the Tigers announce themselves as an actual player in the SEC West with what appears to be a season-defining victory over A&M in College Station. The game-winning TD is scored by Tre Mason with a ton of time on the clock by what we now think of as Auburn standards, a whole 1:19 to play.

Nov. 16, 2013: Auburn 43, Georgia 38. Comfortable wins over Tennessee and Arkansas have made things serious in Auburn's championship chase, but it doesn't look good for Auburn when a 21-point Georgia fourth quarter leaves the Tigers facing a 38-37 deficit and 4th-and-18 on their own 23. Then, I mean, you've seen it, but you could always stand to watch it again:

Nov. 30, 2013: Auburn 34, Alabama 28. But after that, surely Auburn is out of miracles. This is still the same program that was 3-9 last season, 0-8 in the SEC. Surely, when they fall behind 21-7 in the second quarter vs. Alabama, they're done. Surely, surely, when the Tide takes a 28-21 lead into the fourth quarter and has multiple opportunities to ice the game by stretching the lead to two possessions, they will do so. And even once Marshall hits Sammie Coates for a game-tying touchdown with seconds to play, beating Alabama in overtime is a tall task.

Or maybe they won't even get to overtime, once the officials add a second to the play clock and Alabama lines up for a 57-yard field goal try ...

So: how do you go from 3-9 to 11-1? You bite hard and fire your overwhelmed previous coach, even when he's won you the first national championship since 1957. You overlook the likes of Bobby Petrino and hire the future national Coach of the Year (surely now, right?), even though he's been a head coach for just one season and is only a few seasons removed from high school ball. You sign a JUCO transfer to play quarterback who played corner at his first SEC school. You run the ball like crazy. You win one close game. Then you win another. Then you catch a Hail Mary so unlikely even your own radio announcer doesn't have any hope until the moment it nestles in your receivers' hands. And then, somehow, you top that.

Nothing about Auburn's resurrection has been likely. Very little of it makes any logical sense. But here the Tigers are, off to Atlanta, hoping for an SEC title and one more BCS upset that could send them to the national championship game.
It won't ever happen like this for Auburn again. It probably won't happen like this for anyone ever again. But it happened. That's college football. It doesn't have to make sense.
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