Minutes after Auburn’s six-game win streak was snapped in Sanford Stadium on Saturday night, players heard a familiar message from head coach Gus Malzahn.
“Coach just said we have to come together,” senior offensive lineman Alex Kozan said. “It was the same thing at the beginning of the season when everybody was down on us.”
This outcome, for several reasons, was exceedingly different.
Following early season losses to Clemson and Texas A&M, the Tigers turned their season around after a Week 4 win over LSU. Alabama defeated the Aggies as did Mississippi State a few weeks later.
Auburn was climbing in the national rankings and appeared to be on track for a monumental trip to Tuscaloosa where the SEC West champion would be decided in the Iron Bowl.
The sixth straight loss in Athens ended Auburn’s chances for a trip to the SEC title game in Atlanta and its potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
After the 13-7 loss running back Kerryon Johnson said Auburn players have been mindful of the unpredictability of the playoff, shying away from thoughts about what could be at the end of the year.
No players or coaches directly correlated success against Auburn’s oldest conference rival to the end-of-the-year possibilities, but the significance of the matchup was clear.
“It’s a tough one, it’s heartbreaking,” fullback Chandler Cox said. “I’m hurting, the team is hurting. I’m sure Auburn fans, really the whole nation of Auburn is hurting. We didn’t come here to do this, we didn’t come here to lose, we came here to win. and it’s never fun losing, but it’s something we can learn from and we have to move on.”
Several Tigers, including Kozan, have been on the team for disappointing seasons. Those veterans know what comes next.
“One game doesn’t make your season, at all. That’s something I’ve learned,” Kozan said. “The most important thing is for our team to continue getting better each week. Our season isn’t over. We have two games, we have Alabama A&M and then we have the Iron Bowl, which is obviously, that’s huge. So, for our seniors we’re just trying to keep the team together and get everybody to really focus on those goals and continue to get better.”
The Tigers will be out of national discussion, instead concentrating on avenging a disappointing 2015 season in which Auburn went 7-6 (2-6 SEC).
“You play for pride, you play for winning, finishing the season with just three losses, which is better than what we did last year,” Johnson said. “So you play for pride, you play for a bowl game at the end of the season and you play to win. You play because you love to play football. I mean, we don’t play just to go to the playoffs, we play because we love the game. We come out and play Auburn football like we can go to the playoff regardless.”
Kozan sat in a group of reporters after the game addressing Auburn fans 180 miles away, promising the team would play as hard as they could in the games remaining on their schedule.
Cox asked fans to stick with the team as the Tigers turn to the next two weeks.
“They’re the best fans in college football and I deeply appreciate everyone that has been there to support us, even with our ups and downs,” Cox said. “I’m sure no one’s going to turn their backs on us. There’s going to be a couple of haters out there, but you know what, it’s ok because we’re all family at Auburn and there’s no other place I’d rather be. There’s no other special place like Auburn and I just appreciate everyone out there that’s cheering for us.”
“It’s just kind of like life, you know?” Cox said. “When something hits you, you have to keep moving forward.”