Auburn stakes its claim as college football's latest, greatest comeback kid

You can preach "never say never," and you can argue that every championship team has to "steal" a game or two against long odds to survive the grueling season. This is true. But there are long odds, and there's a 24-0 deficit against the defending national champion, on the road. By storming out of that hole for a thrilling, 28-27 win Friday over hated Alabama to complete a 12-0 regular season, Auburn established itself as a steel-hearted, icy-veined survivor even among the steeliest and iciest in recent memory.

The comeback in Tuscaloosa was the Tigers' fourth this year in a game they trailed at some point in the second half, and the third in which they rallied from behind in the fourth quarter – a number that doesn't include their overtime escape against Clemson, or their 19-play, 86-yard march for the game-winning field goal on the last snap at Kentucky, an epic journey that drained the final 7:25 from the clock with the game tied at 31 apiece. They trailed entering the fourth quarter against South Carolina, and won, 35-27. They fell behind early in the fourth quarter against Arkansas, and won, 65-43. This time, they trailed Alabama at the start of the fourth, 27-21, and won again.

It was also the fourth time this year the Tigers have rallied from at least 10 points down, on the heels of double-digit holes against Clemson (17-0), South Carolina (20-7) and Georgia (21-7). No other team that's ever played for the BCS championship has needed more than two rallies from a double-digit deficit to get there. And if Auburn punches its ticket to this year's title game, it will be the first to come from as far back as three touchdowns against anyone, much less one of the most feared defenses in the country.

The largest comeback by a team that's actually appeared in a BCS title game to date was Texas' rally from a 28-9 deficit at Oklahoma State in 2005, a comeback sparked by Vince Young's 80-yard touchdown run to cut the Cowboy lead to 28-19 in the opening minute of the second half. The Longhorns ripped off four more unanswered touchdowns in a 47-28 blowout, then went on to win their last four by an average of 48 points en route to the Rose Bowl.

The best claim on the title of "Comeback King," though, may belong to their opponent in Pasadena, USC, which uncorked its explosive offense to turn a 21-3 halftime hole at Arizona State into a 38-28 win, just two weeks before driving for the game-winning touchdown on the final play at Notre Dame in the famous "Bush Push" game that kept the Trojans' staggering winning streak intact. A month after that, they stormed back from 21-10 down against Fresno State behind a spectacular second half by Reggie Bush, only to fall behind again, 42-41, after a pair of Fresno touchdowns in the fourth quarter. It took yet another SC rally in the final seven minutes to put the Bulldogs away, 50-42.

LSU never had to come from that far back in 2007, but it was only by virtue of dramatic fourth quarter comebacks to put away Florida, Auburn, Alabama and finally Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game that the golden ticket to the BCS title game fell in its lap, thanks to eleventh-hour losses by the No.1 and No. 2 teams in the BCS, Missouri and West Virginia, on the final Saturday of the season. On the other hand, those same Tigers also let a 13-point second half lead slip away in an eventual triple overtime loss at Kentucky, and couldn't finish off a late rally against Arkansas, another triple-OT defeat. They escaped the fire, but not without a couple of nasty burns.

Back in the present, with only an SEC Championship rematch against South Carolina left between Auburn and its BCS destiny in Glendale, Ariz., it's looking increasingly like the only scars the Tigers will carry into the title game in January will come from the simmering pay-for-play allegations against their spectacular quarterback, Cam Newton, without whom they'd likely be another 7-5/8-4 outfit jockeying for a return trip to the Outback Bowl. After Friday's instantly legendary escape against the Tide, the long, endlessly patient arm of the NCAA may be the only opponent they can't outlast.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.