LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - One of the biggest questions looming ahead of Monday’s crunch BCS National Championship game is whether the second-ranked Auburn Tigers can deliver one more moment of magic to upset favorites Florida State.
Improbably, the Tigers have earned themselves a shot at becoming U.S. college football’s top team for a second time in four years, mainly because of their astonishing wins over Georgia and long-time rival Alabama in November.
Trailing 38-37 with just 36 seconds left in the final quarter against Georgia at their home Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 16, Auburn faced a fourth-and-18 on their 27-yard line and decided to run a play called Little Rock.
Quarterback Nick Marshall tossed the ball 60 yards toward his speedy receiver Ricardo Louis but it carried longer than expected, seemingly destined to be caught by one of two Georgia safeties - Josh Harvey-Clemons or Tray Matthews.
Against the odds, Harvey-Clemons and Matthews collided as they soared upwards and the ball, bouncing off Harvey-Clemons’ hand, was snapped up by Louis who powered across the goal line for the winning score to spark thunderous roars from the fans.
Two weeks later, the Tigers and top-ranked Crimson Tide were tied at 28-28 in their Iron Bowl showdown with just one second left in the fourth quarter, and overtime appeared to be on the cards as Alabama attempted a 57-yard field goal.
Their kicker, Adam Griffith, was short with his effort and Auburn senior safety Chris Davis, after catching the ball near the back of the end zone, shimmied right before veering left.
With virtually every Auburn blocker sprinting to the left sideline to form a protective wall and Alabama slow to react, Davis took full advantage as he surged past a few half-hearted tackles before crossing the end zone to score.
As Tiger fans screamed in joyous disbelief, Davis collapsed under a pile of team mates, his return having earned Auburn a place in the Southeastern Conference Championship game, where they went on to beat Missouri 59-42.
That play by Davis catapulted him into the limelight and has been described by many as one of the greatest of all time in college football, but he knows it will count for nothing in Monday’s BCS National Championship game.
“My life has changed a lot since the Iron Bowl and every time I turn on the TV, ESPN, I’m seeing that play,” Davis, who was a freshman when the Tigers clinched the 2011 BCS title game, told reporters this week.
“But I’m trying to put that moment behind me. We’ve got a bigger task at hand come Monday. We’re playing for the national championship, and we’re trying to bring it back to the state of Alabama.”
On Monday in the picturesque surrounds of the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, (12-1) Auburn will face a formidable foe in Florida State, who are a perfect 13-0 this season and heavy favorites.
The Seminoles have won every game by at least 14 points and they are the top-ranked team in the .
Their offense, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, averages 7.8 yards a play while their stingy defense allows only 4.0 yards.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher oozed confidence when he spoke to reporters on Saturday.
“We expect the expectations, we expect to be here and I truly believe this, I don’t believe we’ve played our best football game,” Fisher said of his team, who will play for the national title for the first time since the 2000 season.
“I really don’t. I think our best football game is still out there and hopefully it’ll come on Monday night. I’ve liked the way we’ve practiced, I’ve liked the way we’ve prepared. I think we’re in a great mental state of mind.”
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, in his first season as head coach, is banking on his team once again being able to come up with the big plays in the fourth quarter while avoiding any distractions from their remarkable and unpredictable path to the title game.
“Our team has done a very good job this year of not getting distracted by anything,” said Malzahn, who was previously offensive coordinator for the Tigers. “This week has been no different.
“The bottom line is our guys have found a way to win at the end of games when the pressure has been on. They’ve found a way to win in different ways, so I think that’s been a big key to us getting here.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry