Back From Agony to Atlanta: Auburn’s Wild 365 Days

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From Agony to Atlanta: Auburn’s Wild 365 Days

By Matt Smith
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In just 365 days, Auburn has gone from the cellar to the summit.

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of what has turned out to be the best decision that Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs has ever made. Jacobs named Gus Malzahn the Tigers head coach just nine days after firing national title-winning coach and former Malzahn boss, Gene Chizik, after a 3-9 season in which Auburn failed to win an SEC game for the first time in 60 years.

One year later, Auburn now finds itself in the midst of a dream season that makes its 2010 national championship run seem rather dull. A win over Missouri in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game coupled with a loss by either No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State would send the Tigers to the BCS Championship Game just a year after going winless in conference play.

How has Auburn gotten from the cellar to the summit? Let’s take a look back at the events of the past year on the Plains.

Dec. 4, 2012 –Jacobs names Malzahn Auburn’s new head coach. Malzahn went 10-2 in one season at Arkansas State after a three-year stint as Auburn’s offensive coordinator that included the Tigers’ 2010 national championship.

Dec. 6, 2012 – Just two days after being named head coach, Malzahn hires Ellis Johnson as defensive coordinator. Despite an 0-12 record as Southern Miss head coach in 2012, Johnson remained a well-respected defensive mind in the SEC after successful stints at Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina.

Dec. 20, 2012 – A native son finally comes home, as Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner leaves Athens to return to his alma mater. Garner had developed into a top recruiter throughout the Southeast and developed players such as Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud and David Pollack during his tenure with the Bulldogs

Jan. 3, 2013 – Another former Tiger joins Malzahn’s staff, as hotshot recruiter and former Tigers quarterback Dameyune Craig leaves Florida State to come back to Auburn. Craig led Auburn to the 1997 SEC West title and two bowl victories in his career.

Jan. 7, 2013 – Auburn’s bitter rival, Alabama, claims its third national championship in four years with a 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game. The Crimson Tide become the first team to win three consensus national titles in four seasons since Notre Dame in 1946-1949.

Feb. 6, 2013 – Auburn signs a recruiting class ranked No. 13 by 247Sports’ 247Composite rankings formula, highlighted by Alpharetta, Ga., defensive end Carl Lawson and Vienna, Ga., defensive tackle Montravius Adams. Among junior college signees was a quarterback from Garden City C.C. in Kansas named Nick Marshall. Alabama’s class ranks No. 1 in the nation for the third year in a row.

Mar. 27, 2013 – Spring practice commences with the first of 15 sessions leading up to the A-Day game in April. Installing Malzahn’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense and getting the team accustomed to a faster pace is the top priority for the coming four weeks of practices.

April 20, 2013 – 83,401 flock to Auburn’s campus for the annual spring game and the final rolling of the famous Toomer’s Corner trees, which have been deemed unable to be saved after being poisoned by distraught Alabama fan Harvey Updyke following Auburn’s victory over Alabama in 2010. Plans for a new plaza at Toomer’s Corner are also unveiled.

Jun. 23, 2013 – Marshall arrives on Auburn’s campus along with 10 other Tigers February signees to begin summer classes and workouts. The junior is expected to be part of a four-way competition for the quarterback position when fall camp begins six weeks later.

Jul. 17, 2013 – During SEC Media Days, Malzahn and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema exchange a war of words over the use of hurry-up offenses. Malzahn, a proponent of tempo, says he “thought it was a joke” when Bielema and Alabama’s Nick Saban were critical of fast-pace systems earlier in the offseason. Bielema responded by saying, “I’m not a comedian.”

Aug. 12, 2013 – In a decision that comes as a shock to most, Malzahn announces junior quarterback Kiehl Frazier will move to safety, effectively eliminating him from the quarterback competition with Marshall, sophomore Jonathan Wallace and freshman Jeremy Johnson.

Aug. 17, 2013 – Malzahn officially names Marshall as Auburn’s starting quarterback, 14 days before the Tigers are scheduled to open the 2013 season. Johnson would be the backup, with Wallace No. 3.

Aug. 31, 2013 – The Malzahn era officially begins with a  31-24 victory over Washington State, a result considered less-than-impressive by most Tigers backers after the Cougars went just 1-8 in Pac-12 play in 2012. Marshall totals just 126 yards of total offense in his first start, which is aided by a100-yard kickoff return touchdown by Tre Mason and two Robenson Therezie interceptions.

Sept. 14, 2013 – The Tigers are tested for the first time in 2013, trailing SEC West foe Mississippi State for almost the entire second half. Trailing 20-17, Marshall keeps a drive alive with an 11-yard run on 3rd-and-10 and follows that with an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah with just 10 seconds remaining to give Auburn a thrilling 24-20 home win.

Sept. 21, 2013 – Looking for its first win in Baton Rouge this century, Auburn is served a dose of reality by No. 6 LSU in a 35-21 loss that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Even worse for the Tigers was the loss of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who suffered a non-contact season-ending knee injury on a sloppy Tiger Stadium field.

Oct. 5, 2013 – A key swing game in the SEC West goes the way of Auburn, as the 3-1 Tigers dominate 3-1 Ole Miss in Jordan-Hare Stadium, racing to a 27-9 lead before holding on late for a 30-22 win, their fifth straight over the Rebels at home. Marshall has his best game of his young career, rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

Oct. 19, 2013 – Malzahn makes perhaps his most important call of the season, sticking with a sweater vest for the second week in a row for a key showdown with No. 7 Texas A&M. Despite trailing for much of the game, Auburn’s defense stiffens against the great Johnny Manziel in the second half, as Auburn rallies for a 45-41 victory behind three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes on runs by Marshall, Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne.

Nov. 9, 2013 – Despite completing just three passes, No. 7 Auburn rolls to a 55-23 rout of Tennessee in Knoxville, its sixth straight win over the Volunteers. The Tigers rush 53 times for a whopping 444 yards, led by Marshall with 214 yards.

Nov. 16, 2013 – The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry would break its 54-54-8 tie as No. 24 Georgia visits No. 7 Auburn. The Tigers race to a 37-17 fourth-quarter lead behind four rushing touchdowns, but the Bulldogs do not go quietly. Aaron Murray’s 5-yard touchdown run on fourth down propels Georgia to a 38-37 lead with less than two minutes remaining. Down to its final play, Auburn offers up a prayer in the form of a play known as “Little Rock”. Marshall’s desperation heave was deflected by Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons into the arms of wide receiver Ricardo Louis, who went untouched into the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown and a 43-38 win.

Nov. 30, 2013 – No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn battle in the greatest of all Iron Bowls and one of the most memorable games in the 145-year history of college football. Missed field goals and failed fourth-down attempts allow the Tigers to tie the game at 28-28 with less than a minute remaining on a 39-yard pass from Marshall to Sammie Coates. Alabama drives to the Tigers 40-yard line with one second remaining, which was added back to the clock following a replay review. Adam Griffith’s 57-yard field goal attempts falls well short, into the arms of Auburn’s Chris Davis. With the Tide having only linemen and specialists on the field, Davis is able to run the kick back 109 yards for a walk-off, game-winning touchdown and a 34-28 victory. The win gives Auburn its second SEC West title in four years and fifth all-time.

Dec. 3, 2013 – Malzahn is named one of three finalists for the Maxwell Coach of the Year Award along with SEC Championship Game counterpart Gary Pinkel of Missouri and David Cutcliffe of Duke.

Dec. 4, 2013 – On the one-year anniversary of Malzahn’s hiring, No. 3 Auburn continues preparations for Saturday’s SEC Championship Game against No. 5 Missouri. A win would make the Tigers the first team in SEC history to win the conference title a year after going winless in league play.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.