No. 6 Auburn moves ‘onto the next,’ No. 1 Alabama

The Auburn Tigers couldn’t help but ponder what’s coming even in
the midst of a wild celebration.

Even with an open date ahead. Even after a last-gasp win over
Georgia. It’s the Iron Bowl, after all, and an especially huge
one.

The sixth-ranked Tigers barely cleared the last hurdle with a
43-38 win Saturday over the Bulldogs before turning their sights
toward the game with No. 1 Alabama in two weeks. The winner plays
for the Southeastern Conference title, and perhaps a shot at the
national championship.

”Of course we’re going to enjoy this win,” tailback Tre Mason
said afterward. ”But we started thinking about it (the Alabama
game) as soon as that clock hit all zeroes. Coach (Gus) Malzahn
said, `Onto the next,’ in the locker room.”

This one wasn’t settled until the clock hit all zeroes, even
after Auburn (10-1, 6-1 SEC) surged to a 27-7 lead. Ricardo Louis
caught a desperation heave from Nick Marshall that deflected off
Josh Harvey-Clemons’ hand in double coverage. The result was a
73-yard touchdown on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds left that will
go down as one of the more memorable plays in SEC history.

Then it was onto the next for a team that Malzahn has led from
3-9 to being ranked sixth in the nation.

”This team, they’re special,” Malzahn said. ”This is a
special group. They’ve been through a lot, and they rallied. They
came together. They believed in each other. They bought into the
fact to get better each game, each practice. I told them before the
game, I said, `We’ve been building up to this moment.’ Our moment
was to be able to play these guys.”

The next moment is significantly bigger. Georgia had hammered
the Tigers two years running, but so has the Crimson Tide. Alabama
won 42-14 two years ago and 49-0 last season and is seeking its
fourth national title in five years.

The unbeaten Tide had a more mundane performance in a 20-7 win
over Mississippi State that was the tightest margin Nick Saban’s
team has faced since Sept. 14, a 49-42 win over No. 9 Texas
A&M. Alabama faces FCS team Chattanooga in a tuneup
Saturday.

Malzahn joked after the game that it was ”definitely a Waffle
House night.” But he said Sunday he planned to go to church ”and
after church I will flip the switch” from Georgia to Alabama.

”That one aged me,” Malzahn said. ”I’ve lost some years off
my life.”

This Auburn team has undergone a metamorphosis under Malzahn.
Marshall, who has two game-winning TD passes in the final seconds,
and Mason have powered the nation’s no. 3 rushing offense.

Marshall accounted for 229 passing yards, 89 rushing yards and
three total touchdowns against Georgia. Mason ran for 115 yards and
a league-leading 18th touchdown. And then there’s Louis, a shifty
runner who has been touted by the coaches all season as a
potentially key playmaker.

He ran for 66 yards on five carries and caught four passes for
131 yards. Louis accounted for Auburn’s two longest plays, a
32-yard run and the 73-yard catch.

For all that success in Malzahn’s up-tempo offense, a more
notable difference from last season’s team might have been the
confidence remaining even after blowing a 20-point lead.

”This team is very unique,” he said. ”There’s a lot of
tension and pressures since the momentum had swung, but they had
bright eyes in the huddle. It was really unbelievable.”

Auburn has made a habit out of dramatic finishes. The Tigers
beat No. 9 Texas A&M on Mason’s 5-yard touchdown run with 1:19
left, topped Mississippi State on Marshall’s touchdown pass to C.J.
Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining and had late defensive stands
against Washington State and Mississippi.

Malzahn doesn’t buy into the talk of Auburn having good karma or
being a team of destiny.

”I believe if you work hard and you have a team that is
completely 100 percent together, and all the coaches, everybody is
on board, then you have a chance to do something special,” he
said.

Winning the Iron Bowl would be high on that list.