The next few days will be excruciatingly tough for Auburn running back Tre Mason.
Not only does he have to think about what could have been for such a special Auburn team and season, but the SECs top running back in 2013 also has to figure out if he's staying at Auburn for one last season or taking his talents to the NFL. Because of the season he and his team had, it won't be an easy decision at all for the junior running back who has eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in two of his three seasons on the Plains.
The Tigers made college football's biggest turnaround in 2013, going from an embarrassing three wins to being four points away from winning the VIZIO BCS National Championship against No. 1 Florida State. In the process, Mason broke Auburn legend Bo Jackson's school record of 1,786 rushing yards in a single season with his 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns. Mason also set the school record for all-purpose yards (2,374) and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy race.
In his last three games of the season, Mason averaged 221 rushing yards and had six touchdowns. Against Florida State's vaunted rushing defense, Mason ran for 195 yards and a 37-yard touchdown that almost sealed a BCS title with 1:19 left inside the Rose Bowl. He bounced off players and ran over and through them all night, looking like the best player on the field for most of the evening.
He looked like the SEC's best player for most of the year as well, and with him getting so close to 2,000 yards and taking his team to the national championship, it will be really hard for Mason to pick another year in college over a life at the professional level. Truth be told, his stock will never be higher.
That's not a knock on the 5-foot-10, 205-pound wrecking ball, but it's very hard for players to duplicate record-breaking years like Mason's. After winning the Heisman last year, Johnny Manziel was a better passer, but he lost more games. Tim Tebow never quite repeated his Heisman performance from 2007, but did win a national championship in 2008, before staying for his senior season. Mark Ingram rushed for nearly 800 fewer yards the year after he won the Heisman in 2009. And Jadeveon Clowney fell off significantly in the stat department this year after his 13-sack 2012 season.
Auburn's chances of returning to the national championship would certainly increase dramatically if Mason returned, but no one on or off the Plains would blame him for bolting to the NFL. The chances of him hitting the 1,800-yard mark in consecutive seasons are slim, and there's always the risk of injury.
Is Mason a first-rounder now? That's tough to say because of his size, but there's no question that he has the vision and athleticism of a top-flight running back. He's tough and churns those legs with the best of them to grind out extra yards. He's also an extremely smart and instinctive football player. Who knows if another year will throw him into the first-round pile, but Mason is going to make an NFL roster, regardless. We all know about the shelf life of the average NFL running back, and Eddie Lacy taught us that the fresher you are coming out of the SEC the better.
This won't come easy, but Mason is ready for the NFL. I'd miss watching him, but this is his time to strike.