Auburn was thisclose to putting a bow on one of the great turnaround stories in college football history on Monday night.
As it stands, even though the No. 2 Tigers lost to No. 1 Florida State, 34-31, in the final seconds of the BCS national title game, there is plenty for the program to be proud about.
Consider: Last year, the Tigers finished 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC. One year later, they finished 12-2, won the SEC title and finished a hair shy of the BCS championship.
Give credit to head coach Gus Malzhan, perhaps the greatest offensive mind in college football today. He took Nick Marshall, a junior college transfer who was a converted defensive back, and turned him into a legitimate and dangerous offensive weapon. He transformed a respectable running back, Tre Mason, into a Heisman finalist.
Clearly, Malzahn is a coach who knows what he is doing. He understands — perhaps better than any coach in America — how to infuse the talent at hand with the proper scheme. And this bodes well for the Tigers going forward.
The unit that averaged 47 points over the past eight regular season games will be largely intact next season. Marshall returns, as does (potentially) Mason and every other key starter on the Auburn offense. Meanwhile, the defensive side of the ball that held Florida State offense to just 27 points — nearly half its average — returns six starters and a bevy of talented freshmen who contributed to the magical BCS run.
Make no mistake, this is a program that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon so long as Malzahn is around to guide it. And it’s likely that Auburn won’t need the kind of miracle finishes it needed this year to make it to the next year’s inaugural playoff, either. The Tigers of 2014 could be a dominant force in the SEC.
For now, this Auburn team will be thinking “What If?” for quite a while. But let’s face it: It was playing with house money and still nearly pulled off one of the great upsets in BCS history. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Tiger fans.
In the pantheon of college football lore, the 2013 season — and the amazing Auburn run that helped define it — is sure to loom large in our collective memories for years to come.