“War Eagle,” a group of them chanted, drawing out the syllables.
A few hours after Auburn’s nerve-wracking, nail-biting, head-shaking 59-42 win against fifth-ranked Missouri to claim the Southeastern Conference championship, the news kept getting better. No. 10 Michigan State upset No. 2 Ohio State, 34-24, pushing the No. 3 Tigers — presumably, as it always is with the Bowl Championship Series rankings — into the national championship game.
Top-ranked Florida State took care of Duke, 45-7, assuring its place in the BCS championship game in Pasadena, Calif. The final BCS rankings will be released Sunday afternoon.
Answered prayers are old hat for Auburn, at least lately. Three weeks ago, quarterback Nick Marshall threw a deep pass that bounced off the hands of two Georgia defenders and into the arms of receiver Ricardo Louis, who scored on a 73-yard touchdown. Then last week, Auburn toppled No. 1 Alabama, the two-time defending BCS champion, when Chris Davis returned a missed field goal for an unlikely touchdown.
On Saturday, the Tigers first needed to take care of their own business. They captured Auburn’s first conference championship since 2010, when quarterback Cam Newton used Atlanta as a stepping stone on the way to a Bowl Championship Series championship.
Three years later, with Marshall replacing Newton and Gus Malzahn now the Tigers’ coach, Auburn made its case, drive after drive, devastating run after incredible run, that the champion of the nation’s most competitive conference also deserves a chance at the national title.
The politicking, of course, began almost as soon as the game ended.
“I think Auburn deserves a chance to play in the national championship,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said. “. . . It seems to me that they’ve earned their way to the championship.”
Malzahn, who refused a day earlier to promote his team for a place in the title game, had no problem discussing it late Saturday.
“We’re the SEC champ,” he said. “I believe [SEC teams have] won (the BCS championship) the last seven years. We’ve played the toughest schedule of any of the teams there, and we’re playing our best football. A lot of teams aren’t getting better each week. This team is.”
Running back Tre Mason said he would watch the evening’s game some way, and if that was on the short bus ride back to Auburn, Ala. – Atlanta is a little more than 100 miles away – there would be a way to follow the action.
“God willing,” Mason said shortly after his team’s win, “we’ll get to the national championship.”
This is the way it has been for Auburn, and, yes, the SEC. A team from America’s most competitive conference has found its way into the BCS title game every year since 2005, and even amid the greatest threat to that streak in years, it just seems to shake out this way.
“We’re going to the BCS!” one Auburn fan shouted as the fourth quarter came to a close.
The drama began hours earlier, and even then, the Tigers tried to make their case to surpass the Buckeyes, whose schedule – Ohio State’s most impressive win came against Wisconsin in late September – served as its loudest criticism. Mason didn’t just push his team into the season’s biggest game, even for a team picked to finish fifth in the six-team SEC West during the preseason, he likely ran his way into the Heisman Trophy discussion.
He had a staggering 46 attempts (a school record) for 304 yards (which shattered the previous SEC championship game record) and four touchdowns, a performance that, considering the audience and stakes, should make him a late addition to the list of Heisman Trophy finalists.
“Usually the best players on the best teams have a chance at it,” Malzahn said, “and you’re looking at one of those guys right here.”
Mason, who struck the Heisman pose after one of his touchdowns, called winning sports’ most prestigious individual award among his personal goals. Playing for a national title is, too, he said.
Malzahn, the Tigers’ offensive coordinator under Gene Chizik three years ago, leaned on Mason time and again Saturday. And why not? Missouri continually used a three-man defensive front, which Mason, Marshall and three others ran through and around for 545 combined rushing yards.
Missouri’s defense had worked well throughout the regular season, entering Saturday with the SEC’s second-best rush defense. Missouri, which won the SEC East in its second season in the conference, had allowed 19.4 points in regular-season games, and although it hung with Auburn through the first three quarters, its defense surrendered more than three times that scoring average.
“Everybody has problems with it,” Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel said of the Auburn rushing attack.
This wasn’t a game to be determined by defense, though, and that became clear early. This is the 2013 SEC, and both of its division winners proved that wins these days come by speed, misdirection and scoring. The days of Alabama’s 9-6 win against LSU are faded and gone, even a little more than two years later. Malzahn runs an updated version of the Wing-T, that unpredictable formation from sepia-toned photographs and leather helmets, and Missouri frequently hesitated to identify the ball carrier – and by the time it found its bearings, there went Mason for another long gain.
Malzahn and Pinkel, who also uses a speed-based spread attack, represent the SEC’s new guard. They have taken a high-scoring approach, popular in other conferences in years past, and brought them south. Old-school coaches such as South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, Georgia’s Mark Richt and even Alabama’s Nick Saban might have to consider following a trend that led these two teams to Atlanta – and, if nothing else, the fringe of the national championship game.
“More people are going use it, probably,” Pinkel said.
When it was finished and Malzahn ducked under an ice bath and streamers fell, there was little left but to wait, watch and hope for yet another answered prayer.
Another went up for Auburn and the SEC, another somehow answered.