Rabalais: Underdog Auburn is tough to overlook

Remember the Luckeyes, the 2002 Ohio State team that scraped by game after game until it won the national title?

You’ve heard of the “Luck of the Irish,” right? No Irishman was ever luckier than that Notre Dame team that hopped from four-leaf clover to clover last season — until it faced a lawnmower of an Alabama team in last year’s BCS championship game.

Those guys have nothing on Auburn, which plays Florida State on Monday night at the Rose Bowl for the final BCS national championship.

“The Prayer at Jordan-Hare.” That was Ricardo Louis’ lottery-like 73-yard, fourth-and-18, deflected-off-a-Georgia-defensive-back touchdown catch with 25 seconds left to stun the Bulldogs 43-38.

“Kick, Bama, Kick.” That’s the chant that may forever have replaced “Punt, Bama, Punt” after Chris Davis’ 109-yard missed field goal return beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl and reduced the Crimson Tide’s dreams of an unprecedented third straight national title to rust.

“Let’s just hope God don’t play this week,” former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden cracked as only he can. “He’s been with Auburn the last two games.”

Current Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher keeps a file on every team he plays — tendencies, trends, stuff like that.

That means Fisher must still have a dossier on Auburn from his days as LSU’s offensive coordinator. One assumes it’s filled with rabbits’ feet, lucky pennies and a voodoo doll that looks suspiciously like Nick Saban with a pin sticking out of the back of the neck.

Not surprisingly, being labeled lucky isn’t something the Auburn Tigers want to stick to the pristine white jerseys they’ll wear Monday night.

“Deep down inside,” center Reese Dismukes said, “I don’t think we look at it as luck.”

A natural response. No one who achieves great things wants to look at the mirror and see a giant horseshoe staring back at them.

To Auburn, its startling and unprecedented rebound from the disaster of a 3-9 season in 2012 that got Gene Chizik fired two years after winning the BCS championship is more about pluck than luck. There’s certainly some evidence of that if you look back closely at Auburn’s only loss of the season.

Auburn had already equaled its win total from 2012 when it invaded Tiger Stadium on Sept. 21 to play LSU.

Considering where Auburn was coming from, LSU’s 21-0 halftime lead looked just about right. The book on Auburn was that it was improved under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, yes, but not ready to take on and beat Southeastern Conference heavyweights like LSU or Alabama or Texas A&M.

But something remarkable happened inside Tiger Stadium’s notoriously cramped visitor’s locker room at the break. LSU seemed to relax, and Auburn made a big rally. It outscored LSU 21-14 in the second half. Yes, it was still a 35-21 defeat for Auburn, but one that gave its players something rare in defeat: hope.

A four-leaf clover propped defiantly among the debris.

“I think a big factor was the way Coach Malzahn handled that,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “When we came in, there weren’t a whole lot of nice words because we had to fix what we were doing poorly. The players responded the right way. We couldn’t close the deal because we were in too big a hole, but after the game, the way he handled the team made them understand what we wanted them to do.

“They kept that same ‘don’t let go of the rope’ attitude, and it got us through some close ballgames down the stretch. Because they didn’t quit in the LSU game, he wasn’t negative with them afterward.”

Tailback Tre Mason found Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs that night amid the shed shoulder pads and discarded athletic tape.

“We’re going to win the rest of them,” Mason told Jacobs.

“It was a turning point,” Jacobs said. “Nobody quit. Then we beat Texas A&M on the road.”

A 45-41 shootout victory at A&M (what else with the Aggies?) helped set up Auburn’s theatrics against Georgia and Alabama. By the time Auburn got to the SEC Championship Game against an equally upstart Missouri team, the Tigers were rolling with such confidence they ran flat over Mizzou for 545 rushing yards in a 59-42 win.

Confidence that started, oddly enough for a team coming off a humbling 2012 season, with yet another defeat.

“I think that loss was really like the highlight of our season,” said Greg Robinson, Auburn’s starting left tackle from Thibodaux. “It helped us realize we have potential but we have to put in a full game. It’s just getting better each weekend.”

It had better get better against Florida State. After seven straight BCS titles for the SEC, Florida State looks every bit capable of ascending to the throne because it is as big and fast and deep as physical as all those SEC champions were.

There’s something about this Auburn team that is hard to pin down but impossible to ignore. Call it luck, fate, destiny if you will. If Auburn wins, it will be an upset, but it won’t be a complete shock.

“We’re going to find a way to win the game when it comes down to it,” Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall said.

Typical pregame bravado, easily dismissed.

But with Auburn, there’s something that compels you to believe.