AUBURN, Ala. — This is nothing new for the Auburn Tigers, however it seems.
The fourth-ranked Tigers have surged into the national championship picture with a huge season, just like they did in 2004 and 2010 after opening amid modest expectations. Remaining in that rarefied air over a sustained period — like rival No. 1 Alabama — is the next challenge.
First things first, Auburn (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) gets a chance to find out how well this team stacks up against the Crimson Tide on Saturday with the winner moving on to the league championship game in Atlanta.
Win or lose, the big-picture task for coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers is trying to measure up to their in-state rival over the long haul.
Malzahn believes Auburn can be a regular near the top.
"There is no doubt," the first-year coach said on Tuesday. "Auburn is a great place. Auburn is a place where you can win and win on a consistent basis. I am real proud of this team that they have gotten to this point. They have improved each game and set themselves up to go to Atlanta."
The turnaround has been both sudden and impressive.
The Tigers are in the not altogether enviable position of having perhaps the ultimate measuring stick for consistency three hours away. Nick Saban has turned the two-time defending national champion Tide (11-0, 7-0) into a juggernaut with no signs of slippage.
"We want to win this game, and I think this will be a measuring stick of how we've grown as a team, where we are and where we want to head," Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah said.
Auburn has had three undefeated seasons since 1993 only to have all three coaches — Terry Bowden, Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik — ousted within five years. The most precipitous decline came when Chizik was fired last November two seasons after winning the 2010 title, going from 14-0 to 3-9 in that span.
Now, the Tigers have climbed right back to college football's top tier.
"As coach Malzahn says, we started in the outhouse and now we're headed to the penthouse," Auburn tailback Tre Mason said.
Now, the trick is staying there.
The Tigers have gotten off to a good start in building for the long haul. They brought in an initial recruiting class that included highly rated freshman defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams and junior college quarterback Nick Marshall, an instant starter.
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A coaching staff with an abundance of SEC experience and recruiting successes is also building a Top 10 follow-up recruiting class.
Since beating Oregon in the BCS championship game, Auburn's signing classes have been rated 13th, 11th and eighth nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings of the major web sites covering recruiting.
Alabama has pulled in three consecutive No. 1 classes and is on its way to a fourth in a row based on nonbinding verbal commitments.
On the field, the Tigers have already found ways to win, like the 2010 team.
Cam Newton and Co. managed a number of comebacks, including one after overcoming a 24-point deficit to beat the Tide.
"We win ugly, just like we did in 2010," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. "We win very ugly, but we take it. We weren't able to do that at LSU, but I see this team just finding a way to win no matter what the circumstance, just like in 2010."
Auburn has had some good fortune along the way with the deflected Hail Mary touchdown to beat Georgia after losing a big lead.
Saban scoffs at any notion that play was just about luck.
"They really probably deserved to win the game, based on how they played in the game, and they got rewarded for it in the end by making a big play," he said.
Now, this Iron Bowl one of the biggest ever, and Malzahn takes that as a good sign.
"Any time you have a chance to play in a game like this," he said, "that tells you good things are ahead."