Chris Fuhrmeister from Auburn's SB Nation blog College and Magnolia was kind enough to entertain the large set of questions I had for him before what is one of the biggest games in Mizzou history.
1. First off, congratulations on an extremely impressive season. The first obvious question is what did Auburn fans expect from this team before the season began?
I think the most irrationally optimistic prediction I saw before the season was 9-3, and that seemed ridiculous. I, and many other Auburn fans, thought 6-6 was probably the most likely regular-season result, and maybe a surprise win somewhere along the way would get us to 7-5. If a victory in a bowl game would have meant an eight-win season, I would have been pretty ecstatic. On offense, everyone expected pretty significant improvement -- after all, the Tigers' attack was the SEC's worst in 2012. But I think most expected some bouts of inconsistency. We saw some of that early in the year, but over the second half of the season, the offense has been exceeding expectations. On defense, any signs of life would have been welcome. The fact that Auburn is actually making plays on that side of the ball is kind of a stunner.
2. Tell us a bit about Nick Marshall. I've watched Auburn play a few times this year, and while the ground game is what brings home the bacon, it seems Marshall is a decent passer. Can he win games with his arm?
His strength is definitely in the running game, but he has his moments as a passer, too. Marshall is completing 59.2 percent of his passes this year, which obviously isn't great, and he's pretty much guaranteed to miss two or three wide-open throws in any given game. But he has a big arm, and when he's on the money, he can make NFL-quality throws. And while he has accuracy issues, he rarely makes bad throws into coverage -- just one interception in his last seven games. On the ground, Marshall is lethal in the read option game. Since really getting a grasp of the offense against Ole Miss in Week 6, he's averaged 110.6 yards per game and compiled 10 touchdowns. He makes quick decisions on whether to give or keep, and he almost always chooses correctly. Marshall proved against Mississippi State in Week 3 that he could win a game with his arm, throwing for 339 yards and going 6-of-8 with a winning touchdown pass on a last-minute drive. And against Alabama, he threw two second-half touchdown passes, including the game-tying score with 32 seconds left, to help topple the Tide. Having said all that, his inaccuracy makes me uneasy. I'm much more comfortable when Auburn is having success on the ground.
3. What made Toomer's Corner and the trees so special to Auburn fans?
I think for most Auburn people -- for me, at least -- it's just one of those places that represents Auburn in their happiest thoughts. Celebrating a win by rolling the trees dates back to the '70s, so for a lot of fans, that's programmed in our brains as the thing to do following a victory. Whether it's celebrating on a Saturday night, or just passing through on a normal day, that corner is what many think of when they think of Auburn, the state of mind. The old oaks may be gone, but Harvey Updyke can't kill our ability to make the corner look winter in the Great White North.
4. Can you PLEASE explain "War Eagle"?
Honestly, probably not. There are a few different stories of how that phrase came about, and no in is really certain exactly what happened (the university has a nice rundown). But for every living fan, the phrase has been an Auburn-related cheer and greeting for as long as they've known what Auburn is. Others may attempt to troll Tigers fans by asking, "So what are y'all, the Eagles or the Tigers??" But we like that our main cheer/battle cry/what ever is something other than just "GO [INSERT NICKNAME HERE]. But, Auburn is home to the Southeastern Raptor Rehabilitation Center, so there's some nice symmetry. Also, we have an eagle that flies around Jordan-Hare Stadium before every home game, which is pretty awesome.
5. I've asked this to a few other fanbases, but being from Alabama what do you first think of when someone says "Missouri"?
My dad grew up in St. Louis and I've been a couple of times, so I probably think of the St. Louis Arch. But if I'm being truthful here, most Auburn fans probably think, "WHAT IN THE HELL ARE THOSE YANKEES DOIN' IN THE SEC?" I have to admit that I'm often guilty of this mindset, but it's not because I don't respect Mizzou -- I'm not a big fan of A&M being in the SEC, either. I'm just a college football traditionalist. Auburn used to have a big rivalry with Florida, but that's gone by the wayside due to conference expansion, an I'd rather see my Tigers play teams they have history with, as opposed to teams they've only met a few times before. And I feel like if I were a Missouri or Texas A&M fan, I would hate losing my biggest rivalry game in order to move to a new conference. So, yeah. For a lot of us, it's not that we think Missouri isn't good enough for the SEC. We'd just rather have more games against our traditional conference rivals.
6. What exactly has Malzahn done to right the ship? Mizzou had a big turnaround too, but we had some extreme injury problems. It seems like Malzahn has really come in and made a pretty bad team a really, really good team.
Two main things: He and his staff are much better at developing talent than the old Gene Chizik regime, and these coaches instill a lot of intensity into their players. The most frustrating thing about last season was knowing Auburn's roster had a ton of four- and five-star talent and seeing players perform like two-stars. The new staff has done a much better of teaching fundamentals, and it's especially evident in the secondary, which had been totally incompetent for years. Last year when something go wrong on the field -- that happened often -- fans never saw Chizik or his coaches show any emotion. And all we heard in press conferences what how well that day's practice went. When a player screws up this year, he immediately has a coach in his face. I think the coaches and players have a good relationship, but the kids don't get a pass if they don't meet expectations. That's a welcomed change.
7. Why are you guys called the Tigers?
Auburn has been known as the Tigers since its football beginning in 1892, and the nickname comes from Oliver Goldsmith's poem, "The Deserted Village." It's the same poem that gives the town the nickname "the Loveliest Village on the Plains."
8. Where does the "Kick Six" go down in Auburn history? Greatest game/play of all time?
Considering it was in the Iron Bowl, Alabama was No. 1 and the SEC West was on the line, it has to be the greatest play in Auburn football history. I'd also argue that -- again, considering all that -- it's the greatest finish in college football history. Cal-Stanford may have had a band on the field, but that game was between 6-4 Cal, 5-5 Stanford. Nowhere near the same national implications.
9. Does the winner of this game deserve to go to the NCG over an undefeated Ohio State?
I'd love to say yes, and if Auburn wins and jumps the Buckeyes, I'll be thrilled. But, probably not. The argument that Auburn and Missouri have played much tougher schedules than Ohio State is totally relevant, but I don't think it trumps the fact that the two Tigers are one-loss teams and the Buckeyes are unbeaten. If it were the other way around and a one-loss Ohio State jumped an undefeated Auburn, I would be absolutely livid.
10. How does this game play out?
It's going to be a close one. On defense, Auburn has made a living all year by allowing teams to move the ball down the field, then forcing a turnover or getting a red zone stop. Basically, the Tigers don't want to give up big plays. I expect the same strategy this week, but with Missouri's impressive wide receivers corps, I don't know if it will work. I'm a little more comfortable offense since Auburn was able to put up nearly 300 rushing yards in the win over Alabama. Because of the way the last two games played out, there's just no way I can pick against my Tigers. Sure, a lot of people call Auburn lucky, but Malzahn's team had a 20-point fourth-quarter lead against Georgia, and it went toe-to-to with Alabama before the wild finish. I think Missouri might be the better overall team, but I like Auburn's ability to find a way to win. Gus will probably slow down the offense a bit to keep the Mizzou offense off the field, and with just enough passing, the run game will be opened up enough to get a win. It'll be high-scoring, but maybe not as high-scoring as some expect. Auburn, 35-31.
For more on the Auburn Tigers, go check out College and Magnolia.