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Seeing is

Even if I’d tried, I couldn’t have kept count of how many times I said “I can’t believe it” between, say, going down 21-7 to Georgia and Byrum’s kick. (The most recent one, I should specify, it being Wes Byrum and all.)

We go up two scores on the Dawgs to win the most competitive division in the SEC since SEC divisions were invented; I can’t believe it. Newton hits the Swede Killa and Auburn has erased a 24-point deficit in Tuscaloosa, the greatest deficit Auburn has ever erased anywhere; I can’t believe it. Cam makes a confetti angel on the floor of the Georgia Dome as 50,000 Auburn fans book a Phoenix hotel room; I can’t believe it. An ad comes on ESPN telling me to watch the BCS National Championship Game because Auburn’s in it, or Nick Fairley says on Twitter he has to quit using Twitter for a while to focus on the BCS National Championship Game, or I pull into a parking lot in Glendale, Arizona, outside the stadium where the Arizona Cardinals play in Arizona, and there are Auburn fans everywhere I look: seriously, seriously, I can’t believe it.

I. Can. Not. Believe. It.

Which was sort of weird, I realized, when I was in my seat and the clock counting down towards kickoff went under 30 minutes and yep, sure enough, there’s Auburn, warming up in their same old beautiful Auburn uniforms (their home navys, no less) and I said it again. Why couldn’t I believe it? If you asked me before the season started, “Jerry, do you think Auburn will play for a national championship someday?” I’d have said “Of course.” And if you’d added “By the way, Cam Newton will blow through college football like a hurricane the weather service named Vince Young’s Big Brother, scoring half-a-hundred touchdowns his own self and winning the Heisman Trophy,” I’d have told you Auburn had respectable odds they’d do it this very year. I always believed — no, knew — that one day I’d sit in a nosebleed seat in Glendale or Pasadena or Miami or New Orleans and watch Auburn play for a crystal football. What was so unbelievable about this day?

That it had all happened so fast was part of it. One day, we’re gnawing our own arms off as Tubby stares at a scoreboard reading “Vanderbilt 14, Auburn 13” and blinks twice, we go to sleep and wake up and Gene Chizik is one Hail Mary away from beating the best team in the country, the next morning we yawn and open our eyes and there’s Cam down there, bouncing like a schoolkid from orange section to orange section just before running into the tunnel to hear the last things he’ll hear before quarterbacking our team in the national championship game. To say the journey from 5-7 to 13-0 was a blur sells it badly, badly short.

But the bigger part of it was that this wasn’t the sort of Auburn team I expected to push the boulder all the way up the hill. My formative Auburn years were spent watching Pat Dye-patented slugfests, his greatest team undone by a single loss by the score of 7-6; the years in which that fandom was polished and nurtured came under Tuberville, under whom the offense boasted the stars while the defense brought our bacon home. That didn’t mean I wasn’t ready for the Gus Malzahn era, ready to win with fireworks and pageantry and magic tricks, but win win? National championship win? Do what even Dye and Tubby couldn’t sort of win?

Maybe, so long as underneath the peacock feathers we had the same thick bones the program had grown under its previous greats: a powerful running game built on the shoulders of a tailback (or tailbacks) you named your children after, a man-eating defense that crushed the life out its victims and left foes cowering before it, a string of victories so overpowering the words “fourth quarter” would become synonymous with “anticlimax.” In short, 2004.

Instead, we got a team with a different skeletal structure entirely. The defense wasn’t just not man-eating, aside from whatever havoc our one superstar player wreaked it wasn’t even any good; foes didn’t cower before it so much as lick their proverbial chops, particularly those with functional passing attacks. The best running back on the team was the quarterback, and though the rushing game racked up every yard we could have dreamed of and then some, there was no way for players as willow-thin as McCalebb or as still-green as Dyer to conjure the spirits of Bo and Cadillac and Ronnie. And far from being a horde of vikings raping and pillaging their way through a terror-stricken SEC, the team fell into vast deficits or allowed huge comebacks as a matter of course; if they were vikings, they were a strange breed of viking who let other vikings come rape and pillage them for a little while, just so both sides could have a turn, before yelling “Surprise!” and chopping their heads off at the last possible moment.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t believe Auburn had made the national title game. It’s that I couldn’t believe this Auburn had made the national title game.

Which is why, here, at the end of all things, they played the exact national title game Auburn had to play.

Of course Kodi Burns catches a touchdown pass, his only one of the season, in his final game as an Auburn Tiger. Of course. That, I believe.

Of course the Auburn defense channels the dormant spirits of 1983 and 1988 and 2004, rising up like the beasts they are to stuff the nation’s other best offense time and time and time again, picking off passes, terrorizing their offensive line, punishing their quarterback for daring to throw. They are, finally, a thing to be feared rather than a player to be feared. This is Auburn. So of course. That, I believe.

Of course Michael Dyer begins to plow through tackles, weave through the ghosts of holes, fall forward for first downs that shouldn’t be his. He’s an Auburn tailback. That’s whose hands an Auburn offense belongs in. Of course the game’s deciding play comes down to our running back against their tackler, and of course our running back does things that should not be humanly possible to keep his knees above the idiot ground, and the game is decided. He plays tailback for Auburn. That, I believe.

And of course Wes Byrum is called upon to kick the game-winner of the final play of the game, the final play of the season, this season, the final play of his career, the final play of 53 years’ worth of scaling this mountain. No kicker I have ever watched would make me more confident about making the kick that would put us on top of it. So of course it comes down to him. And of course he makes it. He’s Wes Byrum. That, I believe.

So I see Auburn cover the field (well, I mostly see, in-between hugging every no-longer-stranger I can get my hands on) in celebration, I see the confetti cannons go off, I see everyone around me taking every picture they can because in a moment like this their brains might not be entirely reliable, I see the scoreboard read “Auburn 22, Oregon 19,” I see Eltoro Freeman run back and forth between his teammates and the crowd like he doesn’t know what to to do because none of us know what to do, I see Gene Chizik–Gene Chizik!–walk up the dais and hold up a crystal football, I see 50,000 thousand Auburn fans scream like their whole lives have led up this moment because it has.

I can believe it. We are Auburn. National champions. Of course.

War Eagle.

—————————-

A few other points to make:

— I used to care about whether or not Auburn won a national championship with an ineligible player. I used to think we’d owe the rest of college football an apology if we did, in fact, find out that someone had cheated on Auburn’s behalf to help us win that championship. And I’ll still feel bad for Oregon.

But after spending three straight months seeing Auburn and the Newtons crapped on at every conceivable opportunity, after seeing our program given less-than-zero benefit of the doubt on anything, after seeing writer after writer decide that they’d rather award our team an asterisk than award them credit, college football can kiss my burnt orange-and-navy blue ass.

Our team went to Glendale and won. Their team didn’t. We got to go to Glendale and celebrate. They didn’t. And there’s not a damn thing they or anyone else, the NCAA included, can do about that. Which is why I’ve spent the entire week laughing, laughing, laughing.

— I can’t think of a more fitting finale for Ziemba-Berry-Pugh-Isom than their final play–well, the final one that mattered–resulting in a hole the size of Schmaul SchmineSchmaum’s mouth opening in the middle of a stacked line that knew the way they know their own names that Auburn would be running up the middle. Theirs was the greatest offensive line I’ve had the privilege of watching at Auburn. I don’t even really have to think about it.

— I’m not the first person to point this out, but despite Cam’s off-game, I’d agree that Auburn had both the best offensive player and the best defensive player in the nation. Given that we had both, maybe it’s not so surprising how far they took us after all.

— Hey, remember when we were all angry about how Darvin Adams was the only receiver who ever caught passes for Auburn? Newton spread his 20 completions over seven different receivers, five of which had 35 yards or more while no one had more than 54. Hey, remember when Ryan Shoemaker lost his job to Steven Clark? He was only our most valuable special teams performer by a mile and a half, turning in the best performance of his career at the best possible time. Hey, remember when Mike McNeil was hurt and washed up? He only made 12 solo tackles. Hey, remember when Auburn lollygagged around against Arkansas State, then nearly blew it against Mississippi State, and we were all a little on edge and the more wobbly sections of our fanbase were downright angry? Remember that?

What’s amazing about a season like this … well, I could end this sentence in so many ways. But one thing that’s amazing is how colossally different our understanding of the players, the team, the program can be in a matter of weeks.

— We’re all in awe of this staff’s ability to do the huge, splashy things on the recruiting trail like steal Brent Calloway away from Alabama. But maybe even more impressive is how keen their eye for lesser-regarded talent is. Demond Washington had been passed over twice by Tubby and Co. and no one at Ole Miss even seemed to mind much when he left. Emory Blake had been a commitment to Dan Hawkins at Colorado and was probably on his way to Lubbock. Nosa Eguae was just a three-star with a name no one was sure how to pronounce who, too, was probably bound for Texas Tech.

Chizik and his staff had fewer than 45 days and convinced all three of them to come to Auburn as part of their first class. And all of three of them were absolutely critical in the game that won Auburn a national championship. That, folks, is some outstanding recruiting.

— On the one hand, I feel like this commentary-slash-handy reference guide is better suited for the summer months or some other point when there’s more time for reflection on how laughable the idea that Auburn is still some kind of  second-tier program is. On the other, hating the Crimson Tide is a 24/7/365 job, yo, and even a national championship is no reason to take a day off.

— Before you look at the Ducks’ offensive sputters and conclude “See? Couldn’t handle the SEC,” please note that despite Auburn’s 519 yards of offense–mostly a product of both teams pushing tempo and packing way, way more plays into the game that you’d normally see in a contest with as many defensive stops–only Mississippi State and Alabama held Auburn to fewer yards-per-play than Oregon did.

It’s true: one glance could tell you that the Ducks just didn’t have the top-to-bottom athleticism or raw talent that an Auburn did. But if you can’t see that that bunch was extremely well-coached, I don’t know what to tell you. Between Kelly and Aliotti on the sidelines, a wider and better recruiting net to cast, and Knight’s billions backing them up, that’s a program that’s not going anywhere … other than maybe back to another BCS title game.

(The one caveat to the above? Kelly didn’t have his best game at the controls. His game-theory decisions were as shrewd as ever — how big did that two-point conversion pay off in the end? — but he let some combination of panic and greed throw his play-calling out of whack. Yes, guys like Thomas and Maehl and Barner are nice players, and yes, Auburn’s secondary was vulnerable. But the only really special athlete he had was LaMichael James, and James wound up touching the ball just 17 times out of Oregon’s 73 offensive snaps. Auburn thanks Kelly for that.)

— Yes, I have a ton of stuff to say/write about my experience getting to and enjoying the game (and thanking the man who made it possible), but I’m saving that for another post, maybe two. Hope to get them done over the weekend. And maybe some other stuff. Stay tuned.

— I said: War Damn Eagle!

* Some Auburn fans less than thrilled with Coaches’ Trophy tour
* Former Auburn cheerleader competing in new season of ‘Survivor’
* Three-hour delay turns flight to Phoenix into Auburn pep rally
* ‘Cammy Koozie’s’ fund family’s trip to Glendale
* An interview with Auburn YouTube sensation Chris Lowe
* Former Auburn football kills elephant with just a bow and arrow

* TWER interviews Paul Finebaum about Bo Jackson’s Heisman campaign

* Crowd shots from the 1973 Auburn-Florida game
* The Secret History of an Underground Iron Bowl
* Auburn alumna in Philippines will watch BCSCG in style
* VIDEO: What if the airport heckler got a do over?

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