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Auburn's life on the edge

Coach Gene Chizik and the Tigers can point to suspenseful victories in their trek to the BCS title game.

January 04, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Quarterback Cameron Newton dives into the end zone during Auburn's comeback victory over Arkansas in October.
Quarterback Cameron Newton dives into the end zone during Auburn's… (Dave Martin / Associated…)

Auburn has gone on a rampage, outscoring opponents 84-20 since spotting Alabama a 24-point lead on Nov. 26, and fully transformed from preseason rankings afterthought to everyone's No. 1.

The Tigers are playing out of their stripes now, but their season was mostly a game of Mouse Trap.

Auburn from September through November was one rubber-band bust from never making it to Jan. 10.

This kind of performance precariousness makes the Bowl Championship Series what it is … and you can fill in the blank there.

Auburn's championship season would have likely gone "poof" Sept. 18 on its own home field had Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker completed a simple toss to receiver Jaron Brown in overtime.

It was one in a series of plays that allowed Auburn to build the head of scream that landed next week's BCS title-game berth against Oregon.

"I feel very proud of our team that we were able to fight through a lot of things and get to this game," Auburn Coach Gene Chizik said. "I do know how tough it is to get here."

Auburn is hardly the only championship-caliber team that has danced on the razor's edge.

Ohio State, in 2002, won five games by seven points or less to earn the right to shock Miami in the BCS title game. The Buckeyes, down 6-3 at Purdue on Nov. 9, faced fourth and one with 97 seconds left when quarterback Craig Krenzel hit Michael Jenkins with a 37-yard touchdown pass.

Nebraska, in 1997, claimed a share of the coaches' national title thanks to a touchdown pass against Missouri that bounced off another player's foot.

Tennessee hoisted the first BCS championship trophy because Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner fumbled, without being touched, in the 1998 Southeastern Conference title game.

USC needed the "Bush Push" at Notre Dame to reach the 2005 season title game and Texas, last year, needed one second put back on the clock against Nebraska.

Oregon dodged a bear this season when California's kicker was called for illegal procedure after he put his team ahead, 16-15, on a 24-yard field goal. Cal lined up again five yards back and missed.

Every championship team has its stories to tell but Auburn, if it wins Monday night, might have the most:

A look at the Tigers' escapades:

Sept. 9, at Mississippi State: Auburn 17, Mississippi State 14.

Auburn led, 17-7, at the half and had to stop a late Mississippi State drive to preserve its second victory. Defensive end Nick Fairley saved the day with an interception, fumble recovery and three sacks.

Sept. 18, at Auburn: Auburn 27, Clemson 24 (overtime)

Clemson got the ball in overtime trailing by three and was yards from victory when quarterback Parker could not connect with wide-open Jaron Brown in the end zone. Parker's pass was not perfect, but Brown had his hands on it.

Chandler Catanzaro tied the game with a field goal but Clemson was called for illegal procedure.

"They originally called it offside [on Auburn] but changed it to the center double-clutching the ball," Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said afterward.

Clemson kicked again, but Catanzaro missed.

Sept. 25, at Auburn: Auburn 35, South Carolina 27

Auburn trailed, 20-14, at the half and capitalized on four South Carolina turnovers to pull out the comeback win. Auburn clinched the win when Demond Washington intercepted a South Carolina pass in the end zone with 33 seconds left.

Said Chizik: "The guys are fighting, clawing and scratching and trying to find a way to win every week."

Oct. 9, at Kentucky: Auburn 37, Kentucky 34

Auburn drove 86 yards in 19 plays over the last 7 minutes 22 seconds and Wes Byrum won the game with a 24-yard field goal as time expired.

Chizik: "That was another way we found to win…. It's good to be 6-0."

Oct. 16, at Auburn: Auburn 65, Arkansas 43

You wouldn't believe it by the final score, but Arkansas led, 43-37, early in the fourth quarter with starting quarterback Ryan Mallett on the bench with an injury. Auburn, led by quarterback Cam Newton, scored 28 unanswered points.

Chizik: "We just believe in the fourth quarter."

Oct. 23, at Auburn: Auburn 24, Louisiana State 17

The score was 17-17 with six minutes left when Auburn took possession on its own 10 and scored three plays later on Onterio McCalebb's 70-yard run

Chizik: "There were a lot of times in that game when it did not look good, but I say that every week."

Nov. 13, at Auburn: Auburn 49, Georgia 31

Auburn rallied from a 21-7 deficit but, at this point, why would that rattle the Tigers?

Chizik: "I don't think a 21-7 score affects you unless you have never been there before… Sometimes it is really ugly. Sometimes it's not. For 11 weeks in a row, we've found a way to win."

Nov. 26, at Alabama: Auburn 28, Alabama 27

Alabama was leading, 24-0, and had Heisman Trophy-winning back Mark Ingram loose down the sideline, looking to make it 31-0, when Antoine Carter punched the ball loose at the Auburn 19. The ball bounded all the way to the end zone, where it was recovered for a touchback by Demond Washington.

This humungous shift in momentum, along with a few other make-or-break moments, allowed Newton and Auburn to pull off an astonishing comeback.

Said Ingram: "I feel like we gave them the game…. It's that simple."

Auburn has won six games by eight points or less, and four games by three points or less.

All that matters, of course, is that Auburn won them all.

"In so many instances this year we've found different ways to win," Chizik said before his team clinched the SEC title with a 56-17 romp over South Carolina. "And I think there's an advantage to that simply from the standpoint of the psyche of your team, knowing and believing and understanding that no matter what the situation is, we've got a chance to come back and win the game."

So, is Auburn really good, or really lucky?

The easy answer: yes.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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