Auburn leaves season with high hopes for 2014Auburn's Nick Marshall celebrates his touchdown run during the first half of the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game against Florida State Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) -- The Auburn Tigers know there's only one way to top this season.
The Tigers came within 13 seconds of completing the biggest turnaround in college football history, winning a national championship and slapping a triumphant ending on a fairytale season.
Instead, they were left with a 34-31 defeat to Florida State and contemplating next season's mission.
''To finish it off,'' tailback Tre Mason said. ''Do whatever it takes to finish. We made it all the way here and we let up off the gas pedal. Next time we need to crank it up to another gear and finish this thing off right.''
It remains to be seen if the Heisman Trophy finalist and near-hero of the title game will be around to help bring that to fruition.
Mason is considering joining All-Southeastern Conference left tackle Greg Robinson in leaving early to enter the NFL draft. Robinson announced his decision on Tuesday.
Even if Mason turns pro, the Tigers (12-2) won't be sneaking up on anybody after finishing with a No. 2 ranking.
With quarterback Nick Marshall leading the way, Auburn could well be regarded as an SEC and national title contender again.
Certainly, Gus Malzahn's team raised the bar back to its perch from that 2010 national championship in his first season
''We're going up,'' Malzahn said. ''The experience that we had and we've got most of our guys coming back, recruiting is going great. Our goal is to get back here, and I really believe we'll do it.''
His uptempo offense set school marks for total and rushing yards and became the first SEC team to lead the nation in rushing.
The Tigers matched the 2000 Hawaii team for the biggest rebound after going 3-9 in 2012.
Jameis Winston dashed the Tigers' title hopes with an 80-yard drive and 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left.
Top receiver Sammie Coates, center Reese Dismukes and leading tackler linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and defensive tackle Gabe Wright are returning. So are promising freshman defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, and projected defensive starters Jeff Whitaker and Justin Garrett are back after missing the season with injuries.
For the first time in Malzahn's college career, he could have the same starting quarterback two years in a row.
Marshall got better at running the offense as the season went along. He passed for 1,976 yards and ran for 1,068, accounting for 26 total touchdowns.
A team that was picked to finish fifth in the SEC West might be in the vicinity of that in the preseason national rankings.
''I'm not sure Top 10, Top 5, whatever,'' tight end C.J. Uzomah said. ''Even if they put us down further, that's not going to bother anybody. We know that we have to do what we do. We're going to have an unbelievable offseason.
''Nick hasn't even been in the system for a year. Having him coming back is going to be amazing. The players that we have coming back, they're going to be difference makers. We're going to have to have a really good offseason and get back to this place.''
Mason broke Bo Jackson's single-season Auburn rushing mark with 1,816 yards, including a tackle-breaking 37-yard touchdown with 1:19 left to give Auburn a 31-27 lead.
Mason said leaving would be tough, but he plans to talk with his family before making a decision.
He said Malzahn told the Tigers after the game ''how proud he was of us, and to wait until everyone calmed down to actually realize what we accomplished.''
''Not many people in the world could accomplish what we did this year coming off a 3-9 season,'' Mason said. ''We're still blessed to be in the position. That's why I love coach Malzahn. That's why making this decision coming in the future, that's going to make it a little harder. Playing for a guy like that is just a great opportunity.''
The Tigers enter the offseason brimming with confidence instead of having to mend bruised psyches like last year. Now, the goal is to build on a season.
''I know this is a team of fighters and workers,'' Wright said. ''I really hope they feed off this. We'll soak it up. We'll get back to work. We trust in our coaches. They got us this far, along with the seniors. We won't stop believing now.''