Auburn University

Is this the season Auburn takes home championship? ‘I tell my team, we got a chance,’ Malzahn says

Gus Malzahn began his SEC Media Days appearance by rattling off all of his accomplishments at Auburn, both as a coordinator and head coach.

Two BCS National Championship appearances (2010 and 2013), one win (22-19 over the Oregon Ducks). Three SEC Championship appearances (2010, 2013 and 2017) and two wins. Malzahn’s resume is a solid one, and he’s the only coach in the conference who boasts a win over Nick Saban’s Alabama.

However, the clock is ticking on Malzahn’s tenure. It’s been two years since the Tigers played in, and lost, an SEC Championship. It’s been over twice as long since the Tigers played in, and also lost, a national championship, 34-31 to Florida State.

Malzahn, though, remains confident in this year’s squad and while it will start an inexperienced quarterback, it also brings back a solid amount of talent on both offense and defense.

“When I look at the team that we have this year, there’s some of the same characteristics that those championship teams had, and that’s what’s exciting for me,” Malzahn said. “You got to stay healthy, but I can tell you today, the exciting thing for me, I tell my team, we got a chance.”

Malzahn said the Tigers “have to win close games,” much like those championship teams of the past did. 2010 Auburn went unbeaten in one-possession games (it also went unbeaten overall that year). The 2013 Tigers went 6-1 in games decided by one possession or fewer, the lone loss being the national championship.

Staff changes after 2018 were inevitable, and the Tigers already feel a difference.

The most notable changes: Malzahn brought in Kenny Dillingham after former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey left the program.

Receivers coach (and former Auburn receiver) Kodi Burns is now the passing game coordinator. Cadillac Williams, a former Auburn standout at running back, is now the running backs coach. Wesley McGriff, who returns to the Plains after spending the past two seasons as Ole Miss’ defensive coordinator, is back as a defensive assistant coach.

“Right off the bat, even in the bowl game, Kenny Dillingham was upstairs and just helping me through everything,” Malzahn said. “It was really natural. I felt really good about that. … Kodi Burns has been with me for a long time. These two guys right there I lean on a lot.”

Of course, all this is just talk if the Tigers do not “grow up fast,” as Malzahn put it. Auburn plays Oregon to kick off the 2019 season, and that’s just the start of a brutal schedule, arguably one of the toughest in college football.

Still, that has not hindered the Tigers’ expectations. Despite 2018 not going as planned, the message from Malzahn and Auburn’s players at SEC Media Days was one of optimism, and of high expectations.

The Tigers want to get back to competing for championships. Malzahn said he “expects to win championships.” That while some schools may celebrate eight wins, it’s “just not a part of Auburn.”

Those are strong words, especially considering the talks of uncertainty surrounding Malzahn’s future that seem to arise every season his Tigers fail to win the conference.

There exists, however, a simple solution: Get back to competing for SEC and national championships. That’s far easier said than done, but the Tigers are more than confident they’ll become contenders again sooner rather than later.

“Win the SEC, win the (national) championship, that’s the goal,” Tigers offensive lineman Prince Tega Wanogho said. “As a whole unit, as a team … this is what we’re going for.”

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.