- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Oct, 20, 2012, Auburn lost to Vanderbilt on the road, the Tigers’ sixth loss in their first seven games. It was the program’s worst start since 1952, and no end was in sight with Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama the only three remaining SEC games on the schedule. They were reeling on the Plains.
Now, one year and two days later, Auburn is 6-1, coming off a road win at No. 7 Texas A&M and ranked No. 11 in the initial BCS standings. What a difference a year makes.
After Saturday’s dramatic 45-41 victory over the Aggies, players were visibly emotional. They remember what they went through last year, and have come so far in such a short amount of time.
“I was almost in tears after the game,” senior defensive Dee Ford said. “Seeing guys, especially younger guys who didn’t have a clue of what was going on last year -- that was a tough time for them, and I had to kind of guide them through that process -- and to see the looks on their faces after the game, the hard work that we put in, and how we said, ‘We’re not going to look back, just keep moving forward,’ it’s definitely a powerful message that we’ve sent to the world.”
It all started last December with the hiring of head coach Gus Malzahn. Although he had been away from Auburn during last year’s disaster of a season, he was still familiar with the program. He was the offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2011. When he returned, his message was clear, “It’s a new day.” He wanted to put last year behind them.
“The players deserve all the credit,” Malzahn said after Saturday’s win. “They work extremely hard. They bought into what we’re doing. They play together. They play for each other. We don’t have any individuals, and it’s a fun group to coach right now.”
Auburn started the season 2-0 with a pair of nonconference wins, but it wasn’t until after the first SEC game that players started seeing results. The Tigers put together a game-winning drive against Mississippi State similar to the one orchestrated by Nick Marshall on Saturday, and they snuck past the Bulldogs 24-20. It was their first conference win in nearly two years.
After a loss to LSU in which Auburn looked very good in the second half, the Tigers returned home for a showdown with No. 24 Ole Miss. They jumped out to a 20-3 lead and held off a late comeback to beat a top-25 team.
At the time, it looked like an upset, but Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze knew this Auburn team was no fluke.
“I told ya’ll after the Auburn game -- that team is really good,” Freeze said Saturday. “They’ve had seven top-10 recruiting classes in a row. They’ve got some good players, and they’re doing a good job.”
The signature win for Malzahn and company so far came Saturday. Nobody expected the Tigers to go into College Station, Texas, and walk away with a victory. It was supposed to take at least two, if not three years to rebuild the Auburn program after last year’s collapse. But Malzahn has his team ahead of schedule.
“I’m proud of our players,” he said. “How far they’ve come, what they’ve went through to get here -- just to see smiles on their faces and have a sense of accomplishment, a big game on the road, it just makes you feel good as a coach and it tells me that we’re going the right direction.
“We’ve not arrived yet. We’ve gotten better each week. We want to continue to get better, and I think we can, if we stay healthy.”
Auburn, which has already become bowl-eligible, will host Florida Atlantic this weekend. From there, the Tigers will travel to Arkansas and Tennessee in back-to-back weeks before finishing out at home against rivals Georgia and Alabama.
After going winless in conference play for the first time in over 20 years, Auburn is now in the mix for first place in the West and a shot at the SEC title game.
“This [Texas A&M] win means a lot for our confidence, a lot,” Ford said. “We’re fighting for different things now.”
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