Auburn turnaround a tale of redemption, faith and winning

ATLANTA -- On Dec. 4, 2012, Gus Malzahn walked into his first players meeting as the head coach at Auburn. Malzahn found a team whose spirit had been crushed by an 0-8 finish in the SEC and the firing of coach Gene Chizik.

Then, to make matters worse, Auburn's players and fans had to watch in January while Alabama held its second consecutive BCS national championship trophy. It was pretty clear that Alabama would be the 2013 preseason No. 1 and favored to win an unprecedented third straight crystal football.

"It was tough," Malzahn said of that first meeting. "We had to build a lot of trust because a lot of trust had been broken. We had some growing pains. But ultimately we built the trust for the players to believe in us and for them to believe in each other."

It has been the kind of journey that only happens in Hollywood. It includes pain, doubt, redemption and ultimately a couple of miracles. But Saturday night, just one year and three days after Malzahn met with his players for the first time, Auburn completed the most improbable story of worst-to-first that you will ever see by beating No. 5 Missouri 59-42 in a historic SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome.

"Nobody believed this was possible except the guys in our locker room," said quarterback Nick Marshall, who struggled early with turnovers but was brilliant after that, rushing for 115 yards and completing 9 of 11 passes for 132 more yards. “Right now we can play with any team in the country."

Immediately after the game Auburn and the SEC started making their case that the No. 3 Tigers (12-1) had earned the right to play in the BCS championship game regardless of what happened to No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Ohio State in their respective championship games Saturday night.

The SEC has won seven straight BCS national championships and will probably get a chance at No. 8 by virtue of Michigan State's win over Ohio State, which should vault Auburn to No. 2 in the BCS standings and the championship game against No. 1 Florida State.

In case you're keeping score at home, during Auburn's nine-game winning streak they have beaten five teams in the Top 25, three in the Top 10, and is the only team in the country to beat two top-five teams (No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 Missouri).

But regardless of where this Auburn team ultimately lands in the postseason, this season will go down as one of the most gratifying in school history. Consider these four very human stories:

Malzhan: Just eight years ago, he was a successful high school coach in Springdale, Ark. He was hired for his first college job as an assistant at Arkansas in 2006. It didn't work out and ultimately he took his offense to Tulsa. He was hired as offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2009, won a national championship with Cam Newton in 2010, but ultimately decided that he wanted to be a head coach and went to Arkansas State in 2012. He returned to Auburn and in his first season wins the SEC championship.

"The team was broken but we still had a lot of good, talented parts," said Jay Jacobs, the athletic director who made the hire. "Gus took those pieces and put us back together. It has been an incredible thing to watch."

Earlier this week Malzahn was rewarded with a new six-year contract that will pay him more than $26 million.

Jay Prosch: The Auburn H-back was simply destroying people as he helped pave the way for Auburn to rush -- that’s right -- rush for 545 yards on 74 carries. Tre Mason shattered the SEC championship game record with 306 yards on 46 carries.

Prosch, a native of Mobile, Ala., played at Illinois but transferred to Auburn in the spring of 2012 to be closer to his mother, who was battling cancer. She lost that battle during the painful 2012 season. Prosch dedicated his final season in 2013 to his mother. Prosch’s three sisters were all on hand on Saturday to witness his finest moment as a football player.

"It has been incredible. We have come so far in just a year," said Prosch. "I'm so proud of my teammates. Having my family here just makes it so much better."

Marshall: A highly-recruited quarterback/defensive back, Marshall was kicked out of Georgia for an off-the-field incident. He went to junior college hoping to resurrect his football career and his life. Malzahn signed him. He became the starter this summer, and now has to be considered one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the game.

"I can't believe this has happened to me," said Marshall, as confetti rained down upon him on the floor of the Georgia Dome. "A lot of people gave up on me. But Coach Malzahn believed in me. So did my teammates."

Ellis Johnson: Johnson is one of the best defensive minds of his generation. He played a huge role in helping Steve Spurrier build the program at South Carolina. He decided he wanted one more shot as a head coach so he took the job at Southern Mississippi when Larry Fedora left for North Carolina in 2012. It was a disaster. The Golden Eagles went 0-12 and Johnson was fired. That’s why he was available when Malzahn went looking for a defensive coordinator.

Auburn's defense gave up 534 yards but, as it had all season, Johnson's unit got the stops when the game was on the line.

"I'm so proud of my guys," Johnson said. "Missouri is very, very good but we did what we had to do. You never know where life is going to take you. I am very proud to be at Auburn."

Ironically, the season turned during Auburn's only loss. The Tigers fell behind 21-0 at LSU and trailed 28-7 in the third quarter. Auburn didn't quit, something it probably would have done the year before, and made it a very respectable 35-21 loss.

"That showed me something," Malzahn said. "We kept fighting. When we first got here I wasn't sure how we would react when things got tough. It was encouraging."

From that point on Auburn would simply find a way to win every game. Regardless of what happens from this point forward, the 2013 season will be defined by two "miracle" plays.

Nov. 16: Georgia scored with 1:49 left to take a 38-36 lead and it looked like the dream was over. But facing a fourth-and-18, a deep pass from Marshall bounced off two Georgia defenders and into the arms of Ricardo Louis for a 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds left. Georgia roared back to the Auburn 25-yard line in the final moments but was stopped on the game’s final play.

Nov. 30: With the score tied at 28 Alabama lined up for a 57-yard field goal attempt with one second left. The game appeared headed to overtime. But at the last moment Auburn put punt returner Chris Davis in the end zone in case a return was possible. It was. Davis caught the ball 9 yards deep and ran the length of the field for the winning touchdown with no time left.

"How can you not believe in Destiny after what this team has done?" Prosch said.

How, indeed.

In 2010 Auburn used another junior college quarterback, Cam Newton, to go 14-0 and win the BCS championship. Whether Auburn will get another chance to hold the crystal football will be determined when the final BCS Standings are released Sunday night.

But this Auburn team is living proof that regardless of the destination, the greatest satisfaction comes from the journey.  If Auburn doesn’t make it to Pasadena it will be playing in the Sugar Bowl. And man, is there going to be a party.

"I promise you this. If we go to New Orleans nobody is going to enjoy a bowl trip more than Auburn will enjoy the Sugar Bowl," Jacobs said. "What these players and coaches have done is truly remarkable. We will never forget it."

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