By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
Following a dismal 2012 campaign that saw Auburn finish 3-9 overall and winless in Southeastern Conference play, the Tigers were absent from the preseason polls entering 2013.
Under the leadership of first-year Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, that all changed. Malzahn, who helped the Tigers win SEC and national championships in 2010 as offensive coordinator, returned to The Plains after a season as head coach at Arkansas State and quickly transformed AU back into a national power. Entering this week’s SEC title game, Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) has completed the biggest turnaround of any team in college football from 2012 to 2013.
The Tigers are riding an eight-game win streak since their only loss of the season at LSU on Sept. 21, a run that includes a road win at Texas A&M and thrilling home wins against Georgia and Alabama in the last two outings. A 74-yard Hail Mary pass that lifted Auburn past UGA and a miraculous, 100-yard return on a missed field goal that clinched a victory over ’Bama in one of the best Iron Bowls in history have the Tigers feeling like a team of destiny.
The wondrous turnaround in year one of the Malzahn era has been predicated on the strength of one of the nation’s best rushing attacks. The Tigers are currently first in the SEC and fifth in the nation in both rushing yards and yards per carry. The potent one-two punch provided by running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall has been lethal to opposing defenses, as the two have combined for 2,239 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns while averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
When the Tigers take the field inside the Georgia Dome this weekend, they will be facing another set of Tigers that excel in stopping the run. Mizzou (11-1, 7-1) is second in the league and top-15 nationally against the run, so strength will meet strength in the most important conference game of the season.
This year marks Auburn’s fifth appearance in the SEC Championship Game. In their four previous appearances, the Tigers are 2-2 with wins in their last two tries – Jason Campbell led AU past Tennessee in 2004 before Cam Newton took it past South Carolina en route to a national title in 2010.
Auburn Quick Facts
Location: Auburn, Ala.
Stadium (Capacity): Jordan-Hare (87,451)
SEC Championships: 7
Bowl Appearances: 37
Aug. 31: Auburn 31, Washington State 24 (Auburn, Ala.)
Sept. 7: Auburn 38, Arkansas State 9 (Auburn, Ala.)
Sept. 14: Auburn 24, Mississippi State 20 (Auburn, Ala.)
Sept. 21: LSU 35, Auburn 21 (Baton Rouge, La.)
Oct. 5: Auburn 30, Ole Miss 22 (Auburn, Ala.)
Oct. 12: Auburn 62, Western Carolina 3 (Auburn, Ala.)
Oct. 19: Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41 (College Station, Texas)
Oct. 26: Auburn 45, Florida Atlantic 10 (Auburn, Ala.)
Nov. 2: Auburn 35, Arkansas 17 (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Nov. 9: Auburn 55, Tennessee 23 (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Nov. 16: Auburn 43, Georgia 38 (Auburn, Ala.)
Nov. 30: Auburn 34, Alabama 28 (Auburn, Ala.)
SEC Championship Game History (2-2)
2010: Auburn 56, South Carolina 17
2004: Auburn 38, Tennessee 28
2000: Florida 28, Auburn 6
1997: Tennessee 30, Auburn 29
Quoting Coach Gus Malzahn
"I think any time you have a week to get over the emotion of a game, it definitely helps," Malzahn told AuburnTigers.com this week. "This is a challenge that is a little bit different. We only have one week. I really believe that any chance you get to go to Atlanta and you are playing for the SEC Championship, which is everyone’s goal in this league, you shouldn’t be distracted. You should be focusing up, and I really believe our players will."