One miracle short: Auburn's turnaround under Gus Malzahn

Tuesday January 7th, 2014
Kris Frost (17) and Auburn lost the BCS title game after Florida State scored with 13 seconds remaining.
Harry How/Getty Images

PASADENA, Calif.-- Tre Mason didn't need to be sorry for anything, but the Auburn tailback couldn't choke back his remorse on Monday night. "I apologize to the Auburn family and the rest of the fans that we didn't finish," Mason said after the Tigers lost to Florida State 34-31 in the BCS title game. "We didn't finish what we started."

 Mason had no reason to apologize. He ran for 195 yards against the Seminoles, catching a touchdown pass and rushing for a fourth-quarter score that seemed at the time like a crystal football-clincher. Then Florida State marched down the field for the winning touchdown. The Tigers came so close, but in a season full of miracles, they couldn't pull off one last one.

Still, the greatest miracle of this season wasn't quarterback Nick Marshall's Hail Mary pass to Ricardo Louis by way of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons' deflection against Georgia. It wasn't Chris Davis' 109-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown that won the Iron Bowl and ended Alabama's national title streak. It was the turnaround engineered by coach Gus Malzahn, his staff and those players. The Tigers went from 0-8 in the SEC last year to one play away from winning the national title.

They should never apologize for that.

Mason hurt because he had made a promise on Sept. 21 and -- despite its improbability -- damn near kept it. That night, athletic director Jay Jacobs stood on the soggy field at LSU's Tiger Stadium and pondered Auburn's first loss of the Malzahn era. The Tigers had fallen behind by three touchdowns early in the second quarter and would end up losing 35-21, but the defeat was different from the ones the team suffered toward the end of 2012. The players hadn't quit. Their second-half fight reminded Jacobs of the Auburn men he had known and been one of, the generation of Tigers who had endured three-a-day practices under coach Pat Dye. Those teams didn't win all their games either, but they made sure their foes remembered with every ache the morning after that they had played Auburn.

MANDEL: FSU back on top with thrilling win

Malzahn had promised during his interview that this team would play like those ones. He hired former Tigers Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner as assistants to instill the program's old standards in its current players. As Jacobs considered the grit he had witnessed in the second half, Mason approached. "He said, 'Mr. Jacobs, we're going to win the rest of them,'" Jacobs remembers. "I said, 'Ohhhhkaaay.'"

Jacobs wanted to believe, but how could he after what he had seen a year earlier? The final loss of 2012, a 49-0 thrashing at Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, still haunted him. The Tigers had been crushed by their rivals, and the Crimson Tide rolled from there to an SEC title and their third BCS championship in four seasons. Auburn, meanwhile, had finished 3-9 and had failed to win an SEC game for the first time since 1980. Less than two years after coach Gene Chizik hoisted the BCS crystal trophy, the Tigers were a conference punchline, and not just on the field. In '11, four players had been kicked off the team for their roles in an armed robbery, and the internal issues only intensified as the program's on-field product got worse. Jacobs realized what he had to do. "I knew I was going to fire Gene," he said.

Jacobs and a search committee that included Heisman Trophy-winning alums Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson and Tiger-turned-pharmaceutical executive Mac Crawford zeroed in on Malzahn, who had been Auburn's offensive coordinator under Chizik before leaving after the 2011 season to become the head coach at Arkansas State. During Malzahn's interview, it became clear that he had stayed in touch with friends in the program and knew what was ailing the Tigers. He presented a plan to fix the problems. Players needed to be tougher. They needed to feel the coaches treated all of them equally. They needed to be accountable to one another. To the committee members, Malzahn came off as an insider with an outsider's perspective. "He kept saying, 'We've lost our edge. We've lost what Auburn is,'" Jacobs said. "As four former football players, we knew exactly what he was talking about."

ROSENBERG: Two magic years, one champ

Malzahn got the job on Dec. 4, 2012, and at his first team meeting he made a promise. "He said we were going to have the biggest turnaround in college football," Mason said. He started by installing Ryan Russell as Auburn's strength coach. On his first day on the job, Russell happened upon senior defensive end Dee Ford working out by himself. Russell pulled Ford aside and spent the next hour explaining how he planned to whip the Tigers into shape. Workouts would be more fun; instead of the soundtrack of players' grunts and shouts that filled the weight room in previous years, music would blare. Whenever a player set a new personal best on one of several exercises -- bench press, squat, power clean, vertical jump -- Russell would ring a bell and start an impromptu party.

It wouldn't be all smiles, though. For the offense to move at the tempo Malzahn preferred, and for the defense to handle the extra snaps caused by playing alongside such a fast offense, the players would need to be in peak condition. Ford, a workout addict who knows which security guard will let him into the complex after hours, was thrilled. "It's fun. And it's hard," he said of Russell's regimen. "And it's exactly what we need."

Before the Tigers could make miracles happen, they had to come together. During the spring, Malzahn put the Tigers through as many full-contact practices as he could to build toughness and forge bonds. Malzahn organized bowling nights and dinners with coaches and their families. In the summer he made all the players move back on campus because he wanted them to spend as much time together as possible. When preseason camp started, he got them hitting again.

Malzahn also brought in guest speakers to drive his message home. One was Navy Capt. Tom Chaby, the commanding officer of SEAL Team Five. In early August, Chaby explained to the Tigers that SEALs are trained to occupy every position on the leadership continuum. Even the lowest-ranking man may find himself in charge in battle, so he'd better be prepared. This fed into Malzahn's message that every player on the team was just as important as any other. "You just never know when you're in the right place at the right time to be a leader," Chaby remembers telling the players. After his speech an Auburn player told Chaby that the Tigers would "surprise some people" during the season. Chaby, who had spoken to Florida State two weeks earlier, noted that the Tigers didn't carry themselves much differently than the Seminoles. In spite of what a mess the 2012 season had been, Auburn possessed a quiet confidence.

Jacobs calls 2012 "the lowest point of all lows for the Auburn football family." The players wanted to prove to the fans who had stuck by them that they would represent the school better. "We owed them that," Mason said. "Putting them through what we put them through last year, we owed them a season like this."

After running for 195 yards in the title game, Tre Mason finished the season with 1,816 rushing yards.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

When Malzahn came to Auburn in 2009 as Chizik's offensive coordinator, he took the noncontact jerseys off his quarterbacks during a spring scrimmage to determine who played best under game conditions. That day, the Tigers lost quarterbacks Barrett Trotter (knee) and Neil Caudle (concussion) on consecutive plays. "We said we were never doing that again," said Rhett Lashlee, an Auburn graduate assistant in '09 who became Malzahn's offensive coordinator at Arkansas State before returning to the Tigers in the same role.

But in August, Malzahn and Lashlee did do it again: They told defenders they could hit the quarterbacks in practice, and prayed they wouldn't have a repeat of the Trotter-Caudle incident. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace had played during the disaster of 2012 and gone through spring practice as the main candidates for the starting job. Freshman Jeremy Johnson and junior college transfer Marshall had arrived over the summer and hadn't worked much with the offense. Less than a month before the season began, the competition for the starting quarterback job was wide open, and Malzahn needed to see for himself who would hold up under pressure. "I wasn't completely nervous [about an injury]," Lashlee said, "because we didn't know who our guy was yet."

After watching Marshall complete 17-of-20 passes during the two-minute drill portions of preseason scrimmages, Lashlee decided the Garden City (Kan.) Community College transfer was his starter. Marshall had SEC experience, but not as a quarterback. He had started his career at Georgia, playing 13 games as a freshman cornerback in 2011 before being dismissed in February '12 after he and two other players were reportedly caught stealing from a teammate. The parallels between Marshall and Cam Newton -- who had left the team at Florida, starred in junior college and then led Auburn to a national title -- were eerie. Marshall proved his coaches made the correct choice on Sept. 14, when he led the Tigers on an 88-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes to beat Mississippi State and snap Auburn's 10-game SEC losing streak.

THAMEL: SEC streak ends with FSU victory

The following week, Auburn went to Baton Rouge and lost. But the Tigers didn't mope. During the off week that followed, coaches examined the offense's performance through four games. They noticed that when Auburn threw in volume, defenses were ready. But Marshall seemed to have a gift for the read-option, the play in which the quarterback places the ball in the gut of a running back then reads an unblocked defender before deciding whether to give the ball to the back or keep it himself. That, Malzahn and Lashlee decided, would be the cornerstone of the offense. And as long as the running game worked, the Tigers would run -- they'd throw only when the defense's adjustments to the run presented an overwhelming advantage in the passing game. "We found that a good number for us is about 20 passes," Lashlee said. In victories at Arkansas and Tennessee, the good numbers were nine and seven pass attempts. After throwing 106 times in their first four games, the Tigers threw 152 times in their next nine -- all wins.

That glorious streak seemed as if it would end after seven games, when Georgia visited the Plains on Nov. 13 and stormed back from a 20-point deficit to take a one-point lead with 1:49 remaining. With 36 seconds on the clock, Auburn faced fourth-and-18 from its own 27-yard line. As the offense huddled near the sideline, sophomore receiver Louis strode into the middle of the group and enjoyed his momentary rise to the top of the leadership continuum. "He looked me in the face and told me to throw him the ball," Marshall said.

After the snap, Mason checked for blitzers and worked his way past the line of scrimmage and into his route. "As soon as I turn around, I see the ball in the air," he said. "At first I'm thinking, they might intercept this pass." Georgia safety Harvey-Clemons did get his hands on the ball, but he tipped it upward. Marshall watched his pass carom toward Louis. "Ricardo looked right," Marshall said. "Then he looked left. Then he looked the ball all the way in." Louis coasted into the end zone, and the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd came unglued celebrating the Immaculate Deflection.

Two weeks later, Auburn needed a second once-in-a-lifetime play. With the score tied at 28, hated Alabama prepared for a 57-yard field goal attempt with one second left on the clock. As redshirt freshman Adam Griffith lined up his kick, Auburn senior cornerback Chris Davis, the Tigers' top punt returner, dropped back into the end zone. Griffith's kick died before reaching the goal post and fell into the waiting hands of Davis in the back of the end zone. Auburn played it just like a punt return, and Alabama's offensive-lineman-heavy field goal unit wasn't ready. Davis ran 109 yards to win the Iron Bowl 34-28, clinch the SEC West title and complete the War Damn Miracle. "I guess there's a picture out there of my jaw dropped to the ground," said Mason, who watched from the sideline. "It felt like the floor was shaking. That's how loud it was."

The following Saturday, Mason set an SEC Championship Game record with 304 rushing yards in a 59-42 win over Missouri. As Jacobs prepared to stump for his one-loss team ahead of the next day's polls, the Tigers' buses rolled home down Interstate 85 from Atlanta. Back on the Plains, a large group of players gathered in a dorm lobby to watch the end of the Big Ten championship game. When Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen stuffed Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller on a fourth-down play, the players erupted. "I was dancing," Ford said. Jacobs wouldn't need to politick. A year after they went winless in the SEC, the Tigers were going to Pasadena to play for the national title.

ELLIS: FSU caps unbeaten season with title

There, the magic ran out. After Mason scored on a 37-yard run to give the Tigers a 31-27 lead with 1:19 remaining, Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston led the Seminoles 80 yards in 58 seconds, capping the drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin. The Tigers would have two more chances. Davis caught the kickoff in a Rose Bowl end zone only a few yards ahead of the spot where he caught the Alabama field goal attempt in a Jordan-Hare end zone, but he only made it to the 17-yard line. Then, with three seconds left, the Tigers pitched the ball around until it landed in Mason's hands. The offensive line set up a wall. Another miracle seemed possible. But Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith dragged down Mason, ending the dream season.

RICKMAN: BCS title in awards and pictures

Auburn players cried in their locker room on Monday night. Hopefully, as time passes, they'll realize that even though they didn't beat the Seminoles, they breathed new life into a program that had reached its nadir. Plus, with a playoff starting next year and Auburn returning a healthy chunk of its starting lineup, the Tigers have an excellent shot at chasing the national title next season. "We're going up," Malzahn said. "The experience that we had and we got most of our guys coming back, recruiting is going great, and our goal is to get back here, and I really believe we'll do it."

A year ago, that seemed impossible. But Malzahn promised a new day, and he delivered. "He was able to take all those broken pieces -- which were all shiny, stainless steel pieces -- and pull them all together and make them a well-oiled machine," Jacobs said. "Auburn football is back now and running."

GALLERY: SI's best shots from title game

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.