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Auburn makes points — on and off the scoreboard

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Updated: January 9, 2014 6:29AM



ATLANTA — Go on, dig as deep into your memory banks as you can. Feel free to consult the handy-dandy interwebs if you think it’ll help.

But you’re not going to come up with an answer, and that’s because there is no answer. Never has college football seen a bigger, better turnaround.

I won’t speak for all of sports. I might be given to flights of superlative-spewing fancy, but even I (occasionally) know where to draw the line. But college football? No way, no how has any team ever topped what Auburn has pulled off in 2013.

From 3-9 a year ago to 12-1 and still rolling.

From 0-8 in SEC play to 8-1 and doing snow angels in the confetti on the Georgia Dome turf.

From being “one of the worst teams in the country,” as star running back Tre Mason it, to being one of two that will square off in Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS title on Jan. 6.

“It’s really unbelievable,” said the No. 3 Tigers’ first-year coach, Gus Malzahn, after a 59-42 victory over fifth-ranked Missouri (11-2, 7-2). ‘‘This team has gotten better each game. And we’re playing our best football right now.”

Without knowing if a victory would be good enough to get them into the BCS championship game, the Tigers pressed the pedal to the metal from start to finish. That at least gave coaches poll and Harris poll voters lots to think about before No. 1 Florida State’s and No. 2 Ohio State’s prime-time games had even started. A few hours later, the Buckeyes had gone down and Tiger fans rejoiced afresh. But they’d already been thrilled beyond their imaginations.

You think Alabama’s offense was good in the 2012 SEC finale against Georgia? The Tide rushed for 350 yards and gained 512 overall.

Those numbers pale in comparison to what Auburn did to the nation’s 14th-ranked rushing defense: 545 yards on the ground — 304 of them, along with four touchdowns, from the dazzling Mason — and 677 total yards on 85 plays from scrimmage, only 11 of them passes.

Some of you will remember that Alabama coach Nick Saban made waves in the summer for stating his disapproval of extra-high-tempo offenses that potentially put fatigued defensive players at risk of physical harm. Malzahn — one of the highest-tempo coaches the SEC has ever seen — didn’t much appreciate the unsolicited advice about how to run his program.

What fans saw here Saturday was tempo gone wild as the Tigers rushed-rushed-rushed a mind-boggling 74 times.

They saw Mason vault himself, suddenly and shockingly, into the Heisman Trophy race. They saw the first SEC team ever to finish seven games better in the standings than the season before raise that bar to eight.

They saw that there’s more than one way to skin this here SEC cat. You don’t always have to be the toughest and the meanest. You just have to be the best.

Saban is still the king, but Malzahn isn’t merely the guy who stole last weekend’s Iron Bowl.

“We have the best coach in college football,” Mason said.

So, what is an SEC championship without a BCS title to go with it, anyway? Given the conference’s unprecedented seven-year reign over college football, some will say Auburn’s season doesn’t meet the standard unless it ends in victory over Florida State — which will be favored — and ultimate glory. That it won’t stack up to what Saban has done three times at Alabama, Urban Meyer did twice at Florida and Les Miles has done once at LSU.Not to mention what Gene Chizik (who?) did in 2010 on the shoulders of Cam Newton and a little-known offensive coordinator named Malzahn.

The ugly 3-9 of 2012 is on Chizik’s record. Malzahn, meanwhile, was cutting his teeth at Arkansas State in his very first season as a college head coach.

What a difference one year, one coach, one completely turned-around team can make. To have gone from the bottom of the best league in land to the top, just like that? You’d better believe it stacks up.

HEISMAN WATCH

Well, the time has come to submit my three-player ballot. Almost, that is. Technically, voters have until close of business Monday — and I intend to use that time to noodle over my decision.

But I’ll share the three names (listed below alphabetically) that will be on my ballot; that much I know right now.

By the way, it is explicitly against Heisman rules for voters to share their winning pick with the public before the presentation of the award. (Believe me, I’ve nearly lost my vote in the past for breaking that rule.)

RB Tre Mason, Auburn: What he did against Missouri certainly rated among the performances of the year in college football, but now Mason also has season rushing stats (1,621 yards, 22 touchdowns) that can’t be ignored.

QB AJ McCarron, Alabama: Career record as a starter: 36-3. And he’s one of the most efficient and clutch quarterbacks of his time.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher turned him loose on Duke in the second half of an ACC title-game rout. Winston had Heisman credentials without the puffed-up numbers.

GAME BALL

TRE MASON, AUBURN RB

The junior was the best player on the field in the best game in the country Saturday. The 304 yards and four touchdowns rushing against Missouri would’ve gotten him the game ball regardless of how hard he had to work for those numbers, but consider that his 46 carries equaled 15 more than the previous high for an SEC championship game.

How gassed was he?

“I didn’t even think about fatigue,” he said, “just about not quitting until the clock said zero.”

GAMES OF THE WEEK/WEAK

Week: No. 18 Oklahoma 33, No. 6 Oklahoma State 24. Sooners quarterback Blake Bell, whose season had been a major disappointment, ended with such a bang we still can’t believe it. Needing to drive his team 66 yards in less than two minutes to pull off the upset and kill Oklahoma State’s Big 12 title bid, Bell — an unreliable passer in any conditions, let alone on a bitterly cold day — somehow did just that. Even though the Sooners couldn’t win the conference, it was a season-changing moment.

Weak: No. 15 UCF 17, SMU 13. Yes, this really happened on a day packed with hugely important games. The Knights (11-1, 8-0 American) could’ve lost to five-win SMU and still represented college football’s weakest, weirdest automatic-qualifier league in the BCS. Instead, they merely played like they’d be OK with losing. In the end, they got another oddly unimpressive victory — add this to the pile that already included 23-20 over South Florida, 39-36 over Temple, 19-14 over Houston and 24-17 over Memphis.

POLLING

Up: No. 18 Oklahoma. But will the Sooners, off their Bedlam upset of Oklahoma State in Stillwater, secure a BCS at-large berth?

Down: No 16 Northern Illinois. And out of the BCS picture (but you knew that already). Bummer.

In: USC? Notre Dame? All we know is the Irish will face Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28 in New York.

Out: No. 23 Texas. At 8-4 — come on — the Longhorns and their Top 25 charade end once and for all.

EXTRA POINTS

• The elephant in the stadium Saturday in Waco, where Now 9 Baylor beat No. 23 Texas 30-10 to win the Big 12: Of all the coaches in America whose names have been attached to a potential Longhorns opening, the absolute ideal candidate to succeed Mack Brown is the Bears’ Art Briles.

• I’ll digress here and point out that Brown hasn’t been fired and might be Texas’ coach for a long time to come.

• But goodness, what new UT athletic director Steve Patterson wouldn’t give to be in the Briles business. He and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin can duke it out for best-coach-in-the-state honors, but it sure isn’t Brown (or TCU’s Gary Patterson) anymore. Briles is locked up long-tern in Waco and has a brand-new stadium opening next year, so his current gig is super sweet. Probably too sweet for Patterson to even think about making a play for him.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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