Without question, Auburn’s unexpected run to the BCS National Championship Game deserves top billing in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, stability, recruiting and program momentum.
Final SEC Rankings of 2013:
Enjoy the debate.
1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1)
From worst to first.
Gus Malzahn had quite the debut season as the Tigers head coach, taking over for Gene Chizik following an unacceptable winless SEC finish in 2012. Not only did Auburn steamroll through the conference with the nation’s top rushing attack, the Tigers nearly upset heavily-favored Florida State in their quest for the league’s eighth consecutive title.
It was a magical year on the Plains, one college football fans won’t soon forget. Malzahn’s building a monster, a diabolical creature he envisioned directing while calling plays during the unbeaten 2010-11 season.
On-field performance: A+; War Eagles have no complaints after Chizik debacle
From Chris Davis’ ‘Kick-Six’ to Tre Mason’s 303-yard explosion inside the Georgia Dome, Auburn’s penchant for big plays and record-setting performances in 2013 captivated the casual observer, reversed a program’s fortunes and put the SEC on the brink of another crystal ball.
Outside of a two-touchdown loss in Baton Rouge — the SEC’s toughest place to play based on home winning percentage since 2010 — Malzahn’s band of brothers executed to near perfection offensively this season. Mason’s stellar campaign was highlighted by his last two appearances where he gashed three of nation’s top rushing defenses — Alabama, Mizzou and Florida State — for 663 yards and seven total touchdowns. Mason set a new SEC title game rushing record by the second carry of the second half and was the season-long leader of Auburn’s dynamic offense — one that led the nation in rushing yards per game.
Expectations: A; Auburn nearly wins BCS title
An unproven JUCO transfer at quarterback and a roster full of players that didn’t know how to win. Preseason labels were cruel to these Tigers and Mason wasn’t yet a household name despite 1,002 yards rushing as a sophomore. Malzahn welcomed the challenge at Auburn, gave Nick Marshall the keys to his zone-read attack and shoved West Division projections to the side on his way to five national coach of the year awards and an SEC Championship.
RELATED: Auburn regular season recap
The Tigers’ 59-42 thumping of Mizzou in Atlanta was their shining moment, a late afternoon blitzkrieg of the opposition’s highly-ranked defense. Auburn took momentum from its Iron Bowl win over top-ranked Alabama and pushed itself into the national championship game with a spotlight BCS drubbing of a Top 5 team.
Coaching: A; Heisman’s last gasp memorable
Johnson’s defensive game plan against Florida State at the Rose Bowl was impressive because it took an elite passer out of his comfort zone against a secondary that was relatively soft statistically-speaking.
But credit Jameis Winston — Florida State’s wide-eyed freshman quarterback — with a heroic touchdown drive that brought the crystal football to Tallahassee. Winston’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left capped an eight-play drive that started at the Seminole 20 with 1:19 left.
It was the first time all season Winston had faced immense pressure and the Heisman winner came through in the clutch. Another sack or a tackle on Rashad Greene’s 49-yard reception earlier during the possession would’ve likely clinched Auburn’s improbable run to a national title. Malzahn’s body of work was widely-recognized by his peers and has already passed Nick Saban as college football’s most talked about coach in the SEC this offseason.
Recruiting: A-; Rashaan Evans pulls a Reuben Foster
Auburn delivered a Top 5 class on NSD per 247Sports, but five-star linebacker Rashaan Evans’ (Auburn, Al.) flip to Alabama took some of the steam of this spring’s incoming class. Evans, like highly-touted prospect Reuben Foster last season, has since received hate mail from Auburn fans via social media for switching his decision to Alabama at the last moment, something he deemed best for his future.
MORE: Auburn signing day recap
The Tigers won’t dwell on the late miss however with five-stars Roc Thomas (Oxford, Al.) and Tre’ Williams (Mobile, Al.) arriving on campus later this summer. Auburn’s four-star heavy haul includes three cornerbacks and three defensive ends — positions of need for coordinator Ellis Johnson.
The nation’s top JUCO wide receiver — D’haquille Williams — should have a chance to play early in Auburn’s uptempo look and was one of five early enrollees in this year’s class. Mississippi Gulf Coast teammate Derrick Moncrief, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound safety, is also already on campus.
Program momentum: A; Marshall’s back for more
Mason’s made his case for professional dollars, but Marshall’s back for his senior season to anchor an offense that will rely on veterans Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne to share the rushing load. Wideout Sammie Coates emerged as one of the West’s best as a sophomore and will be a focal point for opposing defenses next fall.
In a wide open division, Auburn’s at the top of the mountain with several teams — Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M — along the same ridge.
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