SEC back in familiar spot _ playing for a title

by PAUL NEWBERRY, AP National Writer


Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall (14), left, takes the snap from Auburn center Reese Dismukes (50) as the Auburn offense operates against Missouri on the SEC logo during the first half of Auburn's 59-42 win over Missouri in the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, Ga., Dec. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Getz)

ATLANTA (AP) — A week ago, the Southeastern Conference looked as though it had finally 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) was expected to land a spot in the championship game against top-ranked Florida State (13-0) when the BCS pairings were announced Sunday night, 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," star running 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 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 gotten 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 last 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 shootout. These guys believe they're the best conference in the country, and they're not shy about stating it over and over again.

Auburn athletic 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. The Tigers followed up with a video game-like performance in Atlanta, totaling a record 677 yards against Missouri — including 545 on the ground.

"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 and quarterback Nick Marshall.

Mason ran 304 yards and four touchdowns.

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.

In a game that started about the time Auburn was finishing off Missouri, Ohio State rallied from an early 17-0 deficit but couldn't hold on. The Spartans dominated down the stretch, a result that surely pleased the folks down South.

After all, Meyer guided Florida to a national title that launched the SEC's record run and won another two years later, only to leave the Gators after the 2010 season, saying he needed to devote more time to his health and his family.

One year later, he turned up as Ohio State's new coach, sparking plenty of bitterness in Gainesville — and plenty of giddiness in SEC country when Meyer's new team came up short.

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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