Gus Malzahn’s approach to managing public expectations is as unconventional as his offense. He treats press conferences as if he were interviewing for a job.
Supporters would say this is due to his masterful motivational skills. Others a little more cynical would say he still thinks he’s speaking to the high school booster club.
The intent here isn’t to take a side. You can decide for yourself. But his latest comments about this year’s team serves as Exhibit AU. In an article that ran Friday in this newpaper, Malzahn compared this year’s team to his first one in 2013, which rebounded from a 3-9 disaster the year before to reach the national championship game against Florida State.
Context is everything. This was not said at the end of a grueling practice or in front of a closed to the media Auburn booster club meeting. It wasn’t a spontaneous response to a surprise question or from a fan on the Paul Finebaum Show.
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These were actually part of Malzahn’s opening remarks four weeks ago at SEC Football Media Days. It was prepared and probably rehearsed. Here’s the full transcript of that part of his monologue.
“Overall I’m very excited about this team. We have a lot of experience back. I think we’ve got more returning starters than we’ve had the last 12 years at Auburn, and of course in this league there’s nothing like experience.
“We have quality depth. And really, as a head coach of the Auburn Tigers, it’s the first time I can say that we have quality depth in all areas. And that’s very important. We have some key injuries late the last two years, and it has hurt us.
“We have strong leadership, the three guys that I brought today, but we’ve got a lot of other strong leaders back at home. And probably the biggest thing that’s standing out to me about this team, that they’re hungry. They’re hungry and they’ve got something to prove. And really the last time I felt this was 2013. So, that’s a good comfort for me. I mean, obviously, we’ve got a challenging schedule. We’ve got some great teams in our league. We play the defending national champions on the road Week 2. But I really like where we’re at. And just got that feel where there’s a lot of excitement around our complex, not just with our coaches, but our players. And we’re really looking forward to the season.”
Stop the bus. Yes, this might be a more talented roster – at least the top 35-40 players – than the 2013 team. But let’s not forget how, uh, shall we say, fortunate that team was. And not just Kick Six, or even the Prayer at Jordan-Hare. Let’s go all the way back to the season opener against Washington State, another team searching for redemption, and one that would go on to finish 6-7. The Tigers needed two interceptions by Robenson Therezie – the first one setting up a short-field touchdown, the second in the end zone to save a potential Washington State touchdown. And it took a 100-yard kickoff return by Tre Mason AND a 75-yard run by Corey Grant. All of this, and Auburn won by seven points.
That magical season could have ended – at least in terms of being a national championship contender – before it ever started.
Or it could have ended two weeks later, when the Tigers had to score with 10 seconds left in the game to beat Mississippi State 24-20.
Or a few weeks later was that thrilling shootout at Texas A&M, which wasn’t secured until Dee Ford chased down Johnny Manziel.
And it certainly could have ended on that fourth-and-18 play against Georgia if Josh Harvey-Clemons hadn’t tried to steal the glory from Tray Matthews on Nick Marshall’s desperate heave to Ricardo Louis.
So this team could be better – much better – and not find itself in the mix for the SEC West and the national championship.
I say this not to throw cold water on the hopes of Auburn fans, but rather as a caution to be realistic. Unrealistic expectations can suck the fun out of a season.
This is a good team with a chance to be a very good team if everything falls in place. That begins with a schedule that includes two teams that have played each other in the last two national championships. We still don’t know how good some of the other teams in the SEC West are. Ditto for Georgia. And if you get through all of that, you still have to win the SEC Championship Game. Florida is a good quarterback away from being a real sleeper.
The message is just the same as it was when many fans wanted to fire Malzahn after last season’s 1-2 start. Let the season play out, and then worry about comparisons to a once in a lifetime team.