In his great new book “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell writes: “The fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”
Gladwell wasn’t writing about the Auburn Tigers — the book had already gone to press long before the newly-crowned SEC champions came close to completing their improbable run this season — but the team is a perfect example of the points he was trying to make.
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Conventional wisdom said that David, a shepherd boy with no military training and armed with only a slingshot, wasn’t supposed to kill Goliath, the Philistine giant clad in heavy armor. One was a warrior and the other wasn’t. But David’s perceived disadvantages were actually his strengths. As Gladwell writes, “The duel reveals the folly of our assumptions about power. An experienced ‘slinger’ could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards. … Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze age warrior armed with a sword would against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol.”
Auburn wasn’t supposed to be very good. Not only were the Tigers nowhere near the rankings at the beginning of the year, most pre-season polls predicted that they would finish sixth in the SEC West. After spring practice they didn’t have a definitive starting quarterback and there were more questions than answers about their defense. Everyone expected Coach Gus Malzahn to speed up the tempo and throw some razzle-dazzle into the Auburn offense, but no one expected more than four or five wins out of this team.
Had you told most experts at the beginning of the season that Auburn would be bowl eligible, there would have been more than a few raised eyebrows. If you had suggested that the Tigers would be in BCS Championship Game, you would have been mocked and openly scorned.
But the Tigers had an underdog’s advantage. They progressed through the first few weeks of the season under the radar and largely underestimated. After escaping with a win at Washington State, the Tigers beat the teams they were supposed to, looking pretty good against Arkansas State and catching Mississippi State during a transition time. The loss to LSU was no surprise, nor was the win over Western Carolina.
It wasn’t until mid-October when they traveled to College Station to play Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M that anyone gave the Tigers a second look. By then, quarterback Nick Marshall had six starts under his belt. His mistakes — and there were plenty — had not been too costly, and his confidence in managing the Tigers’ fast-paced running attack had grown with each snap.
Throw in the fact that running back Tre Mason was getting stronger and better with each game, and the Tigers upset of the Aggies was more of a David and Goliath story than anyone realized. Like the Israelite shepherd, Malzahn and his coaches understood the Tigers’ underdog advantage, and they pressed it to the limit.
Against Georgia, Marshall proved that he wasn’t one-dimensional by throwing the ball effectively against an unprepared Bulldog secondary. And against Alabama, the much-maligned Tiger defense rose up and held A.J. McCarron and the Crimson Tide to one touchdown in the second half.
The Missouri game was deemed a toss-up, because both the SEC East and West champions were seen as improbable comeback kids. But even then, Malzahn and his staff pressed their advantage, seizing on the fact that one or two inside blocking matchups favored the Tigers. The result was a 301-yard rushing performance by Mason and one of the most entertaining shootouts in SEC Championship history.
It comes as no surprise that Auburn is once again an underdog to Florida State in the BCS Championship game. Experts are raking over the numbers — Florida State scores more points per game, puts up more total yards, and leads Auburn in almost every defensive category. But the Seminoles also played the likes of Maryland, Wake Forest, NC State, Syracuse, Idaho, and Bethune-Cookman while the Tigers squared off against LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri.
Malzahn won’t say it, but he has to be hoping his team remains underdogs all the way through until kickoff. It’s the spot they’ve occupied all year. And just like David against Goliath, it has worked out pretty well.