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December 9, 2013

COLLIER: Out of nowhere

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ATLANTA A few months back, comedian Dave Chappelle experienced the backlash of success when hecklers in Connecticut prompted him to tell off the entire crowd. The incident made national news.

Chappelle said recently that when his publicist called to ask if it was true that he was booed off the stage, the comic replied, "Oh no, it was much worse than that. I stayed on the stage."

A year ago, Auburn could relate. Less than 20 months after winning a BCS Championship, the Tigers' 2012 season collapsed by the second half of their second game, but the team couldn't shamble off the stage for another two months. As everyone knows by now, they lost every conference game and came within a whisker against Louisiana-Monroe of finishing 2-10. It was the fastest and most comprehensive decline of a program I've ever seen.

No one -- at least no one outside a very short radius of the Auburn Athletics Complex -- expected the Tigers to compete for any kind of championship this year. Or anytime soon. I recently checked my own notes from the 2013 season opener against middling Pac-12 opponent Washington State. One of the few printable lines from early in the game: "We're not good."

Every coach preaches to their team to "get better every week." Very few of them can actually move their teams to do so. Pulling it off might be the most remarkable achievement of Gus Malzahn's historic first season. Not only have the Tigers improved from week to week, they've gotten better before our eyes even as games have wound down -- absolutely owning the fourth quarter in 12 of 13 games this year.

(Owning the final 32 seconds made up for the one final-period lapse against Georgia.)

The team that shattered the SEC Championship Game record books last Saturday night bears only a superficial resemblance to the one that stumbled its way to a 31-24 win the last weekend of August. This offense deserves a place of honor alongside the Bo Jackson-led wishbone of the early 80s, the relentless Jason Campbell attack of 2004 and, of course, Cam Newton's rampage across the SEC in 2010.

Still, none of the above were able to gash top SEC defenses for massive yardage in consecutive weeks.

The SECCG was the culmination of a rushing attack that's going to be remembered as one of the very best in conference history. Over the past four games, Auburn racked up 444, 323, 296 and 565 rushing yards, and you just don't do that against SEC defenses.

Auburn has done it.

Nick Marshall's mastery of the zone read and Tre Mason's 304-yard mastery of the space-time continuum got the headlines Sunday (and deservedly so), but let's take a moment here to recognize Messrs. Greg Robinson, Alex Kozan, Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade, Avery Young and fullback Jay Prosch for just annihilating a solid Missouri defensive front to pave the way for all those yards.

And they did it against a fine football team.

For most of Mizzou's short tenure as a member of the conference, most SEC fans have echoed the words of Grampa Simpson, who once declared he'd "be in the cold, cold ground before I recognize Missourah!" The Other Other Tigers (shortened, without malice, to TOOT for the rest of this column), riddled by injuries, barely made a ripple in their inaugural season, overshadowed by the flash of fellow newcomers Texas A&M.

TOOT roared back with a vengeance this year, a westerly echo (although notionally in the East) of the conference's senior Tigers. It was obvious early on why Mizzou had rolled through its 2013 schedule nearly untouched. With a huge arm, a deadly-quick release and three skyscraper receivers to throw to, senior quarterback James Franklin does for Mizzou's offense what his namesake did for moribund Vanderbilt.

I'm not sure exactly what TOOT's defensive coaches were thinking in terms of their game plan, but I was really impressed with the ball-hawking bandits on the Mizzou defense. It might not have been possible to slow down Auburn's crushing ground attack, no matter what formations you tried to defend from, but Mizzou's failures Saturday weren't due to a lack of athleticism or hustle.

Auburn finally broke Mizzou, thanks to Malzahn's Two-Ships-In-Galaga-Challenging-Stage offense and a defensive front that harried Franklin across the final 20 minutes or so, shutting out Missouri in the final quarter, but TOOT put up a hell of a fight. I'll be very surprised if they aren't right up there in the perpetually rebuilding East again next year.

Auburn broke recent form against Mizzou, wrapping up the win well before the last seconds. Watching the Tigers claim the 2013 champion's trophy afterwards was scarcely less gobsmacking than the immortal endings of the final two regular season games. It was an unexpected triumph not just a year or six months ago, but as recently as mid-October of this very season. Claiming it made formal the exalted place for this team among Auburn's all-time greats.

And even so, beyond all reasonable, unreasonable or downright delusional expectations, there is yet another peak to climb, another old foe to face down and a crown to be seized.

The New Day isn't over yet. Celebrate this victory and the monumental achievement it represents and then get ready to point those wagons west. Like the old song says, it don't matter at all where you've played before.

California's a brand-new game.



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