ATLANTA –- Junior running back Cameron Artis-Payne jubilantly bounced around the middle of the Georgia Dome field after his Auburn Tigers pasted 59 points on the scoreboard and won the SEC Championship Game over the Missouri Tigers by 17 points.
“Man, I haven’t won a championship since I was eight,” said Artis-Payne to anyone and everyone who would listen.
Twelve months ago no one would have believed Artis-Payne would be able to feel this. Auburn had just endured an 0-8 SEC campaign and finished the season with a 3-9 record overall.
Flip the switch to the current day, Auburn is 12-1 with only a two-touchdown loss to LSU on Sept. 21 marring the Tigers season.
“From that first team meeting we’ve come a long way,” said head coach Gus Malzahn on the year’s worth of hard work that spawned Auburn’s turnaround. “We strained the dog out of our players during the spring and our players have improved with every week. We’re playing our best football right now.”
Remember that last line from Malzahn. It’s going to be a recurring theme.
With that one loss, however, will Auburn get the chance to play for a national championship like seven other SEC teams in a row before them?
Florida State (12-0) sits at No. 1 in the BCS Standings and faces Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship later Saturday. Ohio State, who faces Michigan State later Saturday in the Big Ten Championship, is also 12-0 and ranked second in the BCS Standings.
If either falters, Auburn would likely play for the national title. If not, Auburn’s only hope is to jump over Ohio State.
Auburn’s 59-42 win over Missouri was impressive offensively. The Tigers put up 677 yards of total offense and junior running back Tre Mason carried the ball 46 times for 306 yards and four touchdowns in an MVP performance. After the game he credited his offensive line, a unit that together created openings for Mason that looked big enough for a tanker truck.
“These guys opened up some of the biggest holes I’ve ever run through,” said Mason.
But for an opening to appear for Auburn, it’s likely that Florida State or Ohio State needs to lose. The Seminoles have a .9948 BCS Average, way out of reach for Auburn to push past without Florida State tripping up.
Ohio State has a sizeable .0270 lead over Auburn in BCS Average (.9503 to .9227). If one-loss Auburn is going to make a move over a zero-loss team, the Buckeyes need to be that target.
Malzahn made a case for his team going to the national championship even if both Florida State and Ohio State win.
“We’re the SEC Champs,” said Malzahn. “We’ve (the SEC) won it the last seven years. We (Auburn) play the toughest schedule of any of the teams there and we’re playing the best football.”
As Malzahn was explaining how he felt his team made its gigantic turnaround from 0-8 to 7-1 in the SEC, he craftily snuck in another dig at Florida State and Ohio State.
“All I can explain is since I got there how our team bought into what we asked them to do and got better and better and better,” said Malzahn. “It’s hard to explain. Were playing our best football right now and a lot of teams cant say that.”
Does anyone doubt Malzahn was thinking about Ohio State with that last statement?
Malzahn obviously feels his team is playing better than one or both of the unbeaten teams ahead of the Tigers right now. And since Florida State and Ohio State both have strength of schedules in the 60s, Malzahn has a point since his Tigers strength of schedule is No. 26 in the country.
Will the computers and humans that comprise the BCS voting agree with Malzahn if there are two zero-loss teams ahead of the Tigers after Saturday? Auburn might not have done enough in the SEC Championship Game to make than happen.
That still doesn’t make the 2013 season any less magical for Auburn.
[UPDATE: Michigan State beat Ohio State Saturday which bumped Auburn into the national title game. The No. 1 Florida State Seminoles will play the new No. 2 Auburn Tigers Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif. in the Vizio BCS National Championship.]