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December 10, 2013

PATE: Call them miracles, call them champions

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In my title game preview, introspection was warranted. Taking a look back at where this team was one year ago and how they arrived in Atlanta was my focus. It's a compelling story. It's full of life lessons. It's a movie waiting to be shot.

As Auburn physically dominated Missouri to win the SEC Championship game, I found myself thinking, "Finally!" Not finally, we won another title. Not finally, we put ourselves in position to claim the number two spot in the BCS. Rather, it was, "Finally! Auburn will receive due credit for being physically superior, mentally tougher, more ruthless when it matters most. To watch that game and throw out terms such as: finesse, spread, smoke-and-mirrors, lucky would only parade your own football ignorance or visual shortcomings.

After the game, Coach Bill Oliver summed it up best, "…that offense, you can't stop that thing!" Having witnessed the accuracy of his statement with my own eyes all season, I was still speechless to hear the greatest defensive coordinator living make that statement. How could it be?

How could a guy coaching high school in Arkansas eight years ago devise an offense the best and brightest are shredded by? That question is a great one, but not the most relevant or significant. The question that intrigues me is how could a guy coaching high school in Arkansas eight years ago devise a plan to revamp the mentality of group I had called quitters? How could he turn the worst Auburn team in memory, perhaps history, into my favorite Auburn team ever? How did he convince them to believe?

How did he convince Ellis Johnson to buy in? How did he get Dameyune Craig to leave Florida State, Rodney Garner from Georgia, Tim Horton from Arkansas, Cheese Harbison from Clemson, Melvin Smith from Mississippi State? What did he say to them, what did they see in him to drop positions at elite programs to start over in Auburn?

Auburn's program was in shambles. We were worse than a train wreck; we were a laughingstock. We were hopeless. How can you sell that to an all-star staff? How could they sell that to their families?

How do you walk into a meeting room and stare at a group that had just gone winless in conference play, that played without a pulse, that embarrassed the uniform they wore, and make them into conference champions in one year? I stand amazed. The job has been masterful.

Congratulations to this team for winning us over; not with your wins over arch-rivals, but rather with your demeanor on the football field. In fact, it was your lone loss in which your character was revealed and had many conference foes claiming Auburn fans were celebrating moral victories. Observers weren't celebrating playing LSU close; they were celebrating a team willing to fight till the bitter end. They were proud of the effort, not the result. The schematic improvement and mental toughness was undeniable. It was just a matter of time. You deserve the ring.

What I liked…

• Tre Mason's endurance. It takes a superiorly conditioned man to run the football 46 times against air. To do so against what was the 14th ranked rushing defense in America (48th after the game) is simply absurd. A Heisman worthy performance indeed. He's an ironman.

• Coach Malzahn's aggressiveness. The deep ball to Sammie Coates to open the Auburn scoring, the onside kick, the delay screen were all tremendous calls from a coach going after the jugular. It would have been easy to play it safe. Coach Malzahn set the tone for his team by holding nothing back.

• Pass Rush. The defense had some obvious breakdowns and poor matchups resulting in many Missouri points. But the one constant was pressure on James Franklin. The four man rush was outstanding with the rotation of multiple bodies paying enormous dividends in the second half. The blitz packages were unique and well-timed creating urgency on the part of a quarterback that would rather not be urgent.

• Offensive Line. You really can't single out a particular player here. To run for 550 yards the entire line had to perform with flawless consistency. Jay Prosch, Brandon Fulse, and the receivers all had to do their part. As a former defender, the holes created during this game were nightmarish.

• Auburn crowd. The crowd appeared the antithesis of neutral and that's a testament to the Auburn faithful coming out and creating a raucous atmosphere. I've played in that game twice and both times the crowd was fairly split. Auburn fans pounced on the Missouri athletics department mistake of selling tickets to anyone online, a rookie mistake that created a road game atmosphere for the Missouri Tigers.

• No panic. Several times in the first half Missouri took advantage of Auburn miscues resulting in what should have been enormous momentum swings. Particularly the Marshall fumble for six and the long touchdown pass from Franklin to Green-Beckham right before the half. Each time Missouri seemed to seize momentum, Auburn responded in a big way. That's mental toughness. That's a team operating under the direction of a coach they trust. That's a team that's been battle tested and fought on to prevail, overcoming dire circumstances. Nick Marshall is the catalyst. This team trusts Nick's ability to lead and deliver.

• Making the most of opportunities. When Tre Mason handles the ball 46 times on the ground. When Nick Marshall runs the majority of the time Tre doesn't, attempts for everyone else are obviously limited. Making the most of each opportunity becomes paramount. Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne, Ricardo Louis, and Sammie Coates all did just that. Each took advantage of their restricted chances in ways that force defenses to respect and defend the entire field. Having that luxury is what makes this offense explosive and nearly indefensible.

However history records this 2013 Auburn football team, the words used will be an injustice. You can't properly state the level of improvement from week to week. You can't adequately summarize the revival from 2012 to 2013. The restoration job done by this coaching staff will never fully and sufficiently be explained nor understood. The confidence and domination seen on weekly basis cannot be captured with the written word. You had to witness it. You had to see it with your own eyes. You had to experience this team being disrespected, dishonored, overlooked week after week only to find ways to win football games-occasionally when winning seemed improbable.

You had to see the look in Nick Marshall's eyes when the switch came on. You had to see the defense become an impenetrable barrier during fourth quarters. You had to see a team that quit one year ago, outlast every team it played for four quarters…even the team it lost to. You had to see all the players we had verbally abused and belittled, all the young men that quite frankly looked hopeless, passionless, finished football players become battle hardened, grisly veterans leading an improbable run toward a championship.

You had to see it, because none of us predicted it. None of us had the foresight to envision this Auburn team capable of becoming this Auburn team.

I will use this team's story in my life. I will use it to speak to my children about overcoming adversity, insurmountable obstacles. I will teach them to value hard work and show them the fruits that labor bestows. When you go to college, you go to receive an education. You go to grow up. You go to gain life lessons. Inexplicably, this group of college kids, this team has done the teaching this year. They embody the characteristics of relentlessness, drive, devotion, and unity. They'll be a team talked about by Auburn people for all time because their story is legendary.

Call them the miracles. Call them the legends. Call them CHAMPIONS.



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