Bitter ending: Tigers enjoy sweet season, but the last part wasn't so great
by Ryan Black
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Jan 11, 2014 | 1714 views |  0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Auburn defensive back Jermaine Whitehead sits on the bench and absorbs the Tigers' loss in the BCS Championship Game. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Auburn defensive back Jermaine Whitehead sits on the bench and absorbs the Tigers' loss in the BCS Championship Game. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
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AUBURN — C.J. Uzomah pondered the question for a moment.

How did ending the season with a loss in the BCS title game alter his view on Auburn’s season as a whole? Finally bringing himself to answer, he recalled the “close games” the Tigers had won this year — not mentioning any specifically, but ones that are remembered easily. Be it the stunning endings against Georgia or Alabama or the nail-biting victories against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, Auburn’s 2013 season was rarely dull.

Still, losing to Florida State in the same manner they won so often this year — on a last-minute drive, capped by Jameis Winston’s go-ahead, 2-yard touchdown toss to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds remaining — radically changed the way he will remember this season.

Calling to mind tennis great Jimmy Connors’ famous quote, Uzomah hated to lose more than he loved to win.

“Especially a game like this,” he said minutes after the loss, while still in Auburn's Rose Bowl stadium locker room. “We had plenty of opportunities and we just left some plays on the field. They were the better team, but this is definitely going to be tough to swallow.”

Uzomah at least has another season to make things right.

Dee Ford won’t have that chance, as Monday night’s 34-31 loss was his last game in an Auburn uniform.

“But I couldn't be any prouder of this team, and I couldn't be any prouder of this Auburn family because we stuck together and we got through last year and we made it here,” said the senior, whose two sacks Monday gave him 20.5 for his Auburn career, good enough for sixth-most in school history. “We started from the bottom, now we're here. We didn't win, but at the end of the day, I'm still proud of my team.”

Yes, Ford was disappointed the Tigers let a shot at a national championship slip through their fingers. But he refused to engage in any second-guessing about the defeat.

“You can’t go back and look at it like, ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ — you can’t do that,” he said. “ I’m just more proud of our effort and the transformation we made in a year. We’ve set the bar for many years to come. I had a great career here. I’m just thankful that I had the opportunity to play here. We have nothing to hang our heads about.”

Fellow senior Chris Davis felt the same way. The hero of the Iron Bowl wasn’t able to bail Auburn out on this night. He accepted full blame for the pass interference penalty on third-and-eight at the Tigers’ 10-yard line, giving the Seminoles a first-and-goal 2 yards away from the end zone. He again took the fall for the game-winning touchdown one play later, when he couldn’t keep the 6-foot-5 Benjamin — with a 6-inch height advantage over the 5-foot-11 Davis — from grabbing the ball out of the California evening sky.

Even in defeat, the Tigers gave it everything they had, he said.

“We didn’t want it to end this way,” he said. “But it did and as a competitor, it’s a tough feeling. But life goes on after this. Hopefully, (head coach Gus) Malzahn will get the team back to this point again.”

That’s the plan, anyway.

And that’s exactly what Tre Mason envisions for the future. Even though he won’t be around to see it after he declared for the NFL draft Thursday, the Heisman Trophy finalist believes the Tigers’ program is on solid footing.

“I see them being national champs, and that’s not going to change,” Mason said Thursday. “Me declaring for the draft, that’s not going to keep me away from my teammates. These are still my teammates and my brothers. I’m going to try to make it seem like I never left. I’m going to stay in touch with these guys to make sure their mind is right and to keep grinding, do what it takes to get back to the top.”

They won’t have to look far for motivation, Uzomah said.

All he and his teammates will have to think about is pain they felt losing to the Seminoles.

“We’re going to have this taste in our mouth until the next game, which is next season,” he said. “So we’re going to use this as fuel and really get after it this off-season.”

It was music to Malzahn’s ears as he turned his attention to next season.

“Our approach will be no different,” he said. “We'll still work just as hard. We'll still have the same philosophy about hard work, about improving and about keeping our edge.”

Getting ‘their edge back’ was a goal Malzahn had for the team at the beginning of the season. The Tigers passed that test with flying colors, which he gladly noted in his end-of-season news conference Friday.

Not surprisingly, he was in a far more somber mood in the aftermath of Monday’s loss. After having a few days to reflect, however, the coach felt differently. Given time to decompress, he struck an upbeat tone.

Cue the silver lining.

“The bottom line is we came within 13 seconds of winning the national championship,” he said. “At the very first of the year, I think the very first game, we were probably average at best. Our guys found a way to get better each game and found a way to get us to the last game. To come that close to winning, that was very special to be part of.”

As great as the season was, Malzahn wasn’t satisfied. Just getting to the national title contest isn’t enough. He was confident his program is pointed in the right direction, noting the players and coaches returning next season to the influx of talent in Auburn’s incoming recruiting class.

Difficult as it was to stomach coming so far — from 3-9 to within 13 seconds of a national title — Malzahn took solace in the fact his team “represented” the university well all year. Thanks to this year’s team, a foundation has been laid — and one built “the right way” in Malzahn’s eyes.

Rest assured, the man who engineered one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in the history of college football believes 2013 was simply a prelude to even grander feats.

“We feel very good about our overall program and where we're going,” he said, “and really feel like our best days are ahead of us.”
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