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3 Days Until Kickoff

Fans outside the stadium, the official Jordan-Hare time is...

Heading into the national title game in 2013, I remember one pundit saying that we’d beat Florida State and repeat the next season as national champions. In the end, we did neither, but it didn’t change the fact that 2014 was a season in which I (along with many other Auburn fans) believed the Tigers were the best team in the country at a certain point until everything fell apart.

3 Years Ago - 2014

Auburn came into the season ranked 6th in Gus Malzahn’s second campaign. We’d lost the national championship, but that was supposed to make us hungrier, right? Through the first several games, it certainly seemed that way. We lost Carl Lawson to an injury in the offseason, but other than that, we were flying high and ready to dominate again.

The year began with Brent Musberger on the mic for the SEC Network’s opening game at home against Arkansas. It was the rare conference game to begin the season, and after Gus had clowned Bret Bielema in Fayetteville the year before, the Hogs were hell-bent on revenge.

There were many people who thought they may have a chance to get it as well, since Nick Marshall was suspended for the first half after an arrest over the offseason. In stepped Jeremy Johnson for his first real game action. He’d played in nearly two full games in 2013, showed off his arm and his poise in the pocket, and we were sure he was the quarterback of the future.

We KNEW he was the quarterback of the future after watching him against Arkansas.

Seriously, he went 12-16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns in one half against a SEC defense. That’s good. No matter what the opponent, that’s stellar. We were all lit.

The defense was not as lit, giving up some late points in the second quarter and we were all tied up 21-21 at halftime, but the offense under Nick Marshall steadily kept going in the second half while the defense clamped down. Auburn won 45-21. That was pretty alright for everyone. It didn’t stop ESPN from claiming that we’d squeaked by in a 24-point win later that day.

Still, we were 1-0 with a conference win under our belts. It was 2-0 once San Jose State came and went with a 59-13 beating in the second game of the year. What stood in our way next was nothing less than a Thursday night trip to Manhattan, Kansas to tangle with the purple wizard in his own house.

Auburn visited Kansas State and the first cracks of the season began to show. The Tigers won 20-14, but needed a late conversion to seal the deal, and ran for just 128 yards on 45 carries. The Wildcats had found a way, somehow, to slow down this offense. No matter, we felt good after a road win against Bill Snyder. Duke Williams had started to really show off as the complementary receiver to Sammie Coates, and we saw that once one portion of the offense struggled, another facet could pick up the slack. We were 3-0, headed back home.

In the next game, Auburn pretty much sleepwalked through a victory over Louisiana Tech 45-17, where we saw Quan “War Eagle, Baby” Bray show off with three touchdowns, including one on a long punt return. It was a win, but I remember watching and not feeling great about the team.

At 4-0, Auburn sat 5th in the country with an upcoming matchup with LSU on the horizon. This was shaping up to be a huge game in Jordan-Hare as the 15th ranked Bayou Bengals came in with star freshman Leonard Fournette in the backfield.

It didn’t go well. For LSU.

CJ Uzomah’s Lutzie touchdown dance and Nick Marshall’s Newton-esque run just before halftime put the finishing touches on the visiting Tigers with more than two quarters to play. LSU couldn’t move the ball, and everything worked right for Auburn. All told, and along with the win over Arkansas last year, it was one of the most complete wins I’ve ever seen over a competent conference foe.

Let’s not forget that just before we kicked off on the Plains, Alabama lost to Ole Miss in Oxford, and the ensuing chaos jolted Auburn up to 2nd in the country.

Then we went to Starkville.

All of a sudden, Mississippi State had become good. Like really good! Dak Prescott was leading a team that had also ruined LSU (in Baton Rouge nonetheless), and their defense was playing very physical football like it was 1998. In a game that nobody pointed to when the season began, we somehow ended up with a 2 vs 3 matchup in Starkville. With the cowbells ringing at full force, the Bulldogs took advantage.

Auburn fumbled on its first offensive snap, and MSU scored three straight touchdowns to take a 21-0 first quarter lead. The Tigers hit thirteen straight points to cut the lead down to eight, but MSU scored again just before halftime.

Out of the locker room, the Tigers were able to pull within 28-20, and looked like things were turning around, but a costly offensive pass interference penalty on Sammie Coates negated what would’ve been a nearly field-length completion. It was a game-changing call, totally costing Auburn momentum.

They never recovered, allowing some late points to the Bulldogs and fell 38-23. After I believed we had the best team in the country after rocking LSU, I’d just watch a team commit mistake after mistake in losing to Dan Mullen.

MSU leapt into the top spot in the polls, but they wouldn’t stay there.

As for Auburn, the ranking barely suffered. The Tigers fell back to 5th in time for South Carolina to come visit the Plains. Steve Spurrier tried his damnedest, but going for it on six fourth down plays wasn’t enough as Auburn won 42-35 in a game that showed the offense get back into sync. Auburn ran for nearly 400 yards on the game, showcased the running skills of Ricardo Louis along with Cameron Artis-Payne, and answered every jab that the Gamecocks threw at them.

Things were still in Auburn’s court for the first ever college football playoff, as the Tigers were in according to the rankings that came out shortly after that game. Mississippi State was in as well, along with Ole Miss. The state of Mississippi orchestrated a peasant revolt in the SEC that year, and Auburn got to visit both Starkville and Oxford.

Auburn played Ole Miss on Halloween weekend, and participated in one of the hardest-hitting games of the season. The Rebels were pumped up with Dr. Bo Wallace looking for revenge from the loss in 2013. They played well, too, and nearly had the victory.

For Auburn, it was yet another game with an offense that hummed, as they rolled over 500 yards again, but the defense looked lost and Ole Miss scored late to take the lead — or they would have if not for one of the more gruesome injuries we’ve seen lately. Laquon Treadwell abused the Tiger defense that night, and he nearly had the game-winning score, but his ankle snapped just prior to crossing the goal line, he fumbled the ball, Auburn recovered, and won the game. 35-31. It was a costly win, due to the emotional nature of it, but we’d take it.

Auburn hadn’t played all that well — 13 penalties were accrued that night for 145 yards, and the defense had so many issues, but we were ranked third in the country so we chose to ignore it.

We’d pay for it the next week. After having beaten Texas A&M in 2013, they lost a lot. Manziel, Evans, gone. They weren’t even playing well. Alabama had just beaten them 59-0, and they’d beaten Louisiana-Monroe just 21-16 before heading to Auburn. It should’ve been a breeze.

As the Aggies returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown to end the first half and take a 35-17 lead, I knew our season was sunk. That was it. This could look like 2012 again if they wanted.

But the Auburn defense stood tall in the second half. They allowed just six points as the offense finally clicked. Nick Marshall led three touchdown drives, and Auburn trailed just 41-38 late in the fourth. A&M’s defense was extra tired, to boot. They couldn’t stop anything, and the Tigers moved right down the field.

They reached the goal line, and fumbled. Artis-Payne appeared to recover it on the replay, and but the ball was given to A&M. No matter, they went three and out. Auburn got the ball back and began moving again. Then came the butt fumble. Reese Dismukes snapped the ball before Marshall called for it, and A&M recovered. There was no time left and they won. Goodbye, playoff hopes. Goodbye, SEC West.

Auburn again could blame a number of things for losing that game. The offense rolled up nearly 600 yards, but had a huge hole to climb out of in the first half. The turnovers were obviously costly. In each of the losses it seemed like something different came to light, and the poor defense was a constant house guest.

Totally drained, Auburn laid a giant egg in Athens the next week. They took a 7-0 lead and failed to score again, falling 34-7 to Hutson Mason. Hutson. Mason. At quarterback.

Things got somewhat back on track the next week in a 31-7 sleeper win over Samford. Most fans knew not to put much stock in that. Gus had obviously spent the entire time preparing for Alabama and hadn’t looked at Samford film one bit. That was fine, because the effort against the Tide the next week was fantastic, even if it did result in a loss.

Auburn went to Tuscaloosa at 8-3, and the rabid unwashed masses were ripe with the memories of the Kick Six. Bama was of course back in the playoff picture after winning out since their lone loss, and the Tigers were a serious underdog. Once again, the Tigers fumbled their opening play, and Bama took a 14-3 lead shortly after that.

Then, Auburn opened up the playbook. Gus let Nick Marshall throw and throw. And it worked. Except once we got into the red zone.

Marshall and Sammie Coates hooked up for several big plays, and Coates’ 200+ yard receiving effot was only outshined by Amari Cooper’s better night. Still, Auburn led 26-21 at halftime thanks to Coates’ two long touchdowns. It could’ve, and should’ve been so much more as the Tigers stalled inside the 20 time and again.

Auburn stalled inside the ten four times and Daniel Carlson hit four field goals on those drives, but they could’ve had 40 points at halftime with a little better play. The defense picked off Blake Sims multiple times, and he was nearly pulled. In a shrewd coaching move, Nick Saban stuck with his starter and he willed them to a comeback win against a tired defense. If he’d gone to the backup, Bama likely loses.

Once again, the Tiger defense wore out in the second half, as Bama scored 34 points after halftime, eventually running away with a 55-44 win.

Nick Marshall set the Auburn single-game passing record with 456 yards, and the Tigers rolled up over 600 on the Tide. It was the defense failing to stop Alabama at any point in the late stages of the game that cost Auburn a huge win.

It cost Ellis Johnson his job. He was fired shortly after the Iron Bowl and the Tigers hired Will Muschamp for the job. For their efforts and an 8-4 regular season, Auburn earned a bid to play Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. One 34-31 overtime loss later, and the year ended 8-5. Auburn had allowed 400 rushing yards to the Badgers in the defeat, finishing the year on a defensive whimper.

Somehow, that led to even higher expectations for the next season. Looking back, I’m a little surprised they were as lofty as they were.

Coming Up: Is a Preseason Heisman better than no Heisman at all?