AUBURN, Ala. >> The Auburn Tigers were slim favorites over Georgia and double-digit underdogs against Alabama.
Then, a common assumption was that a hangover from that dramatic Iron Bowl victory would surely linger into the Southeastern Conference championship game against Missouri. Now, No. 1 Florida State is an 8 1/2-point favorite to beat the second-ranked Tigers and claim the BCS title on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif.
The refrain feels sort of familiar to Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, who said the Tigers will be ready anyway.
“Once the ball is rolled out, it’s time to play football,” Ford said on Wednesday. “It really doesn’t matter about any rankings. I think any team can play in the national championship that’s a good caliber team. It’s just all about who prepares. I could care less about people not believing or saying, ‘This is the time they’re going to fall.’ We prepare for all this.
“They’re saying that as though we didn’t prepare to win these games. We prepared to win them, and we’re doing the exact same things with these two to three weeks that we have right now.”
Auburn (12-1) has defied the odds, and the doubters, to this point. The Tigers began preparations this week to face the Seminoles (13-0) and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston after pulling out an escalating series of big games with a couple of fantastic finishes and an overpowering 59-42 victory over Missouri to win the SEC.
There was the “Immaculate Deflection” against Georgia and the return of a missed field goal to beat the Crimson Tide.
“These last few games, every win has been kind of like surreal for me and I think for most of my teammates,” fullback Jay Prosch said. “Especially coming off a season like last year. So I think it’s just something guys are soaking in and loving right now.”
At least Auburn is getting used to big stages and high stakes after being out of national prominence for a couple of years. The Tigers have beaten two straight Top-5 teams.
“I think if you look at our entire schedule, I would like to think we are battle-tested,” first-year coach Gus Malzahn said. “We’ve been in some true dog-fight games. We’ve been in some games where the pressure was on on the road, at home, and our guys have responded. In big games I know they are not going to panic, so I’ve got to believe that will help us moving forward.”
Florida State, meanwhile, has gone unchallenged in virtually every game. The closest call was a 48-34 win over Boston College all the way back on Sept. 28.
The Tigers have already matched the 1999-2000 Hawaii teams for the biggest one-year turnaround in NCAA history after going 3-9.
“We knew this would be a rebuilding-type year,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “I don’t know if we thought instantly we would have this amount of success. But there wasn’t a doubt in our mind we would be able to get back up to this caliber in no time. The kids I came in with — Tre (Mason), Quan (Bray), Greg (Robinson) — we wanted to win a national championship and we wanted to have a repeat of the 2010 season. And here we are, reliving it.”
They’re savoring the opportunity to claim a second title in four years.
“You just have to embrace the moment,” quarterback Nick Marshall said. “Just seize the moment of being in the championship game, period. It doesn’t come too often, so when you’re in it you just have to make the best of it.”
The Tigers’ momentum is paying off on the recruiting trail.
Auburn signed four junior college players on Wednesday, including wide receiver D’haquille Williams from Gulf Coast Community College. Williams is regarded as the nation’s top JUCO prospect.
Gulf Coast teammate safety Derrick Moncrief also signed with the Tigers, along with Copiah-Lincoln offensive lineman Xavier Dampeer and Georgia Military College defensive tackle DaVonte Lambert.