Auburn Tigers: 2013 Iron Bowl

Reliving Auburn's miracle return

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
8:00
AM ET

AUBURN, Ala. -- For a team of destiny, the play that would come to define Auburn's magical season started off in an ironic way as it looked as if luck might not be on its side after all. The clock read all zeroes in Jordan-Hare Stadium as Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon went out of bounds, sending a tie game into overtime. But officials double-checked, reviewed the play and put one second back on the clock -- just enough time for the top-ranked Crimson Tide to run one final play.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' TD return was like something out of a video game, according to Tide QB AJ McCarron.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, staring his own date with destiny and a third straight national championship in the eye, didn't think to throw a Hail Mary pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the odds of AJ McCarron heaving a touchdown in that situation were 2 percent. Better to give Adam Griffith a shot at splitting the uprights from 57 yards out, Saban thought. He'd seen his freshman kicker hit it from 60 yards plenty of times, and Cade Foster, Alabama's regular place-kicker, had already missed three field goals.

Disgruntled, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thought to himself, "You know, we haven't had a whole lot of luck with reviews anyway," as Alabama took the field for its shot at a game-winning field goal. Malzahn toyed with telling his special-teams coach to go for the block, but he knew he wanted to call a timeout to ice the kicker and survey his options anyway. Better go a different route, he decided.

"If they missed the kick, what was the worst that could happen?" said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead.

"Put CD back there," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford recalled hearing Malzahn say during the timeout, pulling safety Ryan Smith off the return in favor of Chris Davis, a speedy cornerback and part-time punt returner. Malzahn called Davis, a senior who has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, "a champion" in his book. On Saturday night with the wind blowing in his face and a title hanging in the balance, Davis was.

Cody Mandell fielded the snap and dropped the ball into place for Griffith, who swung his right leg through cleanly. The ball floated on line for what seemed like an eternity to the orange-and-blue-clad fans standing in their seats. Then it dipped short and to the right, where Davis waited with open arms.

"I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run," Davis said.

Alabama simulated field goal returns like Davis' every Friday during the season. "We just imagine," said tight end Brian Vogler, who is responsible for sealing the outside edge of the line during kicks. But there's never anyone actually there to return the ball, he said.

"You practice it so many times and when it happens you're not expecting that kind of speed," Vogler explained.

Davis started to his right up the center of the field before turning back left toward the sideline. He knew if he got to the edge the bigger guys for Alabama wouldn't be able to catch him. Vogler, all 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds of him, took a bad angle, leaped at Davis, and missed.

"I was running down the field expecting a blindside [hit] out of nowhere," Vogler said, "and when I finally got the opportunity, I was kind of in shock I hadn't gotten laid out."

Adrian Hubbard, Alabama's 252-pound linebacker, didn't stand a chance either as he whiffed on the tackle.

Smith, in a stroke of irony, was a key part of the return as he laid out Alabama offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio.

"I made a good block," Smith said excitedly. "Y'all go check it out."

Mandell, the punter and holder, got one hand on Davis' jersey, but wound up only touching history rather than stopping it. Davis never broke stride as he passed Mandell and found daylight, running freely into the end zone for the game-winning score before being hugged to the turf by his own teammates as the stadium erupted in applause.

"When I looked back, I said I couldn't believe this," Davis said. "When I was running, I said, 'God is good.'"

It was like it happened in slow motion, McCarron said. His helmet on and his emotions hidden from view, he sprinted off toward the locker room as fans rushed the field.

"It's almost like a video game," McCarron said. "That's something you do on 'Madden.'"

"I was just shocked," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley. "I didn't think that big of a play would have been caused by that."

Said Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae: "I lost it. I ran and found myself on the other sideline and got to see some of my guys and hugged them. It was just an amazing experience, one that will last me for a lifetime."

The floodgates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium became a crazed sea of blue and orange fans celebrating what will go down as the most memorable Iron Bowl in history. An Auburn staffer would have to save Malzahn from being hit by Aubie, the Tigers' crowd-surfing mascot, during a postgame interview.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThe game over, the field turned into one very large celebration.
"I don't think I've ever been part of a sequence like that with so much on the line in that part of the game," Malzahn said, not realizing he had won the Western Division until the moment he shook Saban's hand after the game.

Meanwhile, Davis was being suffocated at the bottom of a dog pile.

"It was hard to breathe," he said. "I knew it was coming. What else do you expect when you're doing something like that? I'm proud of my teammates. It might seem like I'm the hero in this moment, but they also are too -- offense and defense and special teams. We fought together and we got the W."

"If you weren't there," Ford said, "I can't really explain it to you."

It took at least an hour for players and fans to finally leave the field. The cleanup of their celebration would continue into Monday. Toomer's Corner remained painted white with rolls upon rolls of toilet paper prior to Malzahn's news conference that day at 11:30 a.m. In fact, most of the campus remained covered in the tissue.

When Davis went to his geology class that morning, he received a standing ovation. It was like a scene from a movie: the team that couldn't win a single conference game and fired its entire staff from the season before, suddenly beats the top-ranked team in the country and its star player goes to class to a round of applause.

Davis and his teammates better get used to it. This is their legacy now. No one who saw what happened that Saturday night in Jordan-Hare will ever forget.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Chris Davis' unthinkable game-winning return on a missed Alabama field goal seemed impossible at the time. Even with all the magic from the immaculate deflection on the Plains just two weeks earlier, Saturday's shocking finish in Auburn's 34-28 stunner over No. 1 Alabama just wasn't supposed to happen.

But with this group of cardiac cats, an ending like that just makes since. In the fourth quarter, Auburn's magic emerges.

"Coach [Gus Malzahn] tells us the whole season that if it comes down to the end, we can win the game, we can find a way to win," receiver Sammie Coates said. "And every time it comes down to the end, we find a way."

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsChris Davis' stunning return on a missed field goal to beat Alabama was just the latest incredible fourth-quarter rally for Auburn.
During No. 3 Auburn's miraculous regular season, the Tigers (11-1, 7-1 SEC) have outscored opponents 93-58 in the fourth quarter. Only Georgia and Ole Miss have outscored the Tigers in the fourth quarter this year, but both resulted in Auburn victories after clutch plays on both sides of the ball.

But the last two games have shown just how much the Tigers love to shine when the game is on the line. Two weeks ago, Auburn blew a 20-point lead to the Bulldogs only to have Nick Marshall bring the Tigers back from the brink with his 73-yard prayer to Ricardo Louis.

Saturday, Auburn did that ending one better with Davis' return on a play that really never should have happened. Nick Saban pleaded for a second to be added to the game clock when Davis knocked T.J. Yeldon out of bounds after a 24-yard run to Auburn's 38-yard line. He got it, and trotted Adam Griffith out to attempt a 57-yard field goal with the SEC Western Division and a potential spot in the BCS title game on the line.

Griffth had made a 60-yarder in practice, but this wasn't practice. This was rowdy Jordan-Hare in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl. And with no athletes on the field fast enough to catch anyone brave enough to return a short kick, Saban became yet another victim of Auburn's amazing fourth-quarter magic.

On Saturday, Auburn orchestrated its best fourth-quarter performance of the season. Facing a Crimson Tide team that has prided itself on dominating late and wearing down teams in the waning minutes, it was Auburn that did the late pushing and punishing.

Tied at 21 to start the fourth quarter, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron delivered what appeared to be the death blow to Auburn's magical season when he launched a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 10:28 remaining.

Plenty of time remained, but this was Alabama. This was a team that thrived on late heroics … until it met this year's Auburn team.

Auburn allowed just 53 yards on its last three possessions and blocked a field goal. On offense, Auburn drove 80 yards on seven plays and tied Alabama with a wide open 39-yard touchdown pass from Marshall to Coates.

The Tigers stood tall, poked out their chests and bullied big, bad Bama before Davis ripped its heart out.

"They hit us back," Auburn safety Ryan Smith said. "Those were some hard punches and it was hard to fight back. We just tried to stay together and tell each other, 'Man, we are gonna keep fighting and we're gonna find a way to win this game, like coach tells us all the time.'"

Auburn's fourth-quarter rallies in consecutive games has been linked to luck, and you can't argue that it hasn't been a factor. But you can't say that luck has trumpeted Auburn's efforts. A lucky team doesn't eat up Alabama's running game late. A lucky team doesn't force Saban to make a critical late-game error.

"It's been like that all year," said running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 26 yards on six carries in the fourth quarter Saturday. "In the close games, we've been pulling out with a win. It's our mindset going into the fourth quarter that we own the fourth quarter. Once the fourth quarter rolls around, it's a new game. We don't even treat it like the same game we're playing. It's a new game, and we're starting over."

Auburn knows how to fight when the pressure is on and the clock is ticking down. Saturday made blood pressure rise and hearts pound on the Plains, but endings like this and plays like this have guided Auburn to its unlikely run to the SEC title game.

"It's been an amazing year so far," Malzahn said. "It's not over with, but obviously a huge win. Our program is going in the right direction and I really like coaching our team."
AUBURN, Ala. -- Their pain exiting the visitor's locker room was obvious. Far-off looks and muted responses told their story. Alabama's players had just endured the most heartbreaking, debilitating loss of their careers. And to make matters worse, it happened at Auburn on an improbable finish that Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood couldn't help but call "lucky."

But it wasn't luck that led to Auburn's win. That's a hard pill for Alabama fans to swallow so soon, but the game was tied with one second remaining. That was no fluke. Nick Saban then went for a long field goal, didn't have his players properly prepared to defend the return and paid the ultimate price. The gates opened and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium flooded into a blue and orange sea of joy, and Alabama had no one to blame but itself.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGus Malzahn has a lot in common with Nick Saban.
Was it a likely scenario? Of course not. According to NCAA records, it was only the fourth time that a missed field goal was returned for 100 yards. But the answer to that most timeless of questions -- Did they win the game or did the other team lose it? -- doesn't apply here. Forget Cade Foster's missed field goals. As a matter of fact, get off his back already. You'd do well to remember the litany of missed opportunities Auburn had as well. The Tigers dropped passes, fumbled the football and committed penalties.

It's been more than 24 hours since the best, craziest, wildest Iron Bowl ever, and that's more than enough time to realize what we witnessed on Saturday night: Both teams played like champions, both coaches were among the best in the game and this rivalry is going to be the most compelling in college football for years to come.

As one SEC head coach told me prior to Saturday's game, "Alabama is at the top … Auburn is still trying to get there." Well, whether Auburn wins the SEC championship and advances to the BCS title game is beside the point now. They proved that coach wrong. By beating Alabama, Auburn showed it’s more than just a team on the rise, it's an equal. The upstart Tigers are ready to compete with the likes of the vaunted Tide for championships today, not somewhere off in the future.

And the Iron Bowl rivalry is better off for it. Why? Because competitive games are good games, and rivalries are healthiest when both teams are playing well. What we saw from Alabama and Auburn over the past two seasons was sickly, predictable and no fun to watch.

Gus Malzahn, instead, has the Tigers back less than a year after walking into what was, by all accounts, a dumpster fire. Players quit, recruits jumped ship and the entire coaching staff was fired two seasons removed from a national championship. Rebuilds of that variety are supposed to be measured in years, not months. Winning Iron Bowls wasn't supposed to happen right away. Look at it this way: Nick Marshall's touchdown run in the first half Saturday was the first offensive touchdown by Auburn against Alabama since 2010.

Sound familiar, Alabama fans? It should. Saban walked into a similar mess in 2007. He took a little longer to recover from what NCAA probation and Mike Shula left behind, but in 2008 he and Alabama snapped Auburn's six-game Iron Bowl winning streak with a 36-0 win in Tuscaloosa. A year later the Tide won a national championship.

Try to separate Saban and Malzahn all you want, but their similarities are striking. They're both singularly focused coaches with a public personality that, to be put kindly, is often lacking. They eat, sleep and breathe football. They don't hype games and they don't regale the media with humorous stories. And they're both geniuses at what they do. Saban has established himself as the best defensive coach in college football and Malzahn is quickly making his case to become the best offensive coach in the game. One pushes the tempo like a maniac while the other does everything he can to slow it down.

It's brilliant. You couldn't draw up a better foil than Saban to Malzahn and Malzahn to Saban. They're even in the same state. They're practically neighbors. They'll cross each other's path on the recruiting trail, nod, smile and silently plot ways to ruin one another's existence. Just think of the weeks and months the Alabama staff will spend in the dark scouring Auburn's film this offseason, trying to find some place to exploit, some soft spot in the read-option to destroy.

Get ready, Alabama. Prepare yourself, Auburn. You're both lucky because this is going to be a fun ride for the next few years. With these two coaches, the Iron Bowl should continue to be a competitive back-and-forth like we saw Saturday every year.

Video: Auburn CB Chris Davis

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
11:25
AM ET

Edward Aschoff talks to Auburn cornerback Chris Davis about his 100-yard field goal return to beat Alabama 34-28 in the Iron Bowl.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It was Gus Malzahn's call.

With 1 second remaining before what should have been overtime Saturday in the Iron Bowl, Malzahn called a timeout to ice Alabama kicker Adam Griffith before his 57-yard attempt at a game-winning field goal. The Auburn coach also decided to replace safety Ryan Smith with cornerback Chris Davis in the back of the end zone -- just in case Griffith's kick came up short.

What happened next was perfectly in line with the magical season transpiring on the Plains.

Davis received the kick well short of the uprights, sprinted toward the middle of the field before cutting down the left sideline and zooming toward the end zone for a touchdown to give the Tigers yet another jaw-dropping, last-second victory that will send them to SEC championship game as the SEC Western Division champions.

"I thought just run, try to make something happen, and that's exactly what I did," an exhausted Davis said. "It's a miracle. Like I said, God is good.

"It hasn't sunk in, yet. It will sooner or later."

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis' last-second, 100-yard touchdown return was Auburn's second improbable win in a row.
Auburn's improbable 34-28 win knocked No. 1 Alabama off its perch above the college football landscape and made the case for some destiny talk with the Tigers.

In back-to-back games, Auburn did the unthinkable with its back against the wall. The Tigers successfully blew a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead to Georgia on the Plains two weeks ago before Nick Marshall's prayer of a pass deflected off Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons' hands and into the mitts of Ricardo Louis for the 43-38 win.

Then came Davis, who had pleaded with his coaches to give him more chances in the return game. Once again, Malzahn's move paid off. A year removed from being the laughingstock of the SEC with a 3-9 record and a fired head coach, the Tigers are the class of the SEC West and are inching closer to possibly playing in the BCS title game.

"I knew we were going to score; they had too many big guys on the field, and he's just too fast," receiver Sammie Coates said.

Luck, talent, attitude and a helluva head coach have the Tigers back in the national spotlight.

"No one believed us, now we're here," senior defensive end Dee Ford said. "We definitely deserve every bit of it."

Luck is involved, but it isn't everything. This team just has "it." It has spunk and heart, two things missing from last season's disaster. After Auburn's Jekyll-and-Hyde-type loss to LSU in late September, the Tigers have bounced back to win eight straight without scoring fewer than 30 points.

Luck doesn't do all that. A lucky team doesn't win 11 games, including one against top-ranked Alabama. A lucky team doesn't fight back from a 14-point deficit by gutting the SEC's top-ranked rush defense for 296 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. A lucky team doesn't tire out one of the most mentally and physically conditioned teams around.

"Growing up, I've been an Auburn fan, and I ain't never liked Alabama," Smith said. "Right now, this is our state for the next 365 [days]."

He's right, and it's not like Auburn changed much to beat its archrival. Malzahn stuck to his game plan and wore down Alabama.

Auburn's no-huddle, hurry-up offense gassed Alabama's defense. After the Crimson Tide took a 21-7 lead late in the second quarter, the Tigers responded by marching 81 yards on seven plays in just 2:08 to cut the score to 21-14. On the first drive of the second half, Auburn went 69 yards in nine plays to tie it up.

On those drives, Auburn ran the ball 13 times for 119 yards and had just three runs of less than 6 yards.

"That's what we're good at, and we were able to run the football effectively," Malzahn said. "Once we got the pace going and kinda wore them down.

"When we're clicking we can run the football effectively."

But what really spoke to how far this team has come was how it bounced back after AJ McCarron delivered what appeared to be a dagger of a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper to make it 28-21 early in the fourth. Instead of panicking, the Tigers relaxed.

The defense blocked a field goal and held Alabama to just 53 more yards on its final three possessions. After a lull by the offense, the Tigers drove 80 yards and tied the game again on a 39-yard pass from Marshall to a wide-open Coates on their final drive.

Then came the return, which trumped the pass less than two weeks earlier and sent a crazed orange-and-blue sea of Auburn students spilling onto Pat Dye Field to celebrate a historic win with its miraculous team.

"I believe it validates everything we've been saying all year, especially me," Ford said. "I said our setup [was] an opportunity for a comeback. We really knew that we had a chance to shock the world; we said that from media days, the summertime to right now, and we were able to do that."

When asked after the game if this was the biggest win of his life, Malzahn played coy, saying it ranked "up there" and that he'd have to think about it. But before Malzahn could complete his mundane response, his wife, Kristi, cut in.

"Just say, 'Yes!"

As a room full of media members chuckled alongside Malzahn, he finally let his guard down.

"Probably so," he said.

"It's indeed a new day."

It certainly is on the Plains.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Somehow the game lived up to the hype. Really, it was a classic. The biggest Iron Bowl in recent memory, pitting championship hopefuls No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn, found a way to surpass the enormous buzz surrounding the matchup entering Saturday afternoon in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Alabama and Auburn wrestled back and forth all night, but the final moments belonged to the home team as Auburn did the unthinkable and returned a missed field goal in the final seconds to knock off Alabama 34-28.

It was over when: It wasn't over until it was over. Whenever Alabama pulled away, Auburn reared right back. And on the final play of regulation, Auburn returned a 57-yard field goal attempt the length of the field to pull off the improbable upset and continue the miracle season on The Plains.

Game ball goes to: Tre Mason ran like a man possessed against the vaunted Alabama defense. The Tigers' leading rusher hustled for 164 yards and a touchdown. When Auburn needed to move the chains, he did. And without the threat of him running up the middle, the read-option with Nick Marshall doesn't work so well.

Stat of the game: Alabama entered its regular-season finale having allowed just one 100-yard rusher all year. But the Tigers' Mason eclipsed the century mark before the first half was complete, gaining 164 yards overall. To make matters even more interesting, Auburn quarterback Marshall contributed 99 yards of his own on the ground, including a 45-yard touchdown scamper in the first quarter. Auburn became the first team to rush for 200 yards on Alabama since Georgia Southern did it in 2011.

What it means: For Alabama, the championship run is over. For Auburn, the miracle season continues. The Tigers will go to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta and with a win there will be in the running for a berth in the national championship game.

Auburn gets physical to regain its edge

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
10:30
AM ET

From the day Gus Malzahn returned to Auburn in December as head coach, he has repeated a very familiar theme.

"We had to get our edge back," Malzahn said.

The Tigers weren’t going to do that with snazzy new uniforms, a gimmicky offense or by pretending that 2012 was simply a fluke.

“We went back to doing what Auburn has always done best and what fit the players we have here now, and that’s spreading you out and coming at you until you can’t take it anymore or don’t want it anymore,” said Auburn junior running back Tre Mason, one of the main cogs in an Auburn running game ranked second nationally in rushing (320.3 yards per game).

Yes, Malzahn likes to play at warp speed and views huddling the way most of us view Sasquatch sightings. And, yes, the Tigers’ goal is to snap the ball before the defense is ready, and they’re always going to show you different formations with a lot of motion, misdirection and even a few trick plays.

But the biggest misnomer with Malzahn’s offense is that it’s more finesse than physical.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesTre Mason and a physical run game have lifted Auburn into the national spotlight.
There’s a reason that he has had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in all eight of his seasons in the college game after making the move from the high school ranks.

And in six of his eight seasons as either a head coach or offensive coordinator his teams have averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game.

“That is what we harped on when we first got here,” Malzahn said. “We felt like we needed to get our edge back, that physical, hard-nosed, blue-collar edge back that starts up front. We are a run, play-action team. A lot of times, you hear 'spread' and think pass to open up the run, but we run to open up the pass.”

More times than not, the Tigers have run to open up the run this season and haven’t had to pass.

Quarterback Nick Marshall’s development in the zone-read part of the Tigers’ package has helped take this offense to another level. He’s a dynamic athlete and has carved defenses apart as he has become more and more comfortable in the offense.

Auburn has used the zone read on 43 percent of its designed rushes this season, the second-highest percentage in the SEC. The Tigers lead the SEC in yards (1,589), yards per rush (7.2) and touchdowns (18) on zone-read rushes.

When Marshall keeps the ball on the zone read, he has gained 657 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He’s averaging 9.4 yards per rush on zone-read keepers, best among quarterbacks in BCS automatic-qualifying conferences with at least 25 such rushes.

So Marshall’s athleticism has obviously been critical to Auburn’s success. But going back to Malzahn’s original point, it has all started up front for the Tigers in their offensive line.

According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, they’re averaging 209.5 rushing yards per game before first contact, which leads all teams from automatic-qualifying conferences. To put that number into perspective, 97 FBS teams do not average 209.5 total rushing yards per game.

“We don’t care if you put all 11 in the box. We’re still going to run the ball,” said Mason, who has rushed for an SEC-leading 1,153 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.

“We’re going to figure out a way to block it all up and figure out a way to be successful. With that mindset, we feel like we can’t be beat.”

And even though Auburn has attempted fewer than 20 passes in four of its past seven games, Mason invites Alabama this week or anybody else, for that matter, to sell out against the run.

“If you want to stack the box, we’re going to throw deep on you,” Mason said. “We feel like we have so many weapons in our arsenal.”

The obvious question heading into Saturday’s Iron Bowl is whether Auburn can make a living running the ball against an Alabama defense that specializes in making teams one-dimensional.

One stat to watch is big plays.

Auburn has 64 rushes of 15 yards or longer this season, second most in the FBS. By contrast, Alabama has allowed three rushes of 15 yards or longer all season, which is on pace to be the lowest total in the past 10 years.

The Crimson Tide have allowed just five rushing touchdowns all season and are the only FBS team that has not allowed a team to rush for multiple touchdowns in a game.

Mason, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons, has great respect for Alabama on defense. But the way he looks at it, the Tide are the ones who will need to make the adjustments Saturday on the Plains.

“We don’t have to do anything different or try to be something we’re not,” Mason said. “We just have to do what we’ve done all season, and that’s play Auburn football.”

ESPNWhen Gus Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator from 2009-11, his Tigers' lethal rushing attack was kept far below its SEC average each year by the Tide. Will Saturday be different?

AUBURN, Ala. -- All Corey Grant ever wanted was a shot.

He grew up in Auburn's backyard, but the four-star running back committed to cross-state rival Alabama in the Class of 2010 based on a pitch the Crimson Tide staff gave him, promising to open the offense and utilize his blazing speed. Had he stayed home and signed with the Tigers, he would've been a part of the 2010 BCS National Championship team.

Not to worry, Grant surely would get a ring while at Alabama, right?

Wrong. The role he thought he was going to play in Tuscaloosa never panned out, and he transferred to Auburn after his freshman season. He was back home, but he had to watch his former team win back-to-back national championships.

The state of Alabama has claimed the past four crystal balls, and Grant doesn't have a ring to show for it. But none of that matters.

"I'd rather play than sit on the bench and get rings," Grant, now a junior, said.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant finally is playing, which means more to him than winning rings while on the sideline.
That's how he always has been.

Grant grew up around football. His father, Ike Grant, was a football coach for 33 years and would take his son with him to work as soon as Corey was old enough to walk. Corey would cut the grass. He would watch film. He would hang out in the weight room with the players. He was always working, always around football.

"Corey didn't have no other choice than to be the kind of kid that he is, simply because I was a football coach and no stranger to hard work," said Ike, the 10th child of 14.

More than anything else, Ike wanted his son to be a good person, but he could see at an early age that Corey was going to be a special athlete. When Corey started walking, it wasn't long before he was running around the house. In pee-wee football, they would toss him the ball and Corey would outrun everybody.

It continued into high school, where he emerged as one of the top prospects in the state.

"Corey had a tremendous junior year," Opelika coach Brian Blackmon said. "Corey had a really big upside. He played a little bit at a bunch of different positions as a sophomore for us. His junior year, though, he had an incredible year. A lot of big plays."

Stanford was the first to offer Corey a scholarship. Auburn was the first SEC school to offer back when Tommy Tuberville was still the head coach. He had double-digit offers but chose Alabama over both Auburn and Florida, which was also in the mix.

But Corey never found a fit while he was in Tuscaloosa.

"He went to Alabama, but we could tell during preseason that he wasn't really happy," his father said. "He wasn't really sure. Midway through the season, we really knew it, because when he'd come home, he would kind of indicate that, and he would always regret going back."

Corey stuck it out through the next spring, but when freshman running back Dee Hart arrived in January and passed him on the depth chart, the writing was on the wall. It was time to move on.

There was just one problem. Nick Saban wouldn't release Corey's scholarship if he chose to play for another SEC school. The Alabama coach knew the caliber of athlete he had and didn't want to have to compete against him for the next two or three years.

That left Corey with very few options. Ultimately, he wanted to come home and play for Auburn. But to do that, he was forced to walk on to the program and live at home for the first year. He would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive to the football complex every morning for practice. It wasn't easy, but it was the only way.

"I think Corey was just happy to be home," Blackmon said. "Corey's a very driven kid. He had to go back and earn it all over again. He went from a four-star, highly recruited kid to a walk-on, having to earn it again."

Corey won multiple team awards the year he walked on and eventually earned a scholarship. But when former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for Arkansas State, Corey's opportunity to play left with him. The local kid was working hard and doing everything the right way, but his opportunity never came.

"He's had a hard road, simply because when he got to Auburn, he had to sit down, because Coach Saban wouldn't release him," Ike said. "Then the next year, he stood on the sideline and nobody gave him an opportunity.

"All the coaches would say he's a great kid, he's a great athlete, he's a hard worker, he does what he's supposed to, but he never got that opportunity. He's had a struggle with that."

Flash forward to this season. Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach, and, in turn, Corey has become an integral part of the rushing attack. He's one of four Tigers with more than 500 yards rushing, and he leads the SEC in yards per carry (9.9) with a minimum of 50 attempts. He had 53 yards and a touchdown on just six carries last week against Georgia.

"He's one of the faster guys probably in college football," Malzahn said. "He's been a speed guy, but he's gotten a lot better at running in between the tackles and doing the things that a normal running back does. He's an outstanding player and an even better person."

It would have been easy to stay at Alabama. He might never have seen the field, but he'd have been part of two national championship teams. Some of his teammates knew they were never going to play but stayed anyway for the shot at getting a ring.

But that's not Corey. His father once asked him about the rings, to which he responded, "Daddy, it don't make no difference if you're not happy."

Corey's finally happy, and he'll get his shot against his former team this Saturday in the Iron Bowl. If Auburn wins, he might even get a chance to play for a ring.

Video: SEC Game of the Week

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ESPN.com writer Greg Ostendorf breaks down the Iron Bowl between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn in the game of the week.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs hired Gus Malzahn to be the Tigers’ new head coach last December, he had visions of the 2010 season.

He wanted to get back to competing for championships, and more importantly, he wanted to beat Alabama. Malzahn, who was offensive coordinator for the 2010 team, brought that winning mentality back to the Plains. It was evident in everything he did, and Jacobs noticed it during his first practice.

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
AP Photo/Dave MartinSenior Dee Ford is a veteran of Auburn's title team and sees some similarities with this year's team.
“He hadn’t changed a bit,” Jacobs said. “He was still tenacious and a perfectionist. When it’s not right, he runs it over again. When it’s one step out of place, he runs it over again. It was just 2010 all over again.”

But Malzahn didn’t have the same group of players he had in 2010. There were similarities -- a junior college quarterback who could both run and pass, a talented but underrated offensive line, a defense that overachieved at times -- but ultimately, it wasn’t the same team.

“You know that team was a special veteran group, and we’re not anywhere close to being veteran,” Malzahn said after the Mississippi State game on Sept. 14. “We’re still a work in progress, but it’s a good progress. I really like where we are as a team. We’re going to have the chance to improve each game, and I think our young guys will grow up and get better.”

That was then. This is now. Auburn rallied to win that game against Mississippi State in the final minutes but lost to LSU the next week. Since that loss, the Tigers have won seven straight games, and the confidence has grown with every victory. It’s a different team now than the one who needed a game-winning drive to beat the Bulldogs early in the season.

“Each game they have gotten better,” Malzahn said. “As a coaching staff, we learned a lot about our team the first half of the season. We weren’t there yet. We’re getting closer. There are still areas of improvement. We’re going to have to play our best game [Saturday], and we’re going to have to improve from the last game that we had.”

Malzahn, more than most, knows that playing your best game will be only the first step to beating No. Alabama. He learned that in 2010.

Auburn was undefeated and ranked No. 1, but was still a four-point underdog to the Crimson Tide. In that game, Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 lead, but Cam Newton led an improbable second-half comeback and Auburn found a way to win, 28-27. It had been their M.O. all season.

Defensive end Dee Ford was a part of that 2010 team, and he sees a lot of similarities in this year’s Auburn team and their will to win.

“We win very ugly, but we take it,” Ford said. “We weren’t able to do that at LSU, but I see this team just finding a way to win no matter what the circumstance -- just like in 2010.”

“That’s been something that I’ve been very impressed with our team,” Malzahn said. “They’ve found different ways to win. Sometimes it’s the offense. Sometimes it’s the defense or special teams. And in close games, they’ve won in some real pressure moments.”

The end result in 2010 was a BCS national championship. The Tigers need a little help to accomplish that this year, but they’re not looking ahead to that right now. They’re focused on Saturday’s Iron Bowl.

“We’re just the Auburn 2013 football team,” defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. “We’re priding ourselves on that, and we can’t wait to finish this thing the right way.”

Auburn success boosts 2015 recruiting 

November, 27, 2013
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The Auburn Tigers (10-1) are just one victory away from playing for the SEC championship game and a potential chance to play in the BCS National Championship game. The success comes just one year removed from a 3-9 season that led to the firing of former head coach Gene Chizik.

New head coach Gus Malzahn has orchestrated this dramatic turnaround, and the on-field success appears to be carrying over to recruiting.

Battle of the best: Saban vs. Malzahn

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The hype is palpable. The buildup for Alabama-Auburn, the "Iron Bowl of all Iron Bowls," might be unprecedented. As a result, the game will be dissected and analyzed in virtually every way possible.

There will be plenty of intriguing matchups on the field Saturday when the nation's Nos. 1 and 4 teams meet for the right to play in the SEC championship game, but perhaps no matchup is more intriguing than the one on the sidelines between the two head coaches: Alabama's Nick Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAuburn has run over everyone en route to the nation's No. 2 rushing attack, but Alabama's defense has been second to none the last five seasons.
It's the SEC's best defensive mind (Saban) against arguably its best offensive mind (Malzahn).

Saban's reputation as a defensive guru is well-deserved and supported by his unit's success. In the past five years combined, no defense has been as successful as Alabama's.

Recruiting and talent level has a lot to do with that, and Saban and his coaching staff recruit with the best of them. But others acknowledge that Saban and his defensive staff are getting it done schematically as well.

"They’re going to have new wrinkles every game," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said in September, prior to his team facing the Crimson Tide. "They’re going to switch in between their 3-4 stuff and 4-2-5 stuff. They’ll give you every look that you can imagine.

"Those of us who are into this pace or tempo offense, right now, it’s the cutting edge. It will fade out at some point. Coach Saban has done the same thing defensively, in my opinion. He kind of came in and has been on the cutting edge of the defensive stuff. He’s going to give you some new stuff. Every game he’s going to give you a new wrinkle, on third down in particular. You may or may not be ready for it. It’s very multiple. They’re very physical up front. You have a difficult time consistently having drives on them."

Ole Miss experienced all of that first hand, being shutout 25-0.

When it comes to Saban's defenses, the numbers tell the story. In the last five seasons combined the Crimson Tide rank first in the nation in the following defensive categories: yards allowed per game (245.1), yards allowed per play (4.16), rushing yards per game (85.18), passing yards per game (159.91), third-down conversion percentage (30.4 percent conversions allowed), fewest touchdowns allowed (73), yards per rush attempt (2.78), yards per pass attempt (5.64), red zone touchdown percentage (40.5 percent), percentage of drives not allowing a first down or touchdown (46.6 percent) and turnover margin (plus-58, tied for first with Boise State).

That certainly helps to explain why the Tide are on track for their fourth BCS national championship in five years should they win Saturday.

Malzahn hasn't remained in one place as long as Saban has at Alabama, but his impact has been felt by every offense he has been associated with in his college career. When he took over as offensive coordinator at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane ranked first in the nation in yards per game in both 2007 and 2008.

When he arrived at Auburn, he began working his magic there. In a two-year span the Tigers went from tied for 110th in scoring offense to seventh (17.3 points per game to 41.2) and from 103rd nationally in yards per game to seventh (302.9 to 499.2). In that second season, with Malzahn as the offensive coordinator, Auburn went 14-0 and won the BCS title.

In that 2010 season, the Tigers set nine school records on offense and finished in the top 10 in the country in six statistical categories.

Malzahn took the head coaching job at Arkansas State and, after one successful year there, returned to Auburn, where the Tigers have been college football's turnaround story, going from 3-9 to 10-1. This season, Malzahn's offense is No. 2 in the country and No. 1 in the SEC in rushing, averaging 320.3 yards per game, and 17th nationally in scoring, averaging 39 points per game. The Tigers are 12th in the country in yards per game at 499.9 and trail only Texas A&M in the SEC in that category.

"It's super impressive what Coach Malzahn has done," Georgia coach Mark Richt said earlier this month before his team met Auburn. "Everywhere he has gone he's won, if you look at his track record it's amazing, especially as a head coach and what his teams have done. He's turned it around very quickly, quicker than maybe I would hope, but you have to give him credit. They are doing a great job."

When Auburn has the football on Saturday, the chess match will be compelling. How successful the Tigers are on offense will go a long way in determining the outcome. LSU was the only team to slow the Tigers down this season, shutting Auburn out for a half before Auburn got it going and scored 21 in the second half, but the team has progressed significantly since then.

"[They're] one of the leading offensive teams in the country," Saban said on Monday. "Gus has always done a fantastic job with the offense. But their ability to run the ball effectively, throw it when they need to [has helped them] score the points that they've been able to score on a pretty consistent basis against just about everybody in this league."

Malzahn knows the challenge of going against Alabama's defense will be a tough one.

"Obviously, they're very good against the run and we are pretty good running the football," Malzahn said on Tuesday. "I think that will be a big key. … They are extremely talented at every position. From an offensive standpoint, you look for weaknesses and all of that and they've got very good players at every position."

1993: The forgotten Iron Bowl

November, 27, 2013
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It's easy to understand the hype for this year's matchup of No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn. But imagine a game so huge that it sold out two stadiums at the same time.

It's the 20th anniversary of the 1993 Iron Bowl, one of the most unusual matchups in the rivalry's history. That year, defending national champion Alabama was 8-1-1 heading into a matchup with 10-0 Auburn.

But since Auburn was on probation, the game at Jordan-Hare Stadium would become the only battle between the Tide and the Tigers not shown on national television since 1981. And fans clamored to watch it: tickets for that game ($500) were more expensive than they are today ($300).

[+] EnlargeIron Bowl
Courtesy Bryant Museum Alabama fans who couldn't get to the '93 Iron Bowl in person watched on the stadium screen at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As a result, 47,421 tickets were sold at Bryant-Denny Stadium to see the game via simulcast -- to watch a game on an empty field, on a video board that's nowhere near the size or quality seen in stadiums today. It's widely hailed as the only game ever to sell out two stadiums. But in actuality, Bryant-Denny Stadium seated many more; it just didn't make sense to sell more tickets with the limited sight angles.

Whatever hype is being generated now might pale in comparison to the platitudes surrounding the game two decades ago. Not many broadcasts have ever started off like Auburn’s did that day.

"At a remote outpost in frozen South Korea, an Army sergeant tunes his radio to the Armed Forces Network to listen as he pulls guard duty along the DMZ," Auburn announcer Jim Fyffe said. "A Selma native in Fairbanks, Alaska, is hosting a listening party today with his friends, who will hear the game via telephone, all decked out in orange and blue. A sellout crowd of 85,000 will watch in person, while 44,000 more, who scarfed up all the available tickets, will view a closed-circuit telecast in Tuscaloosa, making this the only game to sell out two stadiums at one time.

"It impacts the lives of just about everyone who lives here or ever has. If your team wins, seashells and balloons. But losing means a whole year of pure agony. It's the annual meeting between Auburn and Alabama. Hello again, everybody. War Eagle! from Jordan-Hare Stadium."

Yet despite its lore, in many ways, it's the forgotten Iron Bowl. Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, the hero of the game, has lost pieces of it over the last two decades. Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden has, too. And like any good story, its legend has grown thanks to the limited amount of people who saw it.

[+] EnlargePatrick Nix
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesPatrick Nix knows making a big play in the Iron Bowl is something that will last forever.
But Nix's story carries a message. If current Auburn backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson is listening, Nix says to be ready.

"Someone asked me the other day if this kind of game can make or break somebody, and I think I'm living proof that it can,” Nix said. “You don't know if it's going to be Jeremy Johnson, or it's going to be a backup DB who comes in and makes an interception, or a defensive end that's down the line and makes a crucial sack. You don't know who it will be in a game like this and who will be remembered.

"That's what makes this game so special and this rivalry so special is that it is that big and everyone knows exactly where they are when things like that happen."

Nix is speaking from experience, particularly his time coming off the bench for Auburn in the 1993 Iron Bowl. He came on for the injured Stan White and led a remarkable comeback that sealed the Tigers’ undefeated season.

He has talked about the game countless times, but now, 20 years later, he can't seem to recall who said what and when.

All Nix remembers of that November afternoon is the blasted fourth-and-14 play after White went down with a knee injury. Oddly enough, Nix remembers exactly where his helmet was -- under the bench where a grad assistant left it, just in case. And he can recall fondly how he lobbied his coaches to go for it. Bowden, Auburn's first-year head coach, finally had to tell him to shut up and run the play that very few actually saw, yet everyone professes to remember.

"The story has been exaggerated over the years," Nix said. "One time it's me throwing the winning pass, a last-second pass and all this kind of stuff, and none of that was true. It was the middle of the third quarter and we were still losing.

"There's been a lot of talk of 'Nix to Sanders,' and it all starts with that '93 game."

"I'll be honest with you: I probably gave a great speech because I was so excited, but I don't remember," said Bowden, now the head coach at Akron. "I'd like to think I gave a speech that had an impact on the players, but I've given too many that I thought were great but didn't do much. If I did, I'm glad that I did, but over the years, this being the 20th anniversary, too many pregame speeches have run together."

[+] EnlargeJordan-Hare Stadium
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJordan-Hare Stadium will play host to this year's Iron Bowl, but which team will create a lasting memory?
It's funny, Nix explained, that so many fans remember the touchdown he threw to Frank Sanders as the winning play -- a beautiful lob pass down the near sideline just shy of the goal line -- when in fact it only pulled Auburn within two points. It took a field goal and a late touchdown run to seal the victory.

"The hard work paid off," said Nix, who has gone on to lead the football program at Scottsboro High (Ala.). "The coaches knew how hard I prepared for that moment, never knowing it was going to be like that. And when it came, I took advantage of it."

"When I put Patrick Nix in, his arm's not so strong that he could throw the takeoff to the field side, so I flipped my formation and put Frank in the boundary," Bowden said of the famous touchdown pass. "Well, you see Antonio Langham start to come halfway across the field before he waved himself off. The other cornerback was good, but Antonio was a first-rounder. Well, I always wonder if Frank could have out-jumped Antonio."

A replay of the broadcast can be found online, but for those at the center of the game, some memories have faded in the last 20 years.

"There are a bunch of stories I've heard about where people were when I completed that pass against Alabama," Nix said. "Probably the craziest one was that someone was at a funeral and they were riding in the procession in the car. They were one of the pallbearers and they all wouldn't get out of the car at the funeral because of the fourth-down play. All the pallbearers stayed in the car listening to the radio, and then when it was completed the car just went crazy, rocking and everything. They all had to get out of the car and be very solemn and they were all trying to control themselves at a funeral.

"It's a different rivalry, a different deal and people don't always act quite sane over it. But it's a lot of fun."
OPELIKA, Ala. -- When you grow up in Alabama, it’s either Roll Tide or War Eagle. There’s no in between, and there’s certainly no love lost between the two in-state rivals. That’s what makes the Iron Bowl rivalry so unique.

“I think the Alabama-Auburn game is one of the great rivalries in college football,” Opelika High School coach Brian Blackmon said. “I think the history of the game speaks for itself, and there are very few fence riders in Alabama. Most of them are on one side or the other. You’d have a hard time finding somebody, especially this week, saying they don’t care who wins.”

Stephen Roberts
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNESPN 300 defensive back Stephen Roberts flipped his commitment from Alabama to Auburn last week.
It’s no different for the state’s top football recruits. It’s rare to see an ESPN 300 recruit from the state go anywhere but Alabama or Auburn, but it’s even more rare to see an Alabama fan commit to Auburn or vice versa.

That’s why Opelika defensive back Stephen Roberts, who is ranked No. 69 in the ESPN 300, caught a lot of people off guard when he committed to the Crimson Tide in the spring.

Sure, Alabama had just won its second consecutive national championship, and coach Nick Saban has a reputation for sending defensive backs to the next level. But Roberts grew up an Auburn fan. He lives just a hop, skip and a jump away from the AU campus.

“For a kid like Stephen that grew up going to Auburn University and watching them play, it was really kind of a surprise in the spring when he decided he was going to Alabama,” Blackmon said.

But the Auburn coaches, specifically offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, stayed on him. They continued to recruit the ESPN 300 target.

“They didn’t quit,” Roberts said. “Even though I was committed to Alabama, they didn’t drop my scholarship or anything. It kind of felt like I was still part of them.”

The efforts paid off. Roberts attended Auburn’s camps over the summer. He has been to every home game this season, including the Tigers' dramatic win over Georgia their last time out. He said it was the loudest he had ever heard Jordan-Hare Stadium when Ricardo Louis pulled in the game-winning touchdown grab from Nick Marshall.

Roberts has been a part of Auburn’s miraculous turnaround every step of the way, and last week, he decided he wanted to be a part of the future, too. He flipped his commitment from Alabama to Auburn, a decision that looked more and more plausible with every Tigers victory.

“I basically wanted to see what they were going to do this year,” Roberts said. “They kind of showed what they were going to do, and even though they only lost one game, they’re still rising.”

Auburn has risen all the way to No. 4 in the latest BCS standings, and whether it was Roberts’ decision to flip or the recent come-from-behind win against Georgia, the Tigers seem to have all the momentum heading into Saturday’s matchup with No. 1 Alabama. But do they have what it takes to topple the Tide?

Regardless of which side you’re on, it’s setting up to be one of the all-time great games in this series, and Auburn’s new four-star commitment will be on hand to see it. It will be his first Iron Bowl experience.

“There’s nothing like it,” Roberts said. “It’s going to be a good game between both teams because both teams play hard.

“It’s always been a big rivalry since I was little. I think I’ve been knowing about it since I first started playing football. I remember watching Trent Richardson on TV one day -- he was talking about when he came to Alabama, he didn’t know Auburn was a big rival coming from where he came from. I know it’s big. It’s always been big.”

So when it comes to picking a side Saturday, Roberts has already made his choice.
This season's Iron Bowl has reached epic proportions in both hype and importance as both Alabama and Auburn are top-five teams for the showdown for only the second time in the history of the series. With an SEC title game appearance hanging in the balance, the list of expected visitors on hand Saturday is huge, especially for recruits in the 2015 class.

D'haquille Williams (Reserve, La./Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College): The Auburn commitment and one of the top junior-college prospects in the class will likely attend the Iron Bowl on Saturday. Can Auburn hold off the surging LSU Tigers for Williams?


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