During the couple of weeks leading up to the BCS National Championship Game, I pondered what would hurt the most; losing in a blowout or losing in the final minutes of the game. After the loss to Florida State, there is no doubt either option would have stung like the dickens but losing this heart breaker vanished any thoughts by the national media, Auburn did not belong in the championship game.
Though it won't make the loss any less difficult to tolerate, I do believe it's important to remember this notion moving forward.
Over the past 20 years of Auburn football, we have witnessed championship caliber teams but not a championship caliber program. The closest Auburn has been recently to a championship caliber program was 2004-2006, when Auburn compiled a record of 33-5. As much as this defeat stings right now, the future Auburn teams still have an opportunity to build a championship program. Auburn fell short of winning the national championship this season but they remain conference champions. Auburn hasn't compiled back-to-back 10-win seasons since 1988 and 1989. The 2014 Auburn Tigers have a great opportunity to equal this feat.
Before this season began, there were two primary goals I wanted to see happen. I wanted Auburn to be a better team at the end of the season than they were at the beginning. Secondly, I wanted the coaches to obtain the most of their players and I firmly believe Malzahn's staff accomplished this as well. The fall is always greater, when the level of success is high, which in the end is what the 2013 Auburn Tigers experienced. I rarely believe in moral victories but I believe Coach Malzahn's ultimate goal is to build a championship caliber program and not just a championship team.
Inside the Numbers...
For those pointing out the faults of Nick Marshall as Auburn's starting quarterback, I believe "perspective" is needed. Over the past 30 seasons, Auburn has faced 75 opponents ranked in the nation's top-10 at the time of the game. Nick Marshall holds 4 of the top-16 performances based on quarterback-efficiency rating. Of the 35 top-5 teams faced during the same time period, Nick Marshall holds 3 of the top-6 performances. This includes the 6th best performance with his game against Florida State. I'm not advocating Nick Marshall is an All-American or even All-conference but he's clearly better than some have given him credit for.
Nick Marshall's season rating of 143.2 is the 5th best passing rating by an Auburn quarterback with at least 160 pass attempts from 1947-2013. Not too bad for a first-year starter without the benefit of a spring camp.
Auburn's 449-yards against Florida State is the 2nd most yardage gained by an Auburn offense from 1981-2013 against a defense that finished the season ranked in the top-10 of total defense. The 2013 Alabama game is the 6th best performance during the same time period.
Tre Mason's 1816-yards rushing and 23 rushing TD's are new Auburn single season records. His 317 carries for the season is the second most carries by an Auburn running back.
The 2013 Auburn offense established a new school record, averaging 501.4 yards per game over the course of an entire season.
The Auburn defense held Florida State to nearly 26 percent below their season average for yards gained per game. The last time Auburn held a team that averaged at least 400-yards per game with 10-wins or more to less than 25 percent below their season average was Alabama in 2009.
The Auburn offense converted 10 of 15 third-downs during the 1st, 2nd and 4th quarters but went 0 for 3 during the third-period.
Auburn was 7 of 11 during third-downs of 6-yards or less but 3 of 7 during 7-yards or more needed to convert.
The majority of Nick Marshall's 27 pass attempts came on third-down against FSU (12). Marshall did manage to convert 5 third-downs passing and 2 more, running the football.
Auburn averaged a respectful 5.44 yards per play on first down against the Seminoles but if you subtract the 50-yard TD pass to Melvin Ray, the Tigers averaged only 4.09 yards per play on first down. This was why Auburn ended up passing on third-down so often (12 times).
Auburn out gained FSU 232 to 156-yards during the first half and the Seminoles out gained the Tigers 229 to 217-yards during the second half.
For the fourth time this season, Cassanova McKinzy led Auburn in tackles. He really played well during the championship game.
If someone told me before the game, Auburn would finish the game with Tre Mason rushing for 195-yards, Nick Marshall having a higher pass-rating than Jameis Winston and Auburn's defense holding FSU to under 400-yards and 3 offensive touchdowns, I would have assumed it was a winning effort. Though these goals were met against the Seminoles, Auburn came up short on the scoreboard. The final outcome revealed just how important special teams can be, especially in a tight ball game. At this level of competition, the room for error narrows tremendously.
In the end Auburn played like it had in so many victories this season. The offense generated nearly 450-yards, 25 first downs and 31 points against one of the top defenses in the country. The Auburn defense made critical stops and Auburn's punting game was superb. Like most other games, teams will make mistakes but against top-level competition, Auburn made enough mistakes to cost them an opportunity to win a second BCS National Title.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on appreciating this team for all of their wonderful accomplishments this season. I mentioned how this particular team was truly special and how I would miss watching them play after January 6th. Those words I posted ring louder today as I reflect back on this season. Yes, this loss hurts really bad for the Auburn family but I am deeply saddened I won't ever see this group of young men play again as a "team". I do look forward to future Auburn teams but this is a bitter pill to swallow because there is not another day for this particular team to redeem itself.
Losing the national championship game will hurt for a while but this team will always be the 2013 SEC Champions. Like Georgia did in 2012, the 2013 Auburn Tigers finished 12-2 on the season. The primary difference is that Auburn finished the season as conference champions and Georgia won their bowl game. This season was still the greatest 1-year turnaround and many Auburn fans will fondly remember this season as one of those special seasons. Though the 2013 Auburn Tigers won't have another an opportunity for redemption, the 2014 team can still carry on their legacy.
The foundation is now in place to build upon the accomplishments of 2013. The potential for the follow up season to 2013 is far better than it was after the 2010 season. The 2011 team lost over 25 seniors and major contributors from a BCS Championship season. The reality is the 2014 team will likely be a better team than the 2013 but like the 2013 team, they will have to work hard to reach for the stars. The 2013 Auburn team laid out the blue print for success for the 2014 Auburn team. It's not a matter of whether or not Auburn will win another national championship but when.
Winning consistently is the key to gaining an advantage in preseason rankings, recruiting and media perception. The media will remember how Auburn closed out the 2013 season against 3 consecutive top-5 teams, winning 2 of them and losing one with only seconds remaining in the game. Gus Malzahn and his staff pushed the 2013 Auburn Tigers into the history books, nearly winning a national championship. They fell short this season but created a grand opportunity for future Auburn teams to reach the summit. It all begins during winter workouts and I look forward to seeing the next addition.
(Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)