ATLANTA – A week ago, the Southeastern Conference looked as though it finally had been vanquished.
The rest of the nation breathed a sigh of relief, clearly relieved it wouldn’t have to watch the haughty SEC celebrate another national championship.
Not so fast.
After a wild Saturday in this most unpredictable of seasons, the SEC was back in a familiar position – set to play for a BCS title, albeit not in its usual role of favorite.
No. 2 Auburn (12-1) landed a spot in the championship game against top-ranked Florida State (13-0), the fallout from Ohio State losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game.
The Seminoles were established as an early touchdown favorite for the Jan. 6 game at the Rose Bowl.
Auburn doesn’t sound the least bit intimidated.
“We feel we’re the best team in college football,” Auburnrunning back Tre Mason said. “We’ve got to continue to prove it.”
Ohio State had not lost a game in two years under coach Urban Meyer and needed one more victory to lock up a trip to Pasadena.
Alas, in what has been a familiar theme since 2006, the SEC champion Tigers stepped up to claim the spot when the Buckeyes were upset by Michigan State, 34-24.
Auburn proved it deserved a shot at the title, no matter what Ohio State did.
There’s no argument now, despite that collective groan from the SEC’s detractors, who have grown downright tired of watching this conference win the final game year after year.
Four SEC teams – Alabama, Florida, LSU and Auburn – have combined to win the past seven BCS championships, an unprecedented streak of dominance by a single league.
In this part of the country, there’s a sense of entitlement that came across even before the Tigers defeated Missouri, 59-42, in an SEC Championship shootout.
These guys believe they’re the best conference in the country, and they’re not shy about stating it repeatedly.
Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs started lobbying for a BCS berth as soon as his team knocked off two-time defending champion Alabama, a game that seemingly eliminated the conference’s best hope.
“It’s nine words,” Jacobs said. “Strength of schedule. Strength of schedule. Strength of schedule.”
Alabama was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 when it fell to Auburn. Missouri went into the SEC title game ranked No. 5 and sporting one of the nation’s top-ranked defenses but had no answer for Auburn’s hurry-up spread offense led by Mason, who ran for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and quarterback Nick Marshall.
During the regular season, Auburn defeated three other teams – Texas A&M, Mississippi and Georgia – that were ranked at the time.
“Who else has knocked off two top-five teams in the last week?” Jacobs asked. “Who else has knocked off five Top 25 teams? Show me who they are, and I’ll tell you they belong instead of us.”
Turns out, he didn’t need to plead his case.
Now, the SEC will pin its hopes on a team that doesn’t have the league’s usual DNA. Under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn produced one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history largely on the back of its dynamic offense, a striking change from previous champs that relied on stifling defense.
It will be interesting to see if the Tigers, who rank 88th nationally in yards allowed (423.5 per game), can outscore the explosive Seminoles, who have the overwhelming Heisman favorite, quarterback Jameis Winston, and have beaten every opponent by at least 14 points.
The Tigers feel like they’ve got something special going, a mojo that can’t be measured by stats after improbable wins over Alabama and Georgia.
“A lot of teams aren’t getting better each week,” Malzahn said. “This team is.”
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