Dee Ford has seen it all during his time at Auburn -- the highs and the lows.
As a freshman, he won a BCS national championship. Two years later, he endured a 3-9 season and the coaching change that ensued. But the senior defensive end stuck around and finished his career as a part of this year’s Auburn team that came a play or two away from winning a second national championship in the last four years.
“It's been a big roller coaster,” Ford said prior to Monday’s title game. “There's a message behind it. Things aren't going to work out when you expect it to. It’s really revealed who we are as individuals and who we are as a team.”
Things didn’t work out for the Tigers in Pasadena. They ultimately fell short of the ultimate goal, losing to Florida State in the national championship, but it was still a season to remember for Ford and the rest of that senior class. After everything, they went out on top.
“It means a lot for me to go out (like this) my last year,” Ford said after the game. “In the entire time, we set a goal to have the biggest turnaround in college football history, and it was an amazing journey for me. I'm definitely proud to be an Auburn Tiger right now. We didn't win, but at the end of the day, I'm still proud of my team.”
It was the same sentiment shared by all 15 seniors. The majority of them were there for the 2010 national championship. They all went through last year’s difficult season and finished this season on top, despite the loss to the Seminoles.
It was a journey that brought them closer together.
Ford’s partner on the defensive line, Nosa Eguae, is also a senior. In fact, he was the only starter from the 2010 team still on the roster. On Tuesday, Eguae addressed his fellow seniors in an open letter to the fans that he shared with multiple media outlets.
“This is the last time my brothers and I will get to spend a day with each other,” Eguae said. “For tomorrow, we will go our separate ways and pass the torch to the next group of seniors that will lead and fight for the greater good of the family. From tragedy to triumph, I could not ask for a better group of men to ride off into the sunset with.”
In addition to Eguae and Ford, the senior class that has grown so close together includes the likes of Steven Clark, Chris Davis, Jake Holland, Cody Parkey, Jay Prosch, Ryan Smith and Ryan White -- all who started or made an impact at some point during the season.
It’s a group that could have won two national championships during their time at Auburn but will still leave behind a legacy that will affect the program for years to come.
“There will be a lot of great things and great memories that our seniors have led us to be,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were just on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons, but there's so many great things that we'll take. I just told the seniors they laid the groundwork for our program moving forward, and our program is very bright right now.”
With nine starters returning on offense, pending Tre Mason's decision, and seven starters returning on defense, the Tigers should be among the nation’s elite teams again next season. They’re ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2014. But it will be up to the seniors-to-be to provide the leadership.
Center Reese Dismukes, a three-year starter, knows he’ll be counted on as a leader again next season, but he showed his appreciation to the departing seniors after Monday’s game.
“Proud of my teammates and coaches,” the Auburn captain tweeted. “We fight and fight til the end. Thanks seniors for all you’ve done for this program.”
The torch has been passed.