Auburn, Ala.--This week's Iron Bowl game will be the last regular season game for a group of Auburn seniors that are one win away from setting the school record for victories in four seasons with 40. While there have been many hard-fought wins over that time perhaps none will be as tough as this week's contest in Tuscaloosa because of the circumstances.
Coming off a horrendous performance against Georgia last weekend the Tigers aren't a confident team to begin with. Throw in four consecutive victories over Alabama in the series and the game being in Bryant-Denny Stadium and you have all the makings for an Alabama victory. Everything looks that way except for one thing and that is the heart of a champion that beats in senior wide receiver Courtney Taylor.
Auburn's best offensive player at the moment and the most experienced player in coach Al Borges' system, Taylor knows all too well about the Auburn-Alabama rivalry having grown up just outside the Tuscaloosa city limits in Carrollton. Preparing for his final chance to play against the Crimson Tide and hoping to leave having never lost to them in his five years at Auburn, Taylor took on a major leadership role Tuesday morning in front of the entire offense and left the team hungry to send him and the senior class out a winner. Center Joe Cope says that the look in Taylor's eyes alone was enough to inspire the offense to one of its best days of the year.
"I guess coach Borges is doing something different," Cope says. "I guess every day he's going to let somebody who has played in the game speak. Today with the offense C.T. got up and he talked and gave everybody chill bumps talking about the rivalry and letting the younger guys know what this game is about, not only to us, but to families all across the state and everywhere else in the Southeast.
"It was really a passionate speech and everybody was in there ready to go," he adds. "I think that spurred us to having one of the best offensive practices we've had all year. We didn't have any mess-ups out there, everybody was fired up and yelling. It was real fun and a good practice."
Taylor and Ben Grubbs celebrate Auburn's win over Florida earlier this season.
Just three receptions away from tying the all-time career record at Auburn of 150 catches held by Karsten Bailey, Taylor is set to become one of the best ever in orange and blue when he hangs up his cleats following Auburn's bowl game. He's hoping to ensure his place in history as well as one of the few players to ever be part of five victories over Alabama counting his redshirt season. Because of that Taylor's impassioned speech Tuesday morning hit home will fellow receiver Rodgeriqus Smith.
"It was pretty amazing," Smith says. "He just told us how important this game is to him but also to everyone in this state and the South. You could see in his eyes how big this game is for him and the seniors. We just want to send them out with a victory over Alabama."
Another of the younger players that was caught up in the moment during Taylor's talk was sophomore running back Brad Lester. Expected to get more carries this week and be a bigger part of the entire offense, Lester says that he's fired up after listening to Taylor.
"He said this is the last go-round playing against Alabama and that, win or lose, you will always remember this game," Lester says. "He asked everybody to do it for the seniors.
"It fired me up even more than I already was," he adds. "I'm looking at it as I want to do this for C.T.and all these seniors, too."
A fellow senior and also from Alabama, guard Ben Grubbs also knows all about the Iron Bowl. Growing up a fan of Alabama before deciding to attend Auburn, Grubbs says that Taylor's talk Tuesday morning was just what the offense needed to get things cranked up and ready to play Saturday.
"I saw the emotion in his eyes," Grubbs says. "He challenged us as his teammates to play with him and to play for him, as well as the lower classmen to play for our seniors. This really is our last game. I saw the emotion and intensity in his eyes. It just fired me up. I was ready to go play today. It's good to get something from people other than your coaches."
Taylor and Grubbs are two of a group of seniors that will be leading a team into the Iron Bowl Saturday that will have several players seeing the experience for the first time on the field. Because of that Grubbs says Taylor's talk was important because it reinforced what the coaches have been saying but coming from a player it means even more.
"The freshmen have no idea what they're about to get into. They hear the coaches so much it might go in one year and out the other. When we, as their teammates, challenge them, it makes it personal. If you don't accept the challenge, it makes you less of a man."