Being in sunny California in early January is not a journey I thought I would be making this season, but there was no doubt in my mind that when Gus Malzahn was hired by Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs it was the right move for the future of the program.
What I wasn't sure of was just how quickly Malzahn could get the Tigers back up and running at a high level. Even though I thought he was the best offensive coordinator I have seen at Auburn, along with Bobby Petrino, the question remained of what to do at quarterback. While I thought Nick Marshall was going to be the guy all the way once he signed out of junior college, to expect him to lead Auburn to 12 wins and the SEC Championship without the benefit of spring practice was beyond what I thought was possible.
One thing I didn't take into account was the determination of this bunch of Tigers. Embarrassed by how things finished in 2012, they took to strength coach Ryan Russell's workout plan from day one and it was the start of something special. Drilled into their heads by Malzahn to work for improvement every day and not to worry about the past or the future, Auburn toiled through spring practice and struggled at times to find a rhythm on offense and defense learning new systems.
But they never stopped working.
That started in the preseason when top defensive player Justin Garrett went down with an injury that would eventually end his season without playing few significant minutes for the Tigers. Also the most experienced defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker would be injured as well and out for the season. Auburn's second-leading tackler from last year ended up playing his senior season at West Alabama after being dismissed from the team before the season opener. Throw in a hampered Dee Ford for the first four weeks of the season with a knee injury and it's pretty amazing what the Tigers were able to accomplish early in the season.
Finding a way to make plays in a win over Washington State, including a pair of interceptions by little-used Robenson Therezie that matched the team total for 2012, Auburn's defense has continued to make key plays throughout the season. Even in shootout wins over Texas A&M and Missouri it was the Auburn defense that slammed the door shut late.
Offensively, this team has been one to admire at times for the way it has gone about its business. Trying to find its identity early in the season, it wasn't until the second half of the loss to LSU where Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee figured out what they had.
That was a physical offensive line and running game led by Tre Mason and a quarterback that had a knack for making plays in the zone-read.
Pounding opponent after opponent starting with Ole Miss, Auburn's offense has been nothing short of magnificent since that time. Even with the defense stacking the box to stop Mason and company, the Tigers have continued to grind out the yards led by center Reese Dismukes, left tackle Greg Robinson, and the offensive line.
Now Auburn once again faces a defense that has done a good job of slowing the run this season. Allowing just 116.5 yards per game on the ground this year, the Seminoles haven't faced anything even close to what they're going to see from the Tigers on Monday night. They might stop the Tigers cold and force Marshall to throw it 30 times to beat them, but I'll have to see it to believe it after what I have seen from Auburn this year.
If for no other reason, I'm ready to kick this game off because I'm tired of hearing how it's going to take a perfect game for Auburn to beat Florida State. That's what I heard before the Iron Bowl game against Alabama as well, and the Tigers played far from a perfect game against the Crimson Tide and still got a win.
We heard some of the same before facing Missouri as well because of their potent offense and stingy defense, but Auburn ran over, around and through them for 545 yards and 59 points to take the SEC Championship.
While Auburn can't turn it over multiple times and expect to win, the Tigers don't have to play perfect to win because while most people don't realize it this team isn't just lucky or a team of destiny, it's a team of talented football players determined to finish off the greatest turnaround in college football history.