No one could stand in the ring with Mike Tyson. He was feared. His opponents were beaten before they walked to the canvas. He was a monster, a nightmarish punisher that was unstoppable, crushing lesser caliber competition with ease.
Thirty-seven wins, thirty-three finished by knockout. Zero losses. Unbeatable. Dreaded. The best in the land. Untested.
Along comes James Buster Douglas. Formidable, but under-appreciated - the antithesis of the "sexy pick." No one stands toe to toe with Tyson, certainly not this B-list challenger. Only Douglas doesn't get the memo. He withstands the Tyson onslaught, the intimidating demeanor, the flurry of raw power and hate unleashed at the hands of the world champion. He challenges Tyson like no one else before him. Tyson is at a loss. He's untested. He's never been in this situation. The rugged Douglas has. He's been humbled by the taste of defeat. He's fought the long, grueling battles.
He does what no one predicts. He knocks out the king. He beats the unbeatable because that night he wanted it more, he prepared for it harder, he drew from the experiences of going the distance, something his competitor never had to do.
Florida State reminds me of Tyson at his summit. Dominant. Crushing the opposition with little effort, but in many respects unproven.
Florida State is uber-talented, there is no denying their athleticism and abilities in all phases of the game. But until you battle someone for four quarters, until you're stung with a barrage of blows deep into a football game where the outcome is uncertain, character questions remain unanswered. Granted, it speaks to Florida State's credit that no team has been capable of mounting a significant challenge worthy of producing angst on the part of the Seminoles.
That will not be the case in Pasadena. This Auburn team is too talented, too mentally tough. They've fought in too many trying battles. They know how their brother will respond when it matters most. They've played from behind and understand what it takes to fight your way back. They've won games that were seemingly unwinnable-sometimes in heroic, desperation fashion, sometimes in methodical, workman-like mode.
And Florida State? They can't answer that question. They don't know and won't know until Monday night. That's not a slight on the Seminoles, it's simply a question unanswered.
Running the SEC gauntlet unblemished is nearly impossible. As this conference vies for its eighth consecutive BCS championship, only two of the previous seven champions have run the table-2009 Alabama and 2010 Auburn. Yet, once-beaten SEC teams have dominated undefeated competitors in the BCS national title game. Football in the SEC is unrivaled and winning this league means something. To get to Atlanta and win, you have beaten some of the best teams in the country. Auburn knows it can play and beat anyone.
And Florida State? Most think they can. Some analysts call the Seminoles the most talented team in a decade. Perhaps they are, but questions linger, doubts remain due to the schedule they play. Winning the ACC is not winning the SEC. It's not even close. Florida State is a SEC team in talent, but how has their competition shaped them?
I still feel a sense of humility surrounds this Auburn unit, a humbleness that fuels the effort required to adequately prepare for this moment. Without the horror of last season, that mind-set would be difficult to produce. Without the sting of Baton Rouge, this team may have never discovered the grit and resolve it takes to be champions. If this Auburn team had won as easily all season as Florida State, that way of thinking would be so far removed from reality it would not be a discussion point.
I don't know the young men wearing garnet and gold, their mental make-up, their passion and drive to improve each week, their motivation to silence the critics. They are undefeated and that takes perseverance and dedication. I do know Auburn's state of mind. I have witnessed it all season, displayed with a relentless pursuit on improving, a mental toughness unwavering, a physical superiority in conditioning, a ruthlessness in finishing, a passionate, prepared coaching staff leading the way. I know Auburn began as cellar dwellers, on the radar of mediocrity at best, a repeat of last season at worst. I know individuals on this team all but forgotten, given up on by those of us that support them on Saturdays, revitalized by the instruction, demands, and excellence of a new staff.
I've witnessed a team grow up, boys become men. The defeated become the targeted. The misery become the impetus for "miracles." This team is not a product of miracles. This team is a product of a lesson in recovery. Resurgence in all aspects of athletic and mental and spiritual areas required to excel. That's what makes this group so very fun and enjoyable to watch. Seeing that reformation on display each week not only makes former players like myself proud, but makes us all search ourselves to overcome our own deficits.
Auburn will not have to manufacture a motivating demeanor. They've had to work too hard for all gains and successes they've achieved. The path for Florida State has been less bumpy, less barbed, more effortless. That's amazing and a testament to their greatness this season; however, it provides no plan for the moment you're kicked in the teeth by a motivated, fearless monster. That will happen in this game to both sides.
One team has dealt with the body shots all season long and understands the art of counterattack. The other team has only dealt the blows. Perhaps the chin is strong, no one knows, but we will find out. If it is not, the knees will buckle, the body will wobble, the undefeated will come crashing down to the ground. Can he go the distance? That's the question. If Auburn can get Florida State into the fourth quarter, game still in doubt, Auburn will win this game.
There are many position battles, keys to victory, musts to have success I could touch on. There are countless ways to both victory and defeat. Ultimately, I just want to see four quarters of effort; the heart that got you to this game.
Play physical, play smart, play to the whistle, play with a purpose, play with confidence, play your hearts out. Play to build upon your legend. Play to satisfy your dreams, your team goals, your pursuit of excellence. Play for your families, your hometowns, your high school teammates you represent. Play with the assurance your fan base is proud and thankful for your effort and representation of our university…your university...no matter the result. Play with no regrets so that not a single one of you walk off that field doubting whether your best effort was given. Play for yourself, for the sacrifices you've made to live in this moment.
The storybook season has one last chapter waiting to be written. It will be finished on Monday night.