Gus Malzahn’s opening remarks at SEC Football Media Days were intended to recap the 2017 season.
“I thought we were very close,” Malzahn said. “We won the SEC West, which I believe is the toughest division in college football. One game away from the College Football Playoff, which you know is everybody’s goal. We have a lot of our players back that experienced that. We got the majority of our coaches, all but one, back, so I really feel like we’re going to have a hungry team trying to take that next step.”
Yeah, close. So very close.
But close has come to define the Auburn football program over the past five years. Close to winning it all in 2013. Close to making the College Football Playoff in 2014. Close again in 2017. No other team can say it came within a touchdown of beating Clemson, Georgia and Alabama — three-fourths of the playoff field.
Yet, they came close to getting Malzahn fired a few times along the way. It’s a minor miracle that he survived a 3-12 stretch against Power Five teams from the second half of 2014 through early 2016. Blowing a 20-0 lead at LSU last year and losing 27-23 reduced his margin of error to virtually zero.
Then, after rousing home wins over Georgia and Alabama saved Malzahn’s hide, the Tigers were closed to losing him to Arkansas.
Volatility, thy name is Auburn.
Maybe things will be different now that Malzahn is in the first year of a seven-year, $49 million contract. He would have to do something egregiously stupid to get fired, and that’s just not going to happen. Say what you will about his quirky offense and even quirkier personality, but he’s not Bobby Petrino.
So maybe those volatile days have been replaced by — dare we say? — stability. Not even that Peach Bowl loss to Central Florida — a more motivated and healthier team — can diminish the optimism approaching this season.
Malzahn also pointed out that this is just the second time during his two stints at Auburn — first as offensive coordinator, now as head coach — that the Tigers return their starting quarterback. That is, if you don’t count the continuous rotation of Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and Jonathan Franklin in 2015 and 2016.
The last Auburn starting quarterback to return Nick Marshall in 2014. This time it’s Jarrett Stidham, whom Malzahn, thankfully, has refrained from anointing a Heisman candidate, proving he can learn from his mistakes. (Reference the aforementioned Johnson, 2015).
Here’s what hasn’t changed. Auburn’s schedule is once again brutal. No team played Clemson, LSU on the road, and then Georgia, Alabama and Georgia again in a four-week period.
In some ways, the schedule is even tougher this year. The Tigers open with Washington, another playoff contender, in Atlanta and must play Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama — probably their three toughest SEC games.
“Overall, I really like our team,” Malzahn said. “I like our leaders. There’s nothing like experience in our league. And we experienced some highs, some lows, and, like I said, we were close. And I just really sense urgency and a hunger from that group.”
“But there’s such a fine line in this conference of winning the conference championship and coming close. And we came close last year. And we’ve got to figure out a way to take that next step. And that’s easier said than done. But the good thing is, like I said, we do have a lot of the players that experienced how close we were, and we have our staff back that experienced that. So, when I say that we’re hungry, it’s really because of that. And being close to winning the SEC Championship, being close to being in the final four, and we got to figure out a way to take that next step.”
Linebacker Deshaun Davis is one of those leaders preaching the message of not being satisfied with being close.
“I’m not,” Davis said, “a moral victory type of guy.”