Dec. 27, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. - As Auburn players toiled through the summer in the weight room and went to the field for practice in August, there wasn't much talk about a national championship. But give junior wide receiver Quan Bray credit. He would not settle for setting his goal lower than at the mountaintop.
Asked if he expected Auburn, trying to rebound from a 3-9 record in 2012, to go to a bowl game in Gus Malzahn's first season, Bray snorted.
"Bowl game?" Bray said. "We're shooting for a national championship. Going 3-9 last year, that doesn't mean anything to us. We work hard to be national champs. Anybody doubting us right now, then that's what they can to do, but we've worked hard for it."
You could say Bray was a prophet. No. 2 Auburn and No. 1 Florida will play in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 6.
As I looked back Thursday over interviews from the summer, I was struck by how many players and others were optimistic about the very things this football has done well. And I was struck by how they had dealt with the worst Auburn season in 60 years. Here are some examples, all from interviews before the start of the season:
SR. DE Dee Ford
On his expectations for the season
"I definitely think once we come together and play as one, bring our talents together instead of being all over the place, we will be a force to be reckoned with throughout the year. There is no doubt I am going into every game believing we can win it."
On the change in attitude brought by Malzahn and his staff
"We're not having to beg anybody to get in, not begging anybody to work out. I've never seen this many guys put in extra work during the summertime, and our workouts are as hard as it gets. I've never seen so many guys taking their training so seriously. We have guys who are 10 times stronger than they were even in the spring. We're just seeing guys getting better, things meaning something to them. Collectively, we are understanding why we put in this kind of work."
On going 3-9 in 2012
"Once you are losing in this league, life changes. People begin to anticipate losing their jobs and moving and possibly not having a job, so the pressure comes on the players. It's different. It's totally different. When they start to say it's just a game, no, it's not just a game when you are losing. It becomes very real at that point."
SR. DE Nosa Eguae
On being ready for his senior season
"We are family. When I see somebody and they talk about last year, it's something that hurts everybody. It doesn't just hurt the players. It hurts the fans, the support staff, everybody. We just want to make sure we go out and end this one the right note. We have a good group of seniors, and we are looking forward to making that happen."
JR. RB Tre Mason
On being motivated by doubters
"People told me I wasn't big enough. I wasn't strong enough. I wasn't fast enough. I take all of that as motivation to get bigger, stronger and faster, and to prove everybody wrong."
OL COACH J.B. Grimes
On center Reese Dismukes
"The guy is a warrior. I'd take that dude anywhere. He's what you are looking for right down the middle of your football team. The grind isn't getting to him. He's too tough. I like that toughness. He's mentally tough, too. He could play any position out there and not miss an assignment. He's played a lot of saps at Auburn, and it shows. He's been there and done that and he's leading us."
JR. TE C.J. Uzomah
On quarterback Nick Marshall
"I kind of knew Nick coming out of high school because we came out together and were both from Georgia. Him coming here and showing how athletic he is and how fast he is and his ability to extend the play and make things happen with his legs is something you just have to watch. He's a blazing guy. It's something kind of special."
EARLENE MAHOGANEY, MARSHALL'S GRANDMOTHER
On Marshall overcoming his detractors
"I said `Baby you're an eagle. All the people trying to put you down are crows. A crow can't fly as high as an eagle.' The other night, when we got the call (that he'd been named the starter), I told my baby he was an eagle. Now he's an eagle, plus he's a War Eagle. I said glory be to God."
MARK LEDFORD, MARSHALL'S HIGH SCHOOL COACH
On Marshall's ability to play QB in the SEC
"Honestly, there's not anything he can't do. He's the best basketball player I've ever seen. He could have been the best baseball player. There really is nothing he can't do. He played wide receiver for me when he was a freshman, and he'd be the No. 1 receiver on a number of college teams. The Georgia coaches said he'd be a first-round draft choice if he stayed at corner."
SO. LT Greg Robinson
On going into his second year as a starter
"I gained weight, but it was pretty much all muscle. The offseason went great. We worked hard. I was trying to get stronger with my upper body, and eventually that will improve my hands, too. I got quicker with my feet."
So it went throughout the summer and preseason practice. You sensed optimism, but there was no brash talking. You sensed that players and coaches thought there was enough talent on hand to win but understood the climb back would be hard.
Now, almost five months since Auburn players coaches took the practice field in heat of early August, the Tigers are getting ready to play for the biggest prize in the game.
It truly has been amazing to watch.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: