No one is going to take away the achievement of turning around a 3-9 team into being seconds away from winning a BCS national championship from Gus Malzahn and Auburn. However, despite the season that will eventually be looked back as very successful, the pain of losing after already leading by 18 points is going to sting for quite a while.
Unlike Florida State, this season proved to be a very challenging one for Auburn. Coming off a 3-9 season is rough enough. A new head coach and the competition of the relentless SEC, which might not be as good as some imagine it to be, but it’s still the toughest conference in the nation.
And Auburn took all of its battle experience, which included their wins over Alabama and Georgia that came against all reason and logic, and then their dominant rushing performance against Missouri in the SEC Championship game, into their matchup with Florida State.
For almost two quarters, it couldn’t have worked any better. Auburn ran all over the Seminoles who have the caliber of players to matchup with the Tigers both physically and in terms of ability, but it seemed that an entire season of walking all over the ACC lulled them into a false sense of security. When people looked up at the scoreboard midway through the second quarter, Auburn were leading by 18 points.
We all know how it ended, with Jameis Winston finding Kelvin Benjamin for the game winning touchdown, 13 seconds left in the game. That drive included a pass interference called on Chris Davis, who has holding on Rashad Greene with the Semionles on a 3rd-and-8 situation. Davis also missed a tackle on the biggest play of that drive, allowing Greene to advance 49 yards on a catch-and-run, setting up the touchdown. When it came down to simply making that one big play, all the yards Tre Mason gained all season long were forgotten. So was Nick Marshall’s interception and the fumble by Winston. All that mattered was Florida State making the plays that counted, while Auburn didn’t.
It’ll sting at first, but at some point, those involved will look back at this season with pride. A team that won only three games in 2012 finished at 12-2 a year later. Some might say that this was a fluke, a season of miracles and what not. That will just be downplaying the work done by Malzahn to rebuild. Yes, he got a strong recruiting class and there’s a chance Gene Chizik wasn’t the only person at fault that Auburn fell apart so quickly after Cam Newton left. But the bottom line is Auburn don’t look like a one-and-done team anymore, and will be entering next season with plenty of expectations.
The cyclical nature of College Football offers these kind of redemption, phoenix rising stories. Auburn almost had the perfect one, but just weren’t good enough to finish it through. It doesn’t take away from a remarkable season, that should be the foundation for great ones in the near future, and not a source of disappointment and anguish.