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Tigers' turnaround season picked as top sports story in Alabama for 2013

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Auburn's turnaround is the state of Alabama's top sports story for 2013 (abc3340.com) Auburn's turnaround is the state of Alabama's top sports story for 2013 (abc3340.com)

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers started the season amid modest expectations and little fanfare, and didn't do much to change that in the first month.

But the Tigers piled up wins before and after a loss to LSU on Sept. 21 to earn first respect then a Southeastern Conference title and finally a national championship shot.

Auburn's turnaround from 3-9 to 12-1, matching the biggest one-year improvement in college football history, was chosen as the biggest sports story in the state for 2013 by The Associated Press' Alabama staff. Picked to finish fifth in the SEC West, the Tigers will face Florida State on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif., for the national championship.

"Coming off last season, nobody wanted to lose again," wide receiver Sammie Coates said. "Nobody wanted to have that feeling of being the worst team in the league. When we came into the summer, everybody got together. We had seniors come in and talk to us and say they didn't want what we had last year. They really helped motivate us. They came out there and worked us hard and pushed us to the end."

The year began with rival Alabama claiming its second straight national title with a route of Notre Dame in south Florida, chosen as the No. 2 story.

The regular season ended with an Iron Bowl showdown for the ages (No. 3) decided on one of college football's rarest plays, when Chris Davis went the distance with a missed field goal on the final play for a 34-28 victory.

Auburn followed that up by beating Missouri in the SEC championship game. No. 2 Ohio State's loss to Michigan State later that night secured the Tigers' BCS title shot.

The team didn't really start getting noticed nationally until a win over No. 7 Texas A&M on Oct. 19. The Tigers ended September not receiving a single vote in the AP poll and didn't crack the Top 25 until Week 8, entering at No. 24.

Auburn shot up to No. 11 with the 45-41 victory over the Aggies, and continued to climb.

Following that game, defensive end Dee Ford brought up the possibility of winning a national title to reporters. The Tigers never gave him a reason to take grief for what at the time seemed an awfully bold notion.

"You can't say much when we don't lose," Ford said recently. "There's not really much to say."

Auburn fans were already excited about coach Gus Malzahn's debut season long before the winning started.

Gus Malzahn led the second-ranked Tigers' transformation into Southeastern Conference champions and has them in the national championship game Jan. 6 against No. 1 Florida State. Malzahn's quick work made him The Associated Press national coach of the year. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

More than 83,000 turned out for the spring game, the most ever for Auburn. That was a few months before quarterback Nick Marshall even arrived on campus and became an integral part of the success.

Marshall convinced his coaches and teammates he deserved the starting job with, of all things, a live scrimmage where even the quarterbacks were fair game. Hard-hitting practices in spring and preseason camp helped the Tigers regain their physical style.

"In spring, we were as physical as we could be every day," Malzahn said. "We thought it was important that we got our edge back. We were really physical in fall camp too. We were a little banged up going into the year, but we felt like that is what we needed. That is what Auburn is.

"We are probably the only team in the country that actually let our quarterbacks go live in the fall too. That really helped us get to where we are at. That is who we are." 

A list of the Top 10 sports stories of the year in Alabama as chosen by The Associated Press:

1. AUBURN'S TURNAROUND: Auburn went from 3-9 to 12-1 to match the biggest turnaround in college football history, going from 0-8 in the SEC to league champions in the process. That resurgence earned the Tigers a shot at the BCS championship Jan. 6 against Florida State in Pasadena, Calif.

2. TIDE'S TITLE: Alabama opened the year with a dominating win over Notre Dame to claim a second straight national championship and third in four years. The Tide fell short of the first three-peat in the AP poll era, going back to 1937.

3. IRON BOWL FINISH: It was one of the more dramatic endings in college football history. Chris Davis's 109-yard return of a missed field goal on the final play gave Auburn a 34-28 victory. It's the first time a major college game had ended on such a play and only the fourth TD scored in that fashion.

4. AWARDS: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is AP coach of the year. AJ McCarron won the Johnny Unitas Award and the Maxwell Award and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Teammate C.J. Mosley captured the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. Auburn's Tre Mason was sixth in the Heisman voting.

5. MALZAHN'S YEAR: Besides coach of the year honors, Malzahn also collected a big pay raise. He agreed to a six-year contract worth $3.85 million annually on the eve of the SEC championship game against Missouri.

6. BAMA FALLS SHORT: Alabama is 11-1 and bound for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. A great season by most standards, but Nick Saban and the Tide was hoping to add to its title collection. Saban did receive a hefty pay raise that silenced persistent scuttlebutt that he might replace Mack Brown at Texas.

7. PLAYOFF RUNS: Jacksonville State's football team advanced to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time before losing 35-24 to Eastern Washington, capping an 11-4 debut season for coach Bill Clark. North Alabama made it to the Division II quarterfinals before losing 42-39 to eventual runner-up Lenoir-Rhyne.

8. HOOPS STRUGGLES: The state of Alabama was shut out of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Alabama did make it to the NIT quarterfinals before losing 58-57 to Maryland. Auburn, meanwhile, was 9-23 and lost 16 of its last 17 games. However, UAB turned heads with an upset of then-No. 16 North Carolina.

9. TOOMER'S TREES: Alabama fan Harvey Updyke, who fatally poisoned the iconic oaks at Auburn's Toomer's Corner, served six months in jail. The trees were cut down and Auburn fans settled for celebrating wins by rolling toilet paper over a series of wires above the intersection.

10. POINT SHAVING: Former Auburn point guard Varez Ward was arrested in June for allegedly trying to fix games and offering money to teammates to help during the 2011-12 season. Ward's trial has been postponed until Feb. 10 and could be called off if he's granted admission to a pre-trial diversion program. He has pleaded not guilty.

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