Both participants in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game boast remarkable turnaround seasons. No. 5 Missouri bounced back from a 5-7 campaign in 2012 to win the East in just their second season in the league. No. 3 Auburn went 3-9 last year and didn’t win a single SEC game, only to rebound with such an improbable run this year that many peg the Tigers (West) as a team of destiny.
Though both turnarounds are impressive, Auburn’s is flat out incredible. Unlike Missouri, which could point to a number of key injuries and the transition to a new league to account for their disappointing 2012 season, Auburn was just flat out walloped in SEC play last year. There were no extenuating factors, such as injuries, to blame for the Tigers’ worst season in 60 years. Auburn was just an awful football team last year.
Because of that, this year’s turnaround is so much more remarkable. Auburn, having hit rock bottom and proven they can pick themselves up, has developed an unwavering belief that they can’t lose close games; based on the Tigers’ track record this year, that’s a fact. Auburn is 5-0 in games decided by seven points or less and 6-0 in games decided by eight points or less. Even more impressive is the six come-from-behind wins the Tigers have this season.
We’re talking about the same team that was outscored 272-81 in eight conference games last season. If broken down by game, that’s an average final score of SEC opponent 34, Auburn 8. The trouble for Auburn began early last year, as the Tigers lost two of their first four games by a combined total of nine points. That heartbreaking start caused the season to spiral out of control and eventually down the drain.
Yet, somehow, here the Tigers are one season later, not wavering in their confidence even during what appear to be dire, almost impossible circumstances. This Auburn team finds a way, any way, to win those close games.
Need an 88-yard touchdown drive with less than two minutes remaining to beat Mississippi State in the SEC opener? Done.
How about a go-ahead drive with less than five minutes to play to beat Johnny Manziel and then No. 7 Texas A&M on the road? No problem.
Have to convert a fourth-and-18 to come from behind and beat Georgia? Forget the first down, just launch a prayer 60 yards downfield and let fate handle the rest.
What if you fall behind 21-7 in the second quarter against your arch rival and two-time defending national champion Alabama? It’s all good, we have this.
While head coach Gus Malzahn deserves a lot of credit for helping players erase last year from their collective memories, the true catalyst of the Tigers’ turnaround is quarterback Nick Marshall. The self-assurance he exudes at the QB position, which increases the bigger the moment gets, is the reason Auburn has been able to continuously win these nail-biting games all season.
So many are quick to attribute Auburn’s good fortune to luck, and sure, the Tigers have been lucky this year. No championship team has ever won it all without a few breaks going their way. But luck won’t be on the field Saturday. Luck won’t be directing the Auburn offense or reaffirming the Tigers’ belief late in the game if it’s close, but Marshall will be. He is confidence manifested in a dynamic QB. It’s that confidence, not luck, that Missouri will have to overcome if they hope to crown themselves SEC champions.
If the SEC title game is close in the fourth quarter, and many believe it will be, the advantage definitely rests with Auburn. It’s not that the Tigers are a team of destiny; it’s that they believe they’re a team of destiny, which is a very powerful thing in the world of college football.
Scott Page is a college football writer for Rantsports.com. Follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook, or add him to your network on Google.