Jan. 4, 2014
Auburn seniors pose after finishing their final practice together on Saturday (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – The wounds of 2012 were still fresh when Auburn’s seniors came together early this year. More of them than not had played two years earlier in Glendale, Ariz., when Auburn won the national championship. And they had seen it all fall apart, culminating in a 3-9 record last season.
Soon after Gus Malzahn was named head coach on Dec. 4 of 2012, those seniors committed themselves to each other and to the program. They vowed things would be different. And they made it happen.
A year later, the No. 2 Tigers (12-1) are preparing to play No. 1 Florida State (13-0) in the BCS Championship Game on Monday night at the Rose Bowl.
Amid the sounds of BCS Media Day, when every player and coach gathers in a large room to talk about the game to come, senior middle linebacker Holland looked back at his four Auburn years.
“We started off on top, and then we kind of went downhill the next two years,” Holland said. "We came together as an upper class group and said ‘We need to get back to where we were.’ We were able to do that this year. Hopefully, we can finish strong.”
There was a cleansing, Holland said. They put their trust in Malzahn and the coaches he brought to the staff. The promised to hold each other accountable on the field, in the weight room, in class, in the community.
“We had a lot of things going on in previous years, and I think that affected us,” Holland said. “Starting with the offseason, we said let’s put that behind us. And we did.”
It was a season that will be part of Auburn football lore. Quarterback Nick Marshall leading an 88-yard drive to beat Mississippi State, a shootout victory at Texas A&M, Ricardo Louis’ catch of a batted pass to beat Georgia, Chris Davis’ 109-yard sprint with a missed field goal to beat Alabama, Marshall's 39-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates to make it possible and Tre Mason running around and through some of the top defenses in college football en route to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist will be played and replayed for decades to come.
Malzahn said none of it would have happened without a bruised senior class showing the way.
“It's been very unique to watch this group come together,” Malzahn said. “They're an extremely close group. Our seniors deserve a lot of the credit for bringing this team together. With everything they went through last year, they had some battle scars. They put that behind them and they believed.
“They played together for each other, and they played their guts out for us.”
Holland endured booing from his own school’s fans and went to have the best season of his career.
“Yeah, I’ve had some good games,” Holland said. “I think later in the season I’ve had some really good games. I’d say this has been my best year. I’ve been pretty productive and I’ve enjoyed the year. This is going to be my last game, and I hope to go out strong.”
Starting in the weightroom last January, Auburn seniors were on a mission, defensive end Craig Sanders said, to find redemption for the misery of a season gone so terribly wrong.
“We restored the Auburn name,” Sanders said. “Last year it went downhill. We brought the program back to where it needs to be and where it’s supposed to be.”
Defensive tackle Nosa Eguae was a starting defensive end when Auburn beat Oregon 22-19 to win the 2010 national championship. It was an experience he yearns to have again.
“Being in this moment, being a senior now, it's an awesome feeling,” Eguae said. “There's no better way to go out. To go through the things that we've been through in our four or five years is an amazing experience. We're just making the most of the moment, going out there and just doing what we have to do to bring this one back to Auburn.”
Others who played against Oregon had been all but abandoned before Malzahn and his staff took over, declaring it was a new day and that everyone would start with a clean slate. Sanders was one of those who earned his way back into the playing rotation.
“Coming in as a freshman and winning the national championship and then getting to go out playing for the national championship is just awesome,” Sanders said. “The whole week has been emotional because it’s just kind of hitting me that it’s the last time I’m going to be able to put an Auburn helmet on.”
More from Auburn seniors:
DE Dee Ford
“This is a great feeling. This is what we work for, and to see it actually unfold, it's a blessing for us. We're definitely embracing the moment right now. We're working hard, and just being a part of all these events and things like that is definitely a blessing. I was a sophomore at the time in 2010 and played a little bit, but really having a chance to play in a big game like this is definitely a blessing, and I'm just happy to be here.”
CB Chris Davis
“The season has been fun. The return was a good return, but I had 10 other guys blocking for me. It was great blocking all up and down the field, so I give them most of the credit. We just stayed together. After that LSU loss, nobody blamed each other. We kept approaching practice the way we had been doing, and that's what got us to this point we are now. Coach Malzahn kept us focused on the process and that's why we are here."
S Ryan Smith
“It’s been the best season I’ve had. I know we won it all my freshman year, but the way this team fought coming off last year, this coaching staff and the way they believe in us and the way this team has stuck together has been real fun.”
S Ryan White
"Guys were in it just for themselves (in 2012). Guys were trying to show out and get their status up. It was the worst season I've been through in my whole football career. Ugly. Some of the longest games of my life. It was tragic for us and the Auburn nation. We definitely didn’t want to go back there.
“… I've seen the good times and bad times. I've seen people open doors for me and seen doors close. That's the way it is. (Auburn) people love their football, and they expect greatness. They shouldn't expect any less."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: