AUBURN, Ala. -- They ambled through Toomer's Corner on Sunday, picking chunks of toilet paper off the soles of their shoes and stopping to snap the occasional photo. "So when you put it on our Christmas card..." one woman said after grabbing a shot of her brood in front of tissue-choked foliage.
A year ago, a day like Sunday seemed impossible. Auburn's players were wrapping up classes and preparing to endure the shame of going home following a winless conference season and being shut out in the Iron Bowl. At Toomer's Corner, the famous oaks were about to shrivel and die -- the victims of an angry Alabama fan who poisoned them two years earlier after Auburn beat the Crimson Tide en route to a national title. Tuscaloosa was the toast of the college football world, and the thought of Auburn returning to that perch seemed years away.
Even a few months ago, the idea of this Auburn team playing for a national title seemed preposterous. As the Tigers scraped by Washington State on opening day, first-year coach Gus Malzahn wasn't sure what he had. "The very first game, we were an average-at-best team," Malzahn said. "We were a work in progress probably the first half of the season. But the guys continued to improve -- continued to work hard in practice. Which is rare. I can probably count on one hand the number of practices the coaches weren't very happy with."
Sunday, that improvement was rewarded with a berth in the BCS title game against Florida State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6. With a win, the Tigers would complete one of the most improbable journeys in college football history. "The confidence level is a lot higher. This time last year, we were home, hanging out watching other guys play ball," tailback Tre Mason said. "That's not really what you want to be doing. Just proud to be in this situation."
The Tigers will get back to work in about a week. Between now and then, Mason -- who set an SEC Championship record Saturday with 304 rushing yards in Auburn's win against Missouri -- may make a last-minute trip to New York. Between his huge day in Atlanta and 164 rushing yards in Auburn's Iron Bowl win a week earlier, Mason alerted the nation to the fact that he has been one of the best backs in the country all season. "Tre for Heisman," defensive end Dee Ford said Sunday. "It's going viral." Saturday, Mason also broke 1985 Heisman winner Bo Jackson's school record for all-purpose yards in a season. Will he follow in Jackson's footsteps in the Big Apple? Probably not. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston most likely has the Heisman wrapped up, but Mason has a chance to win something Jackson never won: a national title.
The Tigers do have at least one advantage over the Seminoles. Several Auburn players were on the roster when the Tigers won the BCS title in 2010. Malzahn was the offensive coordinator on that team. He and the older players can help the younger ones handle the long layoff between the conference title game and kickoff in Pasadena. "We had a very solid plan in 2010," Malzahn said. "Any time you have a month before you play, you've got to be strategic. You've got to rest your guys enough mentally and physically to keep them as fresh as you can and get your work done. Then you try to keep some type of routine, especially in the two weeks before you play."
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson might need every minute of that time to formulate a plan to help the Tigers manage Florida State's offense, which finished second in the nation in scoring at 53 points a game. Of course, Seminoles defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt likely will stay up nights trying to devise a way to stop an Auburn rushing attack that led the nation with 335.7 yards a game.
As fate would have it, the Tigers are headed to Pasadena because another team couldn't run the ball when it mattered most. After returning from Atlanta, a large group of players had gathered in a dorm lobby to watch the end of the Big Ten title game between Michigan State and Ohio State. When Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen dragged down Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller on a fourth-down run to seal the Spartans' victory, the Tigers erupted.
Across campus, the toilet paper began sailing. The Toomer's oaks were removed in the spring, but Charmin found its way onto nearly all the plant life that remained. A year after the program hit a devastating low, it once again stood near college football's summit. "It's been a remarkable ride," said Ford, who after the Texas A&M win on Oct. 19 was the first to give voice to the idea that this might be a team of destiny. "Because I play, I can't really be too overwhelmed. I think my moment ended last night. It gets to a point where you just have to start focusing on things that you have to do. You have to start making plans."