ATLANTA — Thirteen seconds mean the world to Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.
When Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston hit wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the game-winning touchdown of the 2014 BCS National Championship Game, 13 seconds were left on the clock. When they ticked off, Auburn's national championship hopes—which seemed ever so close to becoming reality just a few hours before—went with them.
The number "13" will always be important for the 2013 Tigers, first for the year of their improbable run to the title game and later for what might have been.
It's also serving as motivation for the 2014 team.
"TnT XIII" is the new slogan for the 2014 football team. It stands for "Tough-N-Together" with the Roman numeral for 13 serving as a reminder of those final seconds of the BCS National Championship Game and just how close the Tigers were to capping their season with a shiny crystal football.
"It's a mindset," Malzahn said shortly before his appearance at the Atlanta Auburn Club meeting at Druid Hills Golf Club. "We have to be 13 seconds better in everything we do. From a coaching standpoint and from the way our players perform on the field and in the weight room and everything that goes with it."
Despite the constant reminder of what might have been, the way the title game ended and the 21-3 lead Auburn let slip away aren't consuming Malzahn or the football program. It isn't "national title or bust" for Malzahn.
"We have high expectations at Auburn," he said. "It's a process. We're going to be as good as we can possibly be. That will be our goal again."
But just how good can the Tigers be?
For the first time in his college coaching career, Malzahn has a starting quarterback coming back for Year 2 in his system.
That quarterback, senior Nick Marshall, was phenomenal in his first season as Auburn's starting quarterback, passing for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 more scores.
But it was a run-first, run-second and run-third mentality for Auburn in 2013, and Marshall's consistency in the intermediate passing game was one of the primary goals for Malzahn this spring.
Now that it has wrapped up, he's had time to evaluate how much Marshall improved.
"He's got a better understanding now," Malzahn said. "You can tell he's more confident. His eyes are in the right spot, he's throwing the ball on time and his checkdowns are right. He's just got an overall better feel for the offense."
Toss in four of five starters returning on the offensive line, the addition of D'haquille "Duke" Williams to a veteran receiving corps that already includes Sammie Coates and a talented group of running backs that includes Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, and it's going to be tough to stop Auburn's offense.
Defense doesn't win championships anymore; "just enough" defense wins championships. The definition of "just enough" depends on the offense a team boasts. Auburn's was nearly good enough last season, and with six starters returning on defense and plenty of depth being built through the last two recruiting classes, the defense doesn't need to take a gigantic leap forward.
It just needs to take a small step.
If it does, there won't be a need for a Roman-numeral reminder of what might have been for next year's Tigers.
That title could become reality.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand and all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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