They walked across the hilly Auburn campus on a cold winter afternoon, the junior college quarterback and the sophomore running back. Last January, Nick Marshall was on his recruiting visit to the Plains when Tre Mason put on the hard sell, which wasn't an easy task. Weeks earlier, the Tigers, ignominiously, became the first team in history to fail to win a conference game just two years after capturing the national championship. Auburn finished 2012 with a disastrous 3-9 (0-8 SEC) record. Coach Gene Chizik was fired in November, and Gus Malzahn hired to take his place in December. A solace of continuity, this campus was not.
How bad were things for Auburn's players last season? Center Reese Dismukes would get away from the waking nightmare by hunting during days off. "I just had to get out of here," Dismukes recalled recently. "Had to clear my head." Fullback Jay Prosch escaped by heading to a private lake a few hours away to go fishing with a friend. After Alabama crushed Auburn 49-0 in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 24 to end the Tigers' season, Prosch was overcome with one feeling as he slinked off the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa: relief. "I hate to say it, but I was glad the season was over," said Prosch, now a senior. "It was so painful for the players. We were all ready to start over."
One of the key moments in Auburn's rebirth -- and the Tigers' transformation into the most surprising team of the 2013 college football season -- took place on that gray, January day between Marshall and Mason. Though Marshall had already verbally committed to Auburn (Malzahn had visited Marshall at Garden City (Kan.) Community College in the fall of 2012, when Malzahn was still the head coach at Arkansas State), he still needed assurance that the 2012 season was an aberration. On that chilly winter day, with Jordan-Hare Stadium looming in the distance, Mason spoke from the heart. "Don't focus on our losing record," Mason told Marshall. "We have talent here. A ton of it. Things just got out of control last season and everything that could have gone wrong, did. I promise you we can win big time with you next year. I promise."
That's precisely what the Tigers have done. After routing Tennessee 55-23 last Saturday, Auburn is 9-1 and ranked seventh in the latest BCS standings. It still has an outside chance to play for the national championship in spite of a 35-21 loss to LSU on Sept. 21, and Marshall has been a revelation. Though he struggled with his accuracy early in the year, he has emerged as the most explosive dual-threat quarterback in the SEC not named Johnny Manziel. In fact, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Marshall -- a onetime defensive back at Georgia who was dismissed from Athens in January 2012 for violating a team rule -- edged Johnny Football on Oct. 19 in Auburn's 45-41 victory over the Aggies. Marshall threw for 236 yards, ran for 100 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns. Last Saturday against the Volunteers, Marshall may have been even more impressive, displaying his 4.4 40 speed by rushing for 214 yards, the third-highest total by a quarterback in school history.
"Nick is one cool customer," said Mason. "No matter what the situation, he doesn't get flustered and he has this belief that he'll make a play. One of our biggest problems last year was that we lost confidence as a team and we started to expect to lose. Nick has changed all of that. He's a special player."
Sitting in the Auburn football offices on a recent November afternoon, Marshall said: "I feel like I'm getting more comfortable with the offense each week. I'm getting better at calling out different protections and just knowing where the ball should go based on what the defense is doing."
So what, exactly, happened at Auburn last year? How did so much go so wrong for a program that won the BCS title in January 2011? As it turns out, the core issue wasn't talent -- Auburn has signed a top-10 recruiting class in each of the last four years, according to Rivals.com -- but rather discipline. In the opinion of one well-placed source, several of Chizik's assistants were upset with the book, All In, Chizik wrote after winning the national title. Not only was it viewed as unseemly -- "Cam Newton wins a title for him and Gene writes a book? Come on!" said another source -- but a few of the assistants felt that Chizik didn't give them enough credit.
This led to more problems. Many players, according to a source who was inside the program, wouldn't get punished if they missed conditioning sessions or workouts in the weight room. Frustrated assistants chose to look the other way. As a consequence, the team's strength and speed dropped while a who-cares attitude spread throughout the roster. And this was before the first game of the 2012 campaign even kicked off.
"There was huge sense of entitlement here after we won the national championship," said one player. "We lost our edge. And then once we started losing, offensive players started blaming defensive players and vice-versa. Cliques formed and everything basically just spiraled out of control. Do I blame coach Chizik? Partly, because of the general lack of accountability that was going on around here. But I promise you he loved the players. He felt terrible about everything that happened."
Still, if a college football historian ever wanted to write a case study on how to unravel a championship-winning program with the greatest expediency, Auburn's 2012 team would be a good place to start.
Now enter Malzahn. "We had to get our edge back," he said while recently sitting in his expansive corner office on the top floor the football complex. It was the same space once occupied by Chizik, though Malzahn has rearranged the furniture -- a metaphor for how everything about Auburn's program is now different. "We needed to get back to hard-nosed, blue-collar football," Malzahn said. "We only hired high-character guys on our staff. We had to work extremely hard to build the relationships back up with the players. We had to earn their trust."
Can Auburn win the SEC? Midway through November, that goal is within grasp. On Saturday, the Tigers will host Georgia. Then, on Nov. 30, Alabama will travel to the Plains for what could be the most significant Iron Bowl in history.
Behind four returning starters on the offensive line -- essentially the same front that surrendered an SEC-worst 37 sacks last season -- Auburn ranks third nationally in rushing yards (320 per game). The 5-10, 205-pound Mason has run for 1,034 yards. Marshall has rushed for 734 while averaging a staggering 7.1 yards per carry. The ground attack has been so dominant that the Tigers attempted just 16 passes in their last two games. "We can throw the ball," Marshall said. "We just haven't had to."
No doubt, to have a shot against Georgia -- the preseason SEC East favorite that has been ravaged by injuries -- and Alabama, Marshall will have to make plays with his arm. In a voice flavored with confidence, he says that he will.
"Everything we want is still out in front of us," Marshall said. "It's pretty obvious that I made the right decision in coming to Auburn."