The storybook ending to Auburn’s extraordinary turnaround season was within its grasp Monday night.
But with 13 seconds remaining, it all came undone.
Blame Jameis Winston and Kelvin Benjamin for spoiling it, as Florida State’s quarterback-receiver combo connected on a touchdown pass in the BCS championship game, lifting the top-ranked Seminoles to a 34-31 victory.
Despite the bitter taste of disappointment that came with such a narrow loss on the grandest of stages, Auburn fans walked away optimistic about the future of the Tigers’ program.
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Like Brooks Forehand, for one.
The lifelong fan was in the stands “going nuts” as Auburn tried to pull off one last miracle victory in a season that had been filled with them.
“It hurts so bad right now, but what a great year,” Forehand said. “Auburn fans have a lot to be thankful for — and a whole lot to look forward to.”
It was a special night for Forehand, who attended Auburn and graduated from Troy. He was wearing a ring that was earned by his late brother-in-law, Bobby Lauder. A former Auburn player, Lauder was a member of the 1957 national championship team, and Forehand was wearing the commemorative ring players received on the 50th anniversary of the title. Lauder, a Hurtsboro, Ala., bank president, was killed in an automobile accident in the mid-1970s; Lauder’s wife and Forehand’s sister, Peggy Dozier, was also at the game,
When Auburn went up by four points with less than two minutes to play, Forehand thought the Tigers were going to bring home the championship. He even believed after FSU scored with 13 seconds remaining to take the lead.
“We were going nuts right up until the last second,” Forehand said. “I really felt like we had one more in us.”
Forehand wasn’t the only Tiger backer who was ecstatic with the team’s bounce-back campaign, though.
Mike Helms was also in the Rose Bowl on Monday night. And it wasn’t his first postseason experience with the Tigers, either.
The retired Columbus dentist — who made the trip West with his wife, Dianna, a fellow Auburn grad — was a defensive end on the 1963 team that lost to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
“I really wanted to win, but I thought Auburn played well,” Helms said of Monday’s loss.
What has Helms optimistic is the way Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is building the program.
“Gus is very focused,” said Helms, who was raised in rural Henry County, Ala., near Abbeville. “He is a man of character and a man of purpose. He has great intensity. Malzahn is building something that will last,” said Helms, who played in an era when players played offense and defense.
“The key word is relationships,” Helms said. “He has a high school coach mentality and he is building a team based on relationships and trust. The boys really do seem to respond to him.”
Forehand agreed, noting it is hard for Auburn fans to grasp the magnitude of the season because of how far they came in such a short period of time.
“It really is,” Forehand said. “After the LSU loss, I thought we had a pretty good team. The Texas A&M win solidified it. But we are going in the right direction.”
Malzahn himself used nearly those same words in his postgame press conference.
Though the loss was tough, there was “no doubt” in his mind that Auburn is on an upward trajectory, using the experiences from this season to accomplish even greater things in years to come.
“We’ve got most of our guys coming back, recruiting is going great, and our goal is to get back here,” he said. “And I really believe we’ll do it.”