By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN - Nosa Eguae has been to college football's mountaintop, but in the wake of the worst Auburn football season in 60 years, the celebration of the 2010 national championship seems long ago and far away.
It was 29 months ago that Eguae, as a redshirt freshman, started at defensive end and made four tackles in Auburn's 22-19 victory over Oregon in the BCS Championship Game. He is one of nine 2013 Auburn seniors who played that night in Glendale, Ariz. The memory will be with them always, but they have one more season to play, one more chance to climb that mountain.
Last season's 3-9 collapse cost head coach Gene Chizik and his staff their jobs. Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator on that joyful Auburn night, was called back after one season at Arkansas State. A team that finished last season in disarray believes again as another season rushes closer.
"As a competitor, when you work so hard and everybody is telling you what you can't do, you want to go out there and do it," Eguae says. "You want to do it really bad. We are going to go out there every Saturday to win games, not just for us but for the Auburn family."
Safety Demetruce McNeal, then a true freshman, made perhaps a game-saving play that night at University of Phoenix Stadium. Late in the third quarter, trailing 19-11, Oregon had a first down at the Auburn 46. Quarterback Darron Thomas found wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei running wide-open. Tuinei seemed surely headed for a touchdown, but McNeal ran him down at the 3-yard line.
Four plays later, linebacker Josh Bynes stopped running back Kenjon Barner cold at the 1-yard on fourth down, punctuating one of the great goal-line stands in Auburn history. And the Tigers completed a 14-0 season in which they came from behind to win again and again. Even as controversy swirled around quarterback Cam Newton, they rallied four times from deficits of 13 points or more. At Alabama, in the regular-season finale, they made a historic comeback from a 24-0 first-half deficit to win 28-27.
There was, McNeal says, a valuable lesson to be learned.
"No matter how much you are down, stay together," McNeal says. "All the things that happened off the field and what not, we stayed together as a team. We were always a second-half team because we stayed together."
Restoring that will to win, that refusal to give in, is a top priority for Auburn's coaches. Kodi Burns, now a graduate assistant, was on the field that night, too. He caught the only touchdown pass of his career.
"Having been part of an SEC and national championship team, playing receiver and quarterback in the SEC and starting at both," Burns says, "I just know there is a lot I can give back."
Few prognosticators expect much from the Tigers of 2013. And Malzahn is making no grand promises. But he expresses little doubt that another Auburn team will celebrate a championship, and it won't be long.
"Two years ago we won a championship," Malzahn said on the night he was introduced last December. "The expectation at Auburn is to win championships. We are going to do everything in our power to get that done."
Eguae, McNeal, cornerback Chris Davis, linebacker Jake Holland, defensive end Craig Sanders, defensive tackles Jeff Whitaker and Kenneth Carter, cornerback/holder Ryan White and safety Ryan Smith played in arguably the biggest game in Auburn history. Wide receiver Trovon Reed, linebacker LaDarius Owens, safety Trent Fisher, defensive end Justin DeLaine and offensive lineman Chad Slade were redshirted and did their part as scout teamers. They cheered from the sideline.
All of those players will be counted on to perform and to lead in the season of 2013. They know what it takes to climb the highest mountain.
They've been there.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: