AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn has always wanted to emulate Steve Spurrier.
Scoring lots of points and winning lots of games? After his first year as an SEC coach, Malzahn has that down pat. Spurrier, who has won more than 200 games at the FBS, including six SEC titles and one national championship, is accustomed to ending on the right side of the scoreboard, too.
But perhaps the most obvious connection is their choice of headgear.
“(Spurrier) was wearing a visor way back before anybody else was and I was coaching high school," Malzahn told AL.com last year. "I thought that was pretty cool, so I started wearing a visor."
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The area of greatest deviation comes in media sessions. Nary a day goes by without Spurrier saying something headline worthy — tossing barbs at opponents, expressing his support for paying players, you name it. He makes a reporter’s job easy.
Malzahn, on the other hand, plays things, ahem, close to the vest. (Your pardon is asked in advance for that pun.)
Which is fine, of course. While not as consistently entertaining in interview settings as, say, Spurrier or LSU coach Les Miles, at least one knows what to expect from Malzahn: Realism.
He knows how some critics described last year’s team. Words like “fluky” and “lucky” are tossed around. Not that Malzahn cares. He’s too busy trying to get his team back to the same place it was last year: the national championship game. But to get there, Malzahn said a return trip to Atlanta (for the SEC championship game) has to take precedence.
And the odds are against Auburn: No team has repeated as conference champs since Tennessee in 1997-98.
“It's extremely tough and we do know that,” Malzahn said at SEC media days. “We do have some experience back. We have all of our coaches back, which I think is very important. It's extremely tough, but that is our goal. Our goal is to get back to Atlanta. But we do understand how tough that is to do.”
Given their position entering last year — coming off a 3-9 campaign in 2012 that included an 0-8 mark in the SEC — Malzahn acknowledged his team “snuck up on some people” early in the season.
As the defending champions and a preseason top-five team this fall, the Tigers won’t have that luxury now.
“This year we're going to be circled and we told our players that. We're going to have to be better in every phase, especially early in the season. We're going to get everybody's best shot,” Malzahn said. “But really, that's where you want your program to be. Last year at this time, we were just trying to get back to that point. And last year we did that. Obviously, we're disappointed we came up 13 seconds short of winning the whole thing, but we're extremely motivated.”
So how do the Tigers surmount the obstacles and bring home back-to-back conference titles?
According to Malzahn, it rests on the shoulders of his seniors. On multiple occasions since fall camp began last week, Malzahn has reiterated this view. To continue replicating success year after year, the upperclassmen have to set the example, hold others accountable and as Malzahn put it, “play their best ball.” In a way, Malzahn regards his seniors as “an extension” of the coaching staff.
It bodes well for the Tigers’ repeat aspirations that it has such a talented group of seniors.
Offensively, Auburn returns four senior starters: Quarterback Nick Marshall, offensive linemen Reese Dismukes and Chad Slade and tight end C.J. Uzomah. The two players at the top of the running back depth chart — Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant — are also seniors.
There’s even more experience defensively. On the line, the Tigers bring back Gabe Wright, Jeff Whitaker, Angelo Blackson, Ben Bradley and LaDarius Owens. The secondary is every bit as seasoned, highlighted by corner Jonathon Mincy, free safety Jermaine Whitehead and Star Robenson Therezie, with further depth provided by Brandon King and Trovon Reed.
Sure, a critic can point to the questionable off-field decision-making of Marshall and Mincy — whose offseason incidents involving marijuana will keep them out of the starting lineup when the season opener versus Arkansas arrives Aug. 30 — but in the grand scheme of things, it will mean little. They’ll sit out a few drives. It might even be a full quarter or even the first half. But once that passes, their punishment will have been served and it will immediately be relegated to the background.
The pursuit of another SEC championship is paramount, after all. And should the Tigers pull it off, it would give Malzahn another accomplishment he can place alongside Spurrier; the “Ol’ Ball Coach” won four conference crowns in a row from 1993-96.
Much like his adoption of the visor, one could say Malzahn continuing to imitate Spurrier’s winning ways is the sincerest form of flattery.