THIS IS THE MAGIC of Auburn in 2013: The Tigers make you fall more deeply in love with college football.
Look at Bo Jackson last Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, beaming like an overjoyed kid as he whipped out his smartphone to record the victory podium after his alma mater beat Missouri 59--42 in the SEC championship game. "I can't believe it! I can't believe it!" the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner said to no one in particular as he filmed quarterback Nick Marshall (right) and running back Tre Mason. Bo knows special.
It's not just that Auburn has won two games on plays among the greatest in college football history—the tipped Hail Mary to beat Georgia on Nov. 16 (the Prayer in Jordan-Hare) and the 109-yard field goal return against Alabama two weeks later (the Kick Six). But what also makes the Tigers so deliciously irresistible is that they play exciting football, executing exotic plays their coach Gus Malzahn has drawn up in the sandlot of his imagination. In the last two weeks Auburn's quick-paced, option-based offense has plowed through two of the nation's top defenses. The Tigers ran for 296 yards against Alabama's fourth-ranked rushing D, which was surrendering 91.3 per game. On Saturday they gashed Missouri and its 14th-ranked rush defense for 545 running yards, with Mason accounting for an SEC-title-game record 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. Missouri knows what it must have felt like to play against Jim Thorpe and the double-wing Carlisle Indians in the early 20th century.
The key player in Auburn's transformation from a 3--9 team in 2012 to a 12--1 squad has been Marshall, a 6'1", 210-pound junior who spent last season in the hinterlands of the Kansas prairie at Garden City Community College. Marshall has led fourth-quarter comebacks against Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, and he's infused the program with confidence. Marshall struggled in Auburn's 35--21 loss to LSU on Sept. 21—he threw two interceptions and made several poor reads on option plays—but he became a different player after he analyzed the film. "Ever since then I've felt like we really can't be stopped on offense," Marshall says. "We're going to pound you with the run, and we're going to play-action-pass you. "
Auburn's defense has been porous—88th in the nation in yards allowed per game (423.5)—but it has made stops in critical moments. The Tigers stuffed Alabama on a fourth-and-one and forced Missouri to punt twice in the third quarter. Plus, Auburn has experience facing mobile, Heisman-winning quarterbacks. On Oct. 19 the Tigers intercepted Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel twice in their 45--41 victory. Auburn's D only needs to be average against Florida State.
Auburn, remarkably, is peaking when it matters most, which is why this team of magic and joy and video-game fun will keep the national title in the state of Alabama for the fifth straight year.
Photograph by POUYA DIANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED