What started with challenging winter workouts, grinding spring practices and continued through a physical preseason has led to 12 wins, an SEC Championship and a berth against top-ranked Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.
While it's impossible to look at this team and not see the impact of underclassman standouts such as Tre Mason, Nick Marshall, Reese Dismukes, Greg Robinson and others on offense along with Gabe Wright, Jonathon Mincy, Jermaine Whitehead, Kris Frost, Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel on defense, this team would not be where it is today without strong leadership from a senior class that has seen more than its share of ups and downs.
On offense it is easy to find the senior because there is only one on the two-deep. Fullback Jay Prosch has been a huge part of Auburn's success running the football and is a player who has become another offensive lineman despite lining up all over the field for the Tigers.
Coming back from a tough 2012 season that saw him lose his mother to cancer and battle through injuries for a team that won just three games, Prosch never stopped working to become a better player even though he wasn't sure where he would fit in Gus Malzahn's offense.
It took a few games to sort that out, but once the running game got rolling you could find Prosch at the middle of the success. Now preparing for the national title game, Malzahn said strong blocking is a big reason for Auburn's success.
On the defensive side of the ball the Tigers are loaded with senior leaders starting with Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae up front. A relentless worker since he arrived from St. Clair County High School, Ford has been injured on and off during his time at Auburn, but saved the best for his last season. Even though he missed the first two games due to a knee injury, Ford has become a difference-maker for the defense and a big reason why the Tigers have a chance to put pressure on FSU quarterback Jameis Winston.
Sometimes for a defensive lineman you can't measure his impact by the numbers. That is definitely the case with Eguae. Moving inside to tackle four games into the 2013 season, his move has coincided with perfection by the Tigers on the field. There is no question that he has made a difference with his effort and hustle despite being massively undersized for the position, but what he has shown his teammates about putting the team first is something that will stick for them forever.
Playing important roles on a deep defensive line, Craig Sanders and Kenneth Carter have both been able to help in key situations in 2013. Combining for 29 tackles and six tackles for losses, Sanders and Carter have both found a role in Auburn's defense this season.
At linebacker Jake Holland has battled through more injuries that anyone will ever know, but not once has he complained or taken a play off. Instead he has kept working harder and harder to get the job done. Because of that he's finishing his career with could be his best season in an Auburn uniform. Despite sharing time with Frost he has 45 tackles and has been a stabilizing presence in the middle for the Tigers.
There is no question that Chris Davis has taken his game to a higher level as a senior for the Tigers under the guidance of Melvin Smith at cornerback, but also as a kick returner. Leading the team with 69 tackles even though he missed two games because of an injury, the normally-quiet Davis has come out of his shell to become a vocal leader for Auburn. Throw in his kick return prowess, that includes a pair of touchdowns against Tennessee and Alabama, and Davis just may be Auburn's overall defensive MVP this season.
While Davis might be the most valuable player, the most important players to Auburn's success could be seniors Ryan Smith and Ryan White. The duo has played an integral part of the defensive effort for the Tigers this season after rarely getting on the field in 2012. Moved into a starting role at safety when Demetruce McNeal was dismissed because of a violation of team rules and Josh Holsey was injured in practice, Smith is third on the team with 62 tackles and second with three interceptions.
Starting two games at cornerback with an injury to Davis, White made the move to safety for the Texas A&M game without the benefit of a practice at that position. Playing safety and corner since that time, White has been the glue that has held the secondary together late in the season. With 49 tackles, one interception and five pass breakups, White is the epitome of what a team player is all about and one of the more interesting stories for the 2013 Tigers.
The senior leadership even extends to the kicking game for this team with kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark playing a major role in Auburn's success this year. Connecting on 14-19 field goals and 62-63 extra points, Parkey has been very good in his final season with the Tigers. Perhaps his biggest impact has been on kickoffs with 67 touchbacks in 92 attempts this season, helping the Tigers win the field position battle.
That has been the case with Clark as well. Averaging 42.5 yards per punt this season, Clark's net punting average is 40.2 thanks to just five returned punts for 35 yards by Auburn's opponents this season. With 23 of his 50 kicks finishing inside the 20-yard line this season, Clark has been another big reason for the Tigers' success by keeping the opposition backed up.
Last, but not least, I couldn't mention this senior class without talking about Jeffrey Whitaker. Unable to play this season because of an injury and coming back next season following a redshirt year, Whitaker hasn't let that stop him from playing a role in the success this year. Providing a shoulder to lean on for young defensive linemen such as Adams, Lawson and Daniel, Whitaker has remained involved in the day-to-day activities of the team and that is yet another example of why this group has defied the odds to earn a shot in the national title game.
Following a season in which very little went right for the Tigers, this group of seniors made it their goal to leave Auburn with no regrets and a lasting legacy. After winning their second SEC title and with a chance at their second crystal football, it's safe to say they were successful.