AFTER TWO LOST SEASONS AUBURN'S 2011 CHAMPIONSHIP FELT LIKE ANCIENT HISTORY. BUT WITH GUS MALZAHN—THE MAN WHO LED THEIR BCS-WINNING OFFENSE—COACHING AND ANOTHER JUNIOR COLLEGE STUD UNDER CENTER, A NEW TITLE WINDOW HAS OPENED. ONE THAT GOES THROUGH TUSCALOOSA
DEE FORD will never forget the sinking feeling he had walking along the sideline. It was late in the fourth quarter of Auburn's 2012 matchup with Texas A&M at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the Tigers trailed 63--21. Less than two years after winning the national championship—Ford had wrapped his arms around Cam Newton and coach Gene Chizik in the jubilant locker room after beating Oregon in January '11—Auburn was minutes away from losing its sixth straight conference game. Most of the 85,119 orange-and-blue-clad fans had long since disappeared into the cool Southern night, and on the bench dozens of Ford's teammates sat slumped with their heads down, as if in desperate prayer. The players on the field seemed "uninterested." Holy moly, Ford thought to himself, we have a serious, serious problem.
The next morning Ford carried his Yamaha keyboard into the New Generation Baptist Church in Auburn. Ford had taken up the piano as an eighth-grader in Odenville, Ala., and playing soothes him. For 90 minutes, in front of a full-house congregation, gospel songs flowed from his fingertips. "The only way I made it through last season was by getting away and playing my music," says Ford, a senior defensive end. "It was so bad around here that for the football players, it was sometimes hard to get out of bed. But man, it's a new day at Auburn. It's been a total, 100% turnaround."
The most surprising story line of the 2013 college football season has been the rebirth of the Auburn Tigers. After beating Tennessee 55--23 in Knoxville last Saturday, the Tigers are 9--1 and ranked seventh in the BCS standings. First-year coach Gus Malzahn is the front-runner to be named national coach of the year, and Auburn, despite a 35--21 loss to LSU in late September, still has a shot to play for the BCS championship. Games against Georgia on Saturday and top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 30 are freighted with national significance.
All of this was unfathomable after the Tigers finished 3--9 last year and became the first team in history to fail to win a conference game two years after being national champion. How to explain the sudden reversal on the Plains? Says senior fullback Jay Prosch, "It's complicated."
TWO DAYS after Gus Malzahn was hired from Arkansas State last December to replace Chizik, he met individually with every senior-to-be. The 48-year-old Malzahn, who had been the offensive coordinator at Auburn from 2009 through '11, already knew 80% of the roster. He asked, "What do we need to do to fix the program?" Over and over he heard a similar message: We need discipline and accountability.
"It was clear the kids had been through a storm," Malzahn says. "They had trust issues with coaches. We had to get that back. And I told them that we wouldn't judge anyone on last year's performance. I instructed my coaches to not even watch film from last year. Everyone was given a fresh start."
Every assistant Malzahn hired had either coached or played in the SEC, including strength coach Ryan Russell, who had been the assistant strength coach for the Tigers in 2010 and '11. In 2012 players routinely showed up late for conditioning sessions, and the coaching staff rarely punished those who were tardy. "There was a huge lack of accountability in the weight room," says one Auburn player, who requested anonymity. "There was this sense that, Hey, we won a national title, and we don't have to work hard. But now if someone is late for a lifting or conditioning session, the entire team has to do up-and-downs. So you know what? No one has been late."
Russell has energized the team's off-field workouts. "Just having music makes working out more enjoyable," says Prosch. "Guys dreaded the weight room last year. But now you have guys setting personal records during the season, which is pretty much unheard of."
Every college coach talks about instilling "toughness," but Malzahn did it by putting his players through full-contact, fully padded practices in eight of the 12 spring sessions, which is the most the rules allow. Malzahn knew there was talent on his roster—according to Rivals.com, Auburn had a top 10 recruiting class in each of the previous four years—but his players had lost confidence. To get that back, "Coach Malzahn beat the crap out of us in the spring," says junior center Reese Dismukes. "We banged hard in the spring, and we got beat up, but it was the best thing for us."
Malzahn also implemented his fast-paced, spread attack—the system that the majority of the offensive players were recruited to play. When Malzahn left in 2012, Chizik replaced him with Scot Loeffler, who installed a pro-style I formation offense—a move that, in retrospect, hastened Chizik's demise. "I'll never understand why Chizik switched offenses when all his guys were recruited for the spread," says an SEC coach who faced Chizik several times.
Then in early July, a program-changing player arrived on the Auburn campus: quarterback Nick Marshall. At Wilcox County High in Rochelle, Ga., Marshall set the state record for career touchdown passes (103). He accepted a scholarship to Georgia, but he didn't want to sit behind Aaron Murray, then a sophomore, so he switched to cornerback. Marshall played sparingly in 2011—he made five tackles—and in January '12 was dismissed from the program for violating a team rule.
A few weeks later Marshall rode 18 hours to Garden City Community College in western Kansas to begin the rehabilitation of his college career. As the miles passed, Marshall promised himself two things: He was going to play quarterback, and he would one day return to the SEC. "I got homesick in Kansas, and man, it was cold," says Marshall, "but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I grew up."
At Garden City the 6'1", 210-pound Marshall threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns and ran for 1,095 yards and 19 more scores. Last fall Malzahn visited and told Marshall he would be an ideal quarterback in Malzahn's up-tempo offense at Arkansas State. The two stayed in touch, and when Malzahn was hired at Auburn, the first recruit he called was Marshall. "Auburn was the only SEC school to offer me, so it was an easy decision," says Marshall. "I wanted to finish some business in this conference."
Marshall made his presence felt early. On the sixth day of preseason practice in August he faked a handoff and rolled to his right. From his own 10-yard line he unleashed a pass that traveled 80 yards in a tight spiral, hitting his receiver in stride. Practice momentarily stopped, and players whooped and hollered as if they'd just spotted their Caesar. "That was when we all knew we had a baller in Nick," says junior running back Tre Mason. "He was already making plays with his feet, but man, he's got a cannon."
In his 22 years as a high school and college coach, Malzahn had never started a quarterback who hadn't been through spring practice. But a few days before Auburn's season opener against Washington State, he elevated Marshall to first string. "Nick struggled with accuracy in camp and early in the season, but he's getting better every game," Malzahn says. "He's learning on Saturdays."
Against Tennessee, Marshall ran for 214 yards on 14 carries and threw a soft-touch, wheel-route strike to tight end C.J. Uzomah for a 25-yard touchdown. It was the same type of lofted, lovely pass on that route that Newton threw when Malzahn was last calling plays on the Plains.
THE KEY sequence of Auburn's season began with 1:56 left in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State on Sept. 14. Trailing 20--17, Auburn had the ball on its 12-yard line. In 2012 the Tigers lost three of their first four games by a touchdown or less, which "caused us to expect to lose whenever it was close," says Ford. Marshall, whose picture doesn't even appear in the Auburn media guide, looked his teammates in the eyes. "We can do this," he said. "We will do this." And they did: With 10 seconds left, Marshall hit Uzomah for an 11-yard touchdown pass to complete an 88-yard drive. Auburn won 24--20.
That night Marshall threw for 339 yards—a school record for a quarterback in his SEC debut—and the Tigers ended a 10-game conference losing streak. But more revealing was this: As the Auburn players walked off the field, they genuinely believed they had found their 2013 version of Newton—who like Marshall had left an SEC school (Florida), gone to junior college for a season (Blinn College in Brenham, Texas) and was the team's opening-game starter as a junior. "Losing snowballs just as much as winning does," says Mason, "and Nick really helped change that culture."
On Oct. 19 the Tigers traveled to College Station to play the team that spanked them by 42 points in 2012 and caused the scene of dismay that had left Ford in shock. Before the game several Auburn players were so emotionally charged that tears filled their eyes. "I've never been around a team so ready to play," says Ford. Down three points with less than six minutes left, Marshall directed a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a five-yard touchdown run by Mason. Marshall was masterly in the 45--41 win, outdueling Johnny Manziel by throwing for 236 yards and running for 100. Players sobbed with joy in the locker room. "It showed we were on our way back," says Ford.
Every unit on the team is vastly improved this season—even though the faces haven't significantly changed. The offensive line, for instance, features four returning starters. In 2012 the Auburn line allowed an SEC-worst 37 sacks (an average of 3.08 per game); through 10 games this year, they've surrendered only 10 sacks. And after gaining a mere 148.4 yards a game on the ground last season (78th in the country), the Tigers are third in the nation in rushing (320.0 yards per game).
"The play of the offensive line is an example of what a clean slate can do and how important confidence is in college football," says Malzahn. "The talent was always there. It was just a matter of bringing it out."
On Sunday morning in Auburn, Dee Ford lugged his 150-pound keyboard back onto the stage at New Generation. For 90 minutes he made the keys sound like joy. The music still takes him away, but after beating Tennessee in Knoxville, he did something after the service that he wouldn't have dared last year. To friends and strangers alike, he described how wonderful it is to be an Auburn Tiger.
"IT WAS SO BAD AROUND HERE THAT FOR THE FOOTBALL PLAYERS IT WAS SOMETIMES HARD TO GET OUT OF BED," SAYS FORD.
AUBURN'S UPCOMING GAMES AGAINST GEORGIA AND TOP-RATED ALABAMA ARE SUDDENLY FREIGHTED WITH NATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE.
Lars Anderson delves deeper into Tigers territory with an in-depth look at Gus Malzahn's coaching journey and his triumphant return to Auburn, this Wednesday at SI.com/mag
Photograph by POUYA DIANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
PRIME CUT Mason ran for 117 yards and three TDs in a 55--23 win over Tennessee to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the year and help Auburn reach 9--1.
Photograph by POUYA DIANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DÉJ√Ä QB Like Newton, Marshall (14) fled another SEC program and, after a year in junior college, transformed Auburn's high-speed attack.
Photograph by POUYA DIANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WINNING PAIR Malzahn recruited Marshall at Arkansas State and landed him upon moving to Auburn.