AUBURN, Ala. — The Auburn Athletics Complex has been humming with excitement since players returned to campus on Wednesday afternoon.
As the Tigers finished their first two practices, the mood was lighter, more so mirroring preseason camp than the final weeks of the regular season, when the Tigers were fatigued and struggling to stay healthy ahead of the Iron Bowl.
“It’s a different vibe we have going right now,” sophomore Kamryn Pettway said. “We know everybody’s healthy — everybody’s moving around, flying around — so we feel good going to the bowl game. Everyone’s happy. Everyone is energized about this bowl game.”
Auburn and Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl appearance in New Orleans on January 2 is already being considered one of the most highly anticipated bowl matchups. It will be an opportunity for the Tigers’ top defense to face off against Heisman finalists Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook.
With several practices to go Auburn is focusing on self-adjustments and improvements for a few days before turning its full focus to the Sooners. Seniors are enjoying preparing for their final game as Tigers.
“It’s really been fun. For me, it’s just more about brotherhood, just having fun and this being the last time with my brothers,” Montravius Adams said. “And just having fun, but still being focused on our main goal which is to go in there and win the Sugar Bowl. For me, it’s just really about having fun with my players and winning the game.”
With students home for winter break campus has been quieter, giving the Tigers the chance to regroup and reconnect.
“It feels good. Especially when you’re in bowl practice like this and nobody’s on campus. It’s kind of like camp again,” senior Alex Kozan said. “Weeks like this, it’s really good for the team, because we kind of grow closer in weeks like this when there’s nobody else around. None of those distractions. We get little bonding activities like going bowling or to the movies or something like that, which is good for building a team and stuff like that.”
And while players have enjoyed being back together it’s been even more fun to have almost the entire roster healthy again (senior Devaroe Lawrence had knee surgery on Monday).
Those feelings could best be summed up by Pettway, who was eager to return after playing at about “90 percent” in the Iron Bowl.
“I’ve been feeling fine recently,” Pettway said. “I didn’t know actually until I got out there running and practicing. (Then) I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s time.’”
While in some ways this time has felt like a new beginning for Auburn, it’s also reminded players of expectations leading up to 2016. And that’s not a bad thing.
“We had a lot of doubters at the beginning of the season,” junior linebacker Tre Williams said. “We were basically supposed to finish last in the SEC, not be ranked and everything like that. We proved a lot of people wrong. This is our opportunity to finish it off right. It will also help us lead into the next year.”
And amidst the news former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Sitdham officially signed with the Tigers and top JUCO tight end Salvatore Cannella’s commitment, expectations about the future are building quickly.
“I think it’ll be real important for the seniors,” Adams said. “A great game to be in, a great bowl to play in, but really it sets up the guys for next year for success.”