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Auburn experience was a lesson on life for fifth-year senior Alex Kozan

NEW ORLEANS -- A few days before his final college game, Alex Kozan allowed himself to philosophize about his college career and how it mirrored Auburn’s football history.

In five seasons at Auburn, the All-SEC offensive lineman had a front-row seat on an Auburn rollercoaster that careened between arguably the worst season in school history, off-the-field tragedies, a fired coach, a national championship game appearance the next season and varying levels of success and mediocrity between those two endpoints.

It was a lot like life, Kozan realized.

“My time at Auburn was great,” Kozan said. “I got experience playing in a national championship game; I’m going to play in a Sugar Bowl. I’ve played in a mid-tier bowl like the Outback Bowl, and then I played in a barely-get-in-a-bowl like the Birmingham Bowl, and then I didn’t go to a bowl. So kind of everywhere in between, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

“We didn’t win the national championship every year, but I almost like it better like this because life’s not like that. You’re not going to be the most successful at everything every single time. You’ve got to kind of fight through, keep battling and appreciate success when it comes.”

He has experienced his share of success. Kozan started all 40 games in which he appeared at Auburn between 2013 and 2016 -- he sat out the 2014 season with a back injury -- earning freshman All-America honors while helping the Tigers win the 2013 SEC title while coming up just 13 seconds short of a national championship that season against Florida State.

He wasn’t at full strength in 2015 after coming back from the back injury, but returned to form as a team captain in 2016, earning All-SEC honors and even an All-America nod from the Sporting News.

Kozan also earned multiple academic honors and graduated with a finance degree in 2015.

In addition, he was part of the program in some of Auburn’s lowest points.

Two years after coach Gene Chizik and quarterback Cam Newton led the Tigers to a national championship, the 2012 Tigers went 3-9 (0-8 in SEC play) with discipline issues and cheating allegations encircling the program. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs fired Chizik after a dismal performance against Alabama where the Tigers lost 49-0.

Kozan said that Iron Bowl was the only time where he could recall Auburn players chasing stats during a game, with the Tigers battling to help running back Tre Mason scrape out just enough yards to post a 1,000-yard season. Mason finished with 82 yards against Alabama to reach 1,002 for the season -- the lone bright spot in an otherwise disastrous season.

“I think that year was such an anomaly, I’d say. It was kind of the perfect storm for failure, really,” Kozan said. “That’s not Auburn. But every team has a year, unless you’re recruiting the No. 1 recruiting class every year, where you fall off. So that year a couple things didn’t work out, you had misses in recruiting, some guys left the team, you had guys getting in trouble. So [playing in the Sugar Bowl] is where Auburn expects to be, playing in big-time bowls and having a chance to win their conference in November. That’s where Auburn should be, and that’s where I expect it to be in the future.”

Kozan and his fellow fifth-year seniors -- offensive tackle Robert Leff and defensive backs Joshua Holsey and T.J. Davis -- saw their share of tragedy as well. They were freshmen when Auburn players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips were shot and killed at an Auburn apartment complex in June 2012. Two years later, Auburn player Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed at the same complex.

And former teammate Philip Lutzenkirchen -- who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in an emotional comeback win at Alabama in 2010 -- was killed in a drunk driving crash in June 2014.

The program bounced back in an enormous way in 2013 under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. The Tigers won nine in a row after an early loss to LSU and claimed an SEC title by shredding Missouri’s defense for 677 yards in the conference championship game. They got there by notching two of the most dramatic wins in Auburn history: the “Miracle on the Plains” win over Georgia where Ricardo Louis hauled in a tipped Hail Mary for the game-winning touchdown, followed by the “Kick Six” where Auburn’s Chris Davis ran the length of the field with a missed field goal return to beat Alabama on the game’s final play.

Auburn’s offensive line didn’t have to play for stats to get Mason to 1,000 yards that year. Mason’s 1,816 yards and 23 yards in 2013 still rank among the best seasons by any SEC running back.

Malzahn seemed to have more magic left in his arsenal in 2014 -- the Tigers sat third in the College Football Playoff rankings in Week 11 -- but lost four of their final five games to finish 8-5. The regression was even more dramatic the following year, with Auburn’s formerly explosive offense sputtering without a dynamic quarterback and the 2015 Tigers needing a late win over Idaho just to reach bowl eligibility.

Even if it ended with a thud, Auburn’s seniors believe this season helped things trend back in a more positive direction. They went from 7-6 to a New Year’s Six appearance in one year, entering bowl season at No. 13 in the CFP rankings, the SEC’s highest-ranked team behind No. 1 Alabama.

“To end the year at the Sugar Bowl after we just played at the Birmingham Bowl is a big kudos to what we did as a team in the offseason and the commitment we made to each other to be better than what we were last year,” Holsey said.

Added Leff: “I think really ending my career at Auburn with a Sugar Bowl after we’ve been to the Rose Bowl and everything else is really the best experience.”

The seniors’ final memory was not especially positive -- they lost the bowl game to Oklahoma, following losses to rivals Alabama and Georgia at the end of the regular season -- representing one final dip in the wild ride that has been their college careers.

“That’s kind of been Auburn to a certain extent,” Kozan said. “We’ve only had back-to-back 10-win seasons once [1988 and 1989] so that’s one of the things we’re focusing on in the program even from a strength and conditioning standpoint all the way to the top is becoming, not only successful, but more consistent in our success. So we’re trying to get the program where it needs to be.

“That’s one of the things I’ve focused on, and not just this season because every season is different, but leaving it in a better place for the younger players that come after me so that way there’s no drop-off and Auburn continues to be great.”