NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Auburn 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 title game standout will be around to help bring that to fruition.
Mason is considering joining All-SEC left tackle Greg Robinson in leaving early to enter the NFL draft. Robinson announced his decision Tuesday.
Even if Mason turns pro, the Tigers 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.
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, who broke Bo Jackson's single-season Auburn rushing mark with 1,816 yards, said leaving would be tough, but he plans to talk with his family before deciding. If he departs, he'll join the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Robinson, a third-year sophomore who is projected as a possible first-round pick.
SPONSOR BOWS OUT: The Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, staged annually at Tropicana Field, is seeking a new sponsor but not a new home. Brett Dulaney, executive director of the ESPN-owned bowl, confirmed that Beef 'O'Brady's won't renew its sponsorship of the 6-year-old game, which will feature an ACC team for the first time next season. "The bowl will definitely stay local," said Dulaney, adding the 2014 game is slated to be played one or two days after Christmas. "The bowl's not going anywhere."
EX-'NOLE DIES: Former Florida State offensive tackle Todd Williams was found dead late Monday morning in a hotel in Sarasota. The Manatee County Sheriff's Office reported that deputies responded to the Sarasota Suites hours before the Seminoles won a national championship. Williams, 35, was a redshirt freshman on the Seminoles' 1999 national champion team and was in camp with the Bucs in 2006.
PENN STATE SEARCH: Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said efforts to replace Bill O'Brien are on schedule, and he anticipates having a new coach in days. Joyner wasn't specific about candidates in a statement released by his office.
BALL STATE: Receiver Willie Snead is giving up his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Snead had school records of 106 receptions, 1,516 yards and 15 touchdowns this season.
MISSOURI: Junior running back Henry Josey declared for the NFL draft.
TENNESSEE: Linebacker Christian Harris decided to leave the program after playing in all 12 games as a sophomore.
Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.