Jan. 2, 2014
Auburn's Dee Ford adds to his sack total against Missouri in the SEC title game (Anthony Hall photo)
By Charles Goldberg
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- They trailed in eight games, finding themselves losing or tied six times in the fourth quarter alone.
Surely, that would be this season's college football story of the year, the Auburn Tigers… But no. That was 2010 Auburn football team, the one with Cam Newton that won the national title. Now, the latest version of the Comeback Tigers can do the same if they beat Florida State in Monday's BCS Championship Game in Pasadena.
Defensive end Dee Ford is one of a handful of Auburn players who can have another set of championship rings thanks to four last-minute wins this season.
Shades of 2010?
"With the close games and pulling them out, yeah," Ford said. "But I think these games, the way they unfolded were a little bit more crazy this year."
Those who saw Auburn's last-minute wins over Georgia and Alabama this season would agree. But something along the way, the same something that told Ricardo Louis not to give up on a tipped ball that he turned into a touchdown against Georgia, the same something that told Chris Davis to dart down the sideline on a return of a missed field goal to beat Alabama with no time left, was ingrained through preparation and maybe not so much luck.
Ford said Auburn's ability to flip last season's 3-9 record into this season's 12-1 success story started when Gus Malzahn was hired as the head coach.
"We took it back to square one," Ford said. "Coach Malzahn came in, did a great job of really getting us to trust in what the coaches were doing, and it started with spring practice. We took it from square one…we were just able to execute and really change who we were as players."
There are around a dozen or so Auburn players still around who were on the 2010 roster. Most of this year's roster played through the tough times of 2012. Same guys. Far different results. Auburn was picked fifth in the SEC West in the preseason poll, and even as the wins added up, there were doubters who said the Tigers couldn't keep it up.
Opponents have been favored five times against Auburn, including the last two games. Auburn was a 10-underdog to Alabama, and won. Missouri was a late favorite to beat Auburn in the SEC title game. Now, Auburn is a touchdown-underdog against Florida State with results to be determined.
"I don’t care who they talk about as the favorite… Once the ball is rolled out, it’s time to play football," Ford said. "I could care less about people not believing or saying, 'this is the time they’re going to fall.’ We prepare for all this. They’re saying that as though we didn’t prepare to win these games. We prepared to win them.
"Our coaches tell us what it's going to be. The seniors will get up and really relay the message, and we just go from there. We make it very simple. It’s a simple equation. It’s football. You do what your coaches do, play at a high level and practice at a high level. That’s just what we plan to do. We don’t plan to do anything different. And we don’t put any pressure on us. That's why we’re able to play in big games because we don’t put pressure on the moment."
And now, it's almost show time. Ford talks of the "magnitude of the game." And, as a senior, the last chance to show what he can do for Auburn. But Ford said he considers every game big, though conceded "this is a very big stage."
Ford, who leads Auburn with 12½ tackles for a loss and 8½ sacks, has had help. He missed the first two games with an injury. And has benefitted from a deep playing rotation that has kept the defensive line fresh, something the Tigers have factored in for every game.
"Our practices are pretty intense, and it makes the game so much easier," Ford said. "We love games; we hate practices. It's just the way we approach things. We do everything full-speed and very fast-paced so that in the game you never get tired.
"It's a blessing to have that kind of protection. There's not any fall-off."
Auburn's defensive line figures to be busy trying to pressure Florida State quarterback -- and Heisman Trophy winner -- Jameis Winston.
Ford's scouting report?
"Their offensive line is very athletic. Their athletic quarterback's very athletic. Their receivers are very athletic. They'll be one of the best offenses we've faced all year.
"He can really move his feet and he has a rocket. It's really prepared us because we've played some of the best quarterbacks consecutively throughout the year. So playing against a tough quarterback, we know what to do. We have to pressure them."
Auburn's defense is not challenging for the top spot on the SEC stat sheet. But the Tigers do play well in the red zone.
"We're getting by because we're playing such good defense at pivotal times, even though we're putting ourselves in these situations," Ford said. "We're just tough enough as a defense to prevail in the end, but we keep shooting ourselves in the foot."
Did that turn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's hair gray?
"He's just saying games would be so much easier if we would do this, this and this. He's going to keep pushing us to really play the perfect game. We have not played the perfect game, not even been close to playing the perfect game as a defense, and that's what we're striving for as a defense."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: