Because a single loss can take a team out of the race for the national championship in college football, almost every team has a few moments over the course of the year that keep the season alive. They can be plays that change the momentum of the game, a drive that seals the victory, or even a borderline call in favor of the soon-to-be champions. It's hard to play at full throttle every game, and an undefeated season often means winning on those weeks when the team is a little bit off.
Auburn isn't really any different. Several times during the season, the Tigers were either tied, losing or in danger of losing the momentum. In each case, they came up with the plays they needed to move forward. A look at the most important ones, and how they helped Auburn get its first title in 53 years.
AT KENTUCKY: THE DRIVE
Auburn was 5-0 when the Tigers rolled into Commonwealth Stadium and had finally entered the Top 10. The Wildcats were 3-2. So nobody batted an eyebrow when Auburn rebounded from an early 7-0 deficit to take a 31-14 lead shortly before halftime. Even with a Craig McIntosh kick to narrow the deficit to two touchdowns as the teams entered the locker room, there was no chance the Wildcats were going to catch up. The game was practically over.
Not so much. Kentucky scored twice in the third quarter to tie the game, then responded with a field goal of its own after Auburn took a three-point lead. The Wildcats then gave the ball back to the Tigers and watched as Cam Newton and Co. reeled of an epic 19-play, 86-yard drive that burned all of the remaining seven and a half minutess off the clock.
Two weeks after the big win against South Carolina, it seemed like Auburn was once again back to its habits of winning narrow games against whomever faced it. But the game would actually be the last time Auburn defeated a team that ended the season unranked by fewer than 18 points. With the season entering its stretch run and TCU and Boise continuing their undefeated quests, underwhelming wins could have increased the volume on those calling for one of the non-AQ teams to get a chance over Oregon or Auburn.
LSU: 'HE ACCELERATES!'
No one really knows what a "Heisman moment" is -- to some who throw the phrase around, it's a single play that changes the game. To others, its a performance during an entire game that sets you apart from the crowd. The run Cam Newton made with Auburn tied with LSU 10-10 in a late-season Top 10 matchup might or might not have been a "Heisman moment," but it was emblematic of the kind of plays that got him the award.
Both Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson were stunned to be watching the play -- as were most of those paying attention to CBS. It was the kind of run you don't usually see at any level of football, capped off by Cam Newton taking Patrick Peterson into the end zone with him -- the same Patrick Peterson who is expected to go very early in this year's NFL Draft.
It also gave Auburn a lead in the game that represented the most serious challenge remaining on the schedule before the Iron Bowl showdown with Alabama and gave LSU its first loss, effectively eliminating the Bayou Bengals from the race for the SEC West.
IRON BOWL: 'THE TWELFTH WEEK, IT MATTERED'
Mark Ingram does not fumble the ball often. Really, he almost never let go of the football during his career at Alabama. So with Alabama leading Auburn 21-0 in the second quarter, it seemed like the smart thing to do to give Ingram the ball. It looked even smarter when he ran 41 yards into the Auburn red zone. It didn't appear so smart when Antoine Carter caught up and knocked the ball out.
Auburn would end up punting the ball back to Alabama, and the Tide would score a field goal on the next drive. But the fumble, and the goal-line stand ahead of the field goal, meant Auburn was down 24-0 before rebounding instead of 31-0 or 35-0. And the defensive momentum looks like it paid off; Auburn scored its first touchdown on the drive following the field goal and eventually won the game.
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: HAIL MARY
South Carolina was still in the game as halftime approached in the SEC Championship Game. The Gamecocks had quickly tied the score after Auburn's first touchdown, then the Tigers scored twice more to make it 21-7. But South Carolina orchestrated nearly a perfect two-minute drive to cut the lead to a single score, and they were set to get the ball first in the second half. The only problem was that they left 16 seconds on the clock, which ended up being 16 seconds too many.
The Gamecocks' momentum boost from the two-minute drill was gone; on the first drive of the third quarter, South Carolina's normally reliable Spencer Lanning would miss a 42-yard field goal, and Auburn would outscore the Gamecocks 28-3 as part of a rout that locked down their ticket to Glendale.
BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: 'EVERYBODY STOPPED, EXCEPT FOR DYER'
A little more than two minutes remained in the championship showdown with Oregon, and the Ducks had just tied the game at 19. Auburn had a first-and-10 near midfield and handed the ball to Michael Dyer, a great running back who has been overshadowed on his own team by Cam Newton and his conference by fellow first-year running back Marcus Lattimore. No one would overshadow him on this play.
Contrary to what I've heard some people say, this play was not the difference between overtime and the win. Again, it was first down and the play was a good gain even if it's stopped when Dyer appeared to be tackled, and Auburn would not have slowed down as much as they did in setting up the winning field goal. Oh, and Oregon's defense did not walk off the field after that play.
However, you also can't ignore that the play was extremely important in help the Tigers to victory. The Ducks might have forced a punt, or the drive might have broken down anyway, and Auburn might very well have lost the game in overtime. As too many of Auburn's opponents found out this year, it's best not to leave things like that to chance.