AUBURN, Ala. -- Even as his time at Auburn comes to a close, Tray Matthews is still processing all of his story's twists and turns.
Late Saturday night, surrounded by reporters, he smiled and laughed and continued to take stock of a journey that moments earlier had added to it a stormed football field, beautifully mangled hedges and a division title. Matthews' Auburn Tigers had just knocked off the No. 1-ranked team in college football for the second time in three weeks, beating in-state rival Alabama 26-14 to end the regular season and set up a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
Matthews was proud that on senior night he was able to go out with a bang. His body was dinged up -- a bad hamstring pull nearly sidelined him at one point -- but he said it was nothing he couldn't handle as he tied for a team high in tackles against Alabama, with seven. He is a leader on one of the best defenses in America and is one win away from completing an improbable run to the College Football Playoff.
"It's crazy how things work," Matthews said. "I don't know, maybe God has a plan for all this. I'm just excited. I'm a little kid all over again."
Looking back, things could have turned out much differently for the bright-eyed safety from Newnan, Georgia. There was a time when his plan seemed to be going nowhere good at all.
He could have just as easily been a bust. It certainly looked that way when the former standout freshman at Georgia was kicked off the team after he was caught double-dipping scholarship checks, and then got himself sent out of class for being disruptive. He said he cried when Mark Richt announced his dismissal and he realized that he would have to start over somewhere else.
He could have given up after that. Sitting out that first season at Auburn wasn't easy, and the 2015 season wasn't smooth sailing either, as the team finished 7-6. Then he had to have surgery on both of his shoulders. It hurt so badly that he couldn't rest in bed, lest he turn over on his side and be in even more pain. He said he lost 30 pounds and didn't recognize himself in the mirror. He cried every day and wanted to give up, calling it "the most terrible moment of my life."
Slowly, though, with the help of his mother, who took off work to stay with him during his recovery, he made his way back. He returned last season finally healthy, and it showed, as he led the team with 76 tackles.
The player most known for all things Georgia -- from his involvement on the losing side of the "Prayer at Jordan-Hare" to his dismissal to the "G" still tattooed on his chest -- has become one of the best safeties in the SEC and someone his teammates look to for direction.
"When he talks, they all listen," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "He's got that edge about him that really rubs off on his teammates -- not just defensively but all of them."
That edge served Auburn well this season, when in mid-October it looked as if all was lost. The Tigers were beaten by Clemson in Week 2, and then they coughed up a 20-point lead in a loss at LSU. It would have been easy to fold up shop after that. Even Matthews said he felt his dream slipping away. No team had ever reached the playoff with two losses, after all.
But then Malzahn "broke everything down for us," Matthews said, preaching a 5-0 mentality: Their own playoff began right then and there, and winning five games in a row would get them where they wanted to be, which was in line to play for the SEC title. Matthews bought in and told teammates that it was still their time, and "Everything is still in our hands, especially if we win out."
Auburn manhandled Arkansas and Texas A&M in back-to-back weeks, but it was a Nov. 11 game against then-No. 1 Georgia that truly put the Tigers back on the map. Matthews had three tackles and helped shut down Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and the vaunted Georgia running game to the tune of 46 yards rushing as Auburn won by more than three touchdowns.
Now, with the SEC championship game on the horizon, it feels like some mixture of cruel irony and poetic justice that Matthews will have to beat his old team once more to have a chance to play for a national championship.
"This is our time," he said. "We're ready to go."
The self-described half-linebacker/half-safety says he's "in a happy place right now" and he "wouldn't have it any other way" when it comes to the adversity -- both self-imposed and otherwise -- that he has had to overcome.
Before the season, he called his journey a dream come true. He said it was like a fairy tale: "You start good, it kind of gets a little tricky in the middle, and you ride off into the sunset."
He added: "That's what I'm hoping for."
Right now, with a division title already in tow, it looks as if he's almost there.
"We're getting close to the end," he said Saturday night. "Let's say we have 15 chapters in the book. I'll say we're on chapter 12 right now. We're getting toward the end."
Then he smiled and asked, "The end is always good, right?"
He could be on to something. Auburn has come back from the brink, and so has one of its most influential leaders.
"Everybody doesn't know what we've gone through," Matthews said. "We've gone through hell and back. And now, it's just a beautiful thing we have going on here at Auburn."