AUBURN | How do you judge the success of a football season? Number of wins? Steady, obvious improvement? The level of fight and perseverance put forth? Remarkable victories over fierce rivals? Championships or bust?
Regardless of your measure of success, this 2013 Auburn team surely has exceeded your expectations and placed a checkmark next to every indicator of success listed above -- except the last one.
That chance has arrived.
The most optimistic among observers never dreamed of a 10-win season. The consistent development and progress this team has displayed is clear to even the novice observer. The mental toughness, the respect for every opponent, the drive to fight regardless what the scoreboard reads is undeniable. Retribution against teams that one season ago deconstructed a lifeless, uninspired, pathetic group of Tigers.
The drive versus State. The never-quit attitude and toughness in defeat in Baton Rouge. Being more physical than Ole Miss. Absorbing and countering each shot taken by the reigning Heisman trophy winner. The maturity and physical domination displayed on the road in Fayetteville and Knoxville. The domination of Georgia only to see it slip away in the fourth quarter, yet respond with the play of the year in college football.
It's been amazing to watch, a joy to call. Any former player will testify to the one essential we seek from any team. It's desire. It's the representation of the uniform you wear, the tradition that made that uniform great, the passion you play with because you respect those that came before you, the faithful that show up in full force clamoring for your success. A team that plays with passion is all I ask and I have been blown away by this year by what I've seen.
Yet one challenge remains -- and it's the ultimate test! Undefeated, repeat national title holder, disciplined Alabama enters into Jordan-Hare Stadium and bring with it an immense opportunity. The opportunity for Auburn to finish; finish the march to Atlanta. Finish an improbable run as Division Champions. Shake up the college football landscape by dethroning Alabama. Reclaim this state. Reclaim the moniker of physical football equating to Auburn football. Finish the renaissance that Gus Malzahn has begin.
Why I like Auburn's chances…
Atmosphere in Auburn. Alabama, as a program and the individual players representing this team, has played in many huge games on a national stage. No atmosphere it's encountered will equate even partially to the scene they'll witness in Auburn. It'll be the single most difficult environment for a visiting team perhaps ever. Why? Because of the stakes. Because we've never seen Alabama and Auburn meet in a playoff-type scenario. Because of the vitriolic tone the rivalry has taken, where emotions have become actions. Because Auburn fans believe due the belief shown by men on the field. Soak it up if you're there. The sight will surely be the envy of game day experiences for quite some time.
Auburn's poker face. The fact we've won 10 games using one page of Malzahn playbook is a nightmare for Kirby Smart as he prepares for Auburn's tendencies. Auburn has shown nothing, instead choosing to win games with brute force in vanilla fashion. It's been demoralizing for those attempting to stop it and it's allowed Malzahn and Lashlee the advantage of arriving to this enormous stage with wrinkles and variations Alabama can't rehearse. In truth, the Alabama offense has this same advantage; they're just as vanilla as Auburn. Still, the key that creates an Auburn advantage here is Malzahn's creativity and his ability to attack deficiencies. He'll earn his money finding those deficiencies in this opponent, but I'd place my money on Gus identifying them and those weaknesses being exposed.
Off week. Couldn't have come at a more opportune time. The last-second heroics of Ricardo Louis running to fame in the south end zone and the frenzy that ensued deserved a week to regain composure and turn attention to Alabama. We will be well rested and healthy with two weeks of preparation under our belt. For a game of this magnitude, the off week was perfectly placed and much needed to fine-tune our attack and prepare mentally for this moment.
Experiencing Rock Bottom. The seniors on this Auburn squad played a part in a national title. They also played a part in the worst Auburn team I've ever seen. That dichotomy is the fuel for this group. It's an emotional lift, knowing both what it's like to be on top and knowing all-too-recently what it's like to be on bottom. The Alabama senior class understands success. This too is a powerful weapon, and proof positive not only of the quality football team they are and have been but the passion and tenacity required to return to the top after experiencing hell. That's something Alabama doesn't understand. Auburn may want it more.
Battle tested in the big games. Alabama has strolled through this season. Its schedule was set up perfectly for success -- off weeks before their only tests in A&M and LSU. Catching the worst of the SEC East. No true road test since September 14. Quite frankly, the Tide hasn't truly been challenged. How will it respond when that day arrives? Auburn conversely has been tested repeatedly and has shown the resolve to endure. Minus an early hole in Baton Rouge, this team has persevered and excelled. That experience may pay enormous dividends in a tight game.
Nick Marshall's athleticism. It's no secret Alabama's Achilles heel has been mobile quarterbacks having success keeping plays alive. Nick will be forced numerous times to make something out of nothing where his God-given athletic ability will take center stage. And no stage seems too big for Nick. His teammates believe in his ability and he has a quiet confidence about him that seemingly elevates everyone's play.
Special Teams success. There are not two better, more consistent kickers than Cody Parkey and Steven Clark. These guys need to have tremendous days and make Alabama drive the length of the field for points.
With all the attention and intrigue surrounding Auburn's dominant rushing attack versus Alabama's tremendous defense, I really feel like this game will boil down to the Auburn defense and the ability to limit the Alabama ground game. Their best performance against the run was against Georgia. It'll take an effort greater than that combined with outstanding perimeter tackling for Auburn to have success. They'll also need to get off the field on third down. Alabama will lean on the front seven and try to play keep-away from the Auburn offense. Arkansas had success doing this. The Auburn defense has to understand the situation and make the necessary plays to get off the field.
Auburn needs to play for 30 points. That's the magical number. Auburn has now won its last 86 games when the 30 point threshold has been eclipsed.
If I could talk to the team, what would I say? I'd say have fun. Take in the sights and sounds because it truly doesn't get any better than the Iron Bowl. You've worked your entire lives for this opportunity. Enjoy the moment.
I'd say play the game like it's your last. You'll live with the outcome of this game your entire life. Will you be proud of the effort you put forth?
I'd say go out and become legendary. Your entire season has been improbable. You've defied the odds week after week. Go write your history and become one of Auburn's greatest teams of all time.
I'd say remember the sacrifices you've made to get to this position. Remember the feeling of 49-0. Remember the pain of Ryan Russell. Remember the laughingstock you were in 2012. You still have critics. You still have a large audience that believes you're not a physical football team. You still have people that doubt your ability -- all of you -- across the board. Nothing can change that opinion aside from your play against Alabama.
I'd say do college football and all the Heisman winners of the past a favor -- go wreck the Heisman talk of A.J. McCarron. Make him uncomfortable. Concede nothing. Do him no favors by allowing the five-yard pass to become a 20-yard gain because of poor tackling. Make. Him. Earn. Everything. EVERYTHING!
I'd say play for each other. None of us know what you've endured. None of us know your stories. None of us were there to cheer for you before the sun came up and you were pushing or pulling or sprinting to improve Auburn football. You've sacrificed. You've righted the ship. You go out together and bring this thing full circle.
I'd say I watch you guys play each week. I've watched now for 13 years since I last played. Each year I'm glad I no longer play. Glad I don't have to push my body beyond what my mind could conceive to have the honor and privilege to wear the Auburn uniform. I'm glad until Iron Bowl week. Then, I'm envious. Because I know this week is what makes that effort all worthwhile. You can't manufacture this feeling for anything else you'll be a part of in your life. You'll wish you could go back and do it all over again. You'll wish you could strap it back on one more time.
You'll get chills when you see the two teams stare across the field at one another. You'll tear up, not at sadness or envy or excitement, but out of appreciation and acknowledgement of what both sides have gone through individually to be there. You know what this moment represents in the state of Alabama.
Have unity. Have a mission. Have short memories. Have no regrets. Have no mercy.