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Colleges

Auburn uses supernatural to reach title game

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Published:   |   Updated: January 5, 2014 at 08:25 AM

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Nobody reaches the BCS Championship Game purely on a prayer. Nobody plays for the national title only because they were lucky.

But college football hasn’t seen anything like the Auburn Tigers.

Ever.

“They are a charmed team,’’ ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “They have been there so many times that, no matter what, they truly believe they’re going to find a way to win.’’

The Florida State Seminoles (13-0) should be properly wary when they face the Tigers (12-1) in Monday night’s ultimate game at the Rose Bowl.

It’s the same Auburn that was 3-9 and winless in the SEC during 2012. It’s the same troubled program that fired its head coach and was picked for fifth in its division.

Only one statistic matters this season for Auburn.

Fantastic finishes: 2-for-2.

“They had to do miraculous things to get here,’’ FSU senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said.

The Tigers have arrived.

But how?

v v

On Nov. 16, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs quietly stood near the 30-yard line at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The shell-shocked Tigers, who led by 20 points early in the fourth quarter, were down by one to the Georgia Bulldogs.

It was fourth-and-18 at Auburn’s 27-yard line.

Time remaining: 36 seconds.

It looked to be over.

“I was getting my consolation speech ready,’’ Jacobs said.

At that moment, the Outback Bowl looked like a great destination.

As Nick Marshall’s desperation pass soared through the air, as it dropped into double coverage, as it slipped though the hands of Georgia’s Josh Harvey-Clemons, off the pads of defender Tray Matthews and into the onrushing, juggling hands of Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis, there was a collective gasp, then an eruption.

“I had faith that something would happen,’’ Marshall said.

“For a split second, I lost the ball,’’ Louis said. “Then I saw it. And I still don’t believe it.’’

Jacobs went from a little hop to a full-fledged leap.

Louis had a stunning 73-yard touchdown. Auburn had a 43-38 victory.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,’’ Jacobs said. “You’re thinking, ‘No way it gets any better.’ ’’

Unless it becomes a twice-in-a -lifetime thing.

By now, the world knows about the 109-yard return of a missed field goal by Auburn’s Chris Davis on Nov. 30 — the moment that trumps Hail Flutie and the Stanford Band for the greatest ending to a college football game — that lifted the Tigers past Alabama 34-28 as time expired.

Double miracle.

“It just shows you that anything can happen in this game,’’ Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks said.

Anything did happen.

“I saw both of those plays,’’ Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews said. “How can you not love it?’’

Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, celebrating a 13-win Rose Bowl championship season, also knows the other side. In 2012, the Spartans were 7-6, losing six games by a combined 13 points.

“I don’t think the ball bounced our way at all last season,’’ Dennard said. “When I look at Auburn, I see a team where the ball always bounced their way. It happens.’’

v v

Lucky team? Auburn players get perturbed when that description is used to describe the Tigers’ season. But it isn’t meant in disparaging fashion. It’s almost mentioned in reverence.

“It almost makes you wonder if they’re a team of destiny,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I don’t know if there is such a thing. But you wonder. It shows what a fine line it is between winning and losing.’’

“I don’t believe in luck,’’ Joyner said. “I believe in preparation. But that pass against Georgia? Yeah, that was luck.’’

Still, football history is filled with Hail Mary passes.

What happened in the Iron Bowl? That was on a completely different level.

It was 28-all. It looked like overtime after Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon ran out of bounds following a 24-yard gain. The scoreboard read 0:00. After a replay review, one second was put back on the clock.

Alabama lined up for a 57-yard field-goal attempt.

Davis was on the wing, going for the block. But Auburn called a timeout. Tigers coach Gus Malzahn shifted Davis into the end zone, just in case.

“I’m on the sideline, and at first I noticed that no one is back deep,’’ Auburn running back Tre Mason said. “I’m like, ‘Wait, can we return this?’ They miss the field goal. Chris catches it and he turns on some speed like I’ve never seen before. My jaw just dropped to the ground.’’

“When I went down the sideline and stayed in bounds, I knew there was a chance,’’ Davis said. “I was running past all the big guys. I get to the end zone and it was like everything went silent. I couldn’t breathe. They were all jumping on top of me.’’

After emerging from the pile, the first person he saw on the field was Edith Brown, his 63-year-old grandmother. “How did you get down here past all the people?’’ Davis said.

Another miracle.

Davis received a standing ovation when he reported to class the following Monday. Fellow students took photos and asked for autographs.

“My life has changed forever,’’ Davis said.

This is the opponent for FSU, which has barely been challenged all season. The Seminoles have stacked up the predictable routs. Auburn has specialized in the supernatural.

“I wouldn’t say it was an act of God,’’ FSU center Bryan Stork said. “It was a human being running that ball back. I can’t say it was really God. But that was a heck of a thing for Auburn.

“Things happen. I wouldn’t say it’s luck. I don’t believe in destiny. I believe you choose your destiny. Right now, I guess Auburn is choosing its destiny.’’

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO

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