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Surprising Auburn Tigers last true challenger to Alabama in SEC

Auburn decided it was going to ride in the express lane this season, and no one really saw this team coming. The No. 7 Tigers snuck up on us because they were so bad last season, and it appeared they had a big talent deficit this year. I think most of us thought they couldn't get to these heights.

What a difference a year makes.

They are 9-1 with home games against Georgia and Alabama remaining in the regular season after going 0-8 last season in the SEC. They failed to score a single point in their last two league games last season. Who were those against?

Just Georgia and Alabama. Their matchups against those teams this season should go a lot differently than they did in 2012.

To understand why Auburn has made this rapid ascent, start with the decision to bring back into the fold Gus Malzahn as head coach after last season's debacle. He has won everywhere he has been, including as Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2010, when Cam Newton led the Tigers to a national championship. As head coach at Arkansas State last season, Malzahn helped the team to a Sun Belt conference title.

He arrived at Auburn and all sorts of question marks greeted him, including the quarterback position. Malzahn turned to Nick Marshall, a JUCO transfer and former Georgia Bulldogs defensive back who was dismissed from UGA, to become the starting QB. All he has done is transform the Tigers' offense along with sensational RB Tre Mason (1,038 yards rushing, 5.7 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns). This is Marshall's first time running a read-option offense, and he's doing it proficiently -- the Tigers average 320 rushing yards per game (third in the FBS). Marshall is more of a runner (820 yards rushing, 7.1 yards per carry), but he still is dangerous as a passer (eight TDs, five interceptions, 58.5 completion percentage).

An explosive return game has given the team a big boost, too, with Mason returning kickoffs and Chris Davis handling punt returns. They get the job done on third down -- on both sides of the ball -- with DE Dee Ford, S Robenson Therezie, CB Jonathan Mincy and, a member of the all-name team, LB Cassanova McKinzy, starring on defense.

The only team that has figured out how to beat the Tigers is LSU, who did it back in September. Auburn played a bad quarter and a half in that game, but they have won six in a row since then and just blew out Tennessee in Knoxville, 55-23.

Marshall takes care of the ball and runs it pretty well. Mason helps them dominate clock and makes big plays. Defensively, they're very cohesive. Ford, a semifinalist for the Hendricks Award (given annually to the top defensive end in college football) creates pressure. This is a team that really believes in itself and has a chip on its shoulder because they can feed off the old 'us against the world' mantra.

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To me, it looks like Auburn is the biggest roadblock remaining in the way of the undefeated Crimson Tide's path back to the national championship game.

After what the Tigers have been through the last couple of years, they will be asking themselves, 'Why not us?' heading into that game.

They'd better not look past No. 25 Georgia this weekend, though. Defensively, if the Tigers have an Achilles' heel, it's that they can have trouble stopping the pass. They will be dealing with a fine quarterback in Aaron Murray, although injuries to the Bulldogs' receiving corps have hurt him.

Regardless, beating Georgia won't be easy.

If the Tigers can get past the Bulldogs, the stage will be set for a home team with momentum to take on its fierce rival Alabama and try to pull its biggest surprise yet.

Follow Charles Davis on Twitter @CFD22.

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