From barely squeaking by Washington State in the season opener to throttling fifth-ranked Missouri in the SEC Championship Game, this Auburn team has come a long way in a short time. Coach Gus Malzahn said it has been fun to be part of.
"I don't know if I've ever had a team come as far as we have," Malzahn said. "The very first game, we were an average-at-best team. We were a work in progress probably the first half of the season. Our guys continued to improve. They continued to work hard in practice, which is rare. I probably can count on one hand practices our coaches weren't happy with. Our players bought in to what we asked and they worked extremely hard and they earned the right to get here."
That hard work has shown up on both sides of the ball, but particularly on the ground. Leading the nation in rushing at 335.7 yards per game, the Tigers have gone from 16 rushing touchdowns a year ago to a school-record 46 in 2013. A serious contender for the Heisman Trophy following his 304-yard, four-touchdown effort on Saturday, junior Tre Mason has epitomized the play of Auburn this season.
A hard-nosed back that has worked his way onto the short list of college football's top players, Mason has 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns this season on 283 carries. One of the few brights spots from an otherwise dismal season a year ago, while most of the players are the same Mason said there is definitely a different feeling from these Tigers.
"The confidence level is a lot higher," said Mason. "This time last year, we were home, hanging out watching other guys play ball. That's not really what you want to be doing. Just proud to be in this situation. Happy to be in the national title."
If Mason is the guy that has been the face of the offense for much of this season along with Nick Marshall, that guy on defense has been senior defensive end Dee Ford. One of several players on this team that experienced the championship season in 2010, Ford said getting the opportunity to go back and do it again is something he thought was possible for this team from the beginning.
"As hard as it is to get to this position, you want to come into every game thinking you're going to win," Ford said. "And like I said, if you come in with that mindset, like I said four weeks prior to this, you can win it all. You find yourself in that position if you can really focus."
Auburn now finds itself in a great position, only needed to win one more game to walk off the field at the Rose Bowl as the national champions. It won't be easy as the Seminoles have been the most dominant team in the country this year, winning games by an average of 42 points, but for a team that has played its best football of the season the last three weeks in huge situations Malzahn said he'll take his chances.
"I think that's a unique thing about this team is in the biggest, most pressure moments, they come through and they do it time and time again," Malzahn said. "That's a tribute to those guys and they believe they're going to win and they believe if it's a close game, they're going to win. There was times that things didn't look good at all and I always look on the sidelines and didn't see anybody defeated, didn't see anybody with their head down, they really believed and they found a way to do it."
The Tigers will take this week off for final exams before returning to the practice field next week to begin preparations for the Jan. 6 game in Pasadena.