AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn had its homecoming game more than two months ago. Saturday's game, however, is a homecoming of sorts for Auburn's opponent. Specifically, its coach, Pat Sullivan.
His name is synonymous with Auburn football. He was the school's first Heisman Trophy winner, taking home the award in 1971 after throwing for 20 touchdowns and accounting for 2,096 yards of total offense on his way to leading the Tigers to a 9-2 record and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
And though his career ended more than 40 years ago, many of his numbers still stand near the top of the charts. He's first in touchdown passes (53), touchdowns responsible for (71, with 18 rushing touchdowns in addition to his 53 scoring tosses) and passing yards per game (209.47) and ranking fourth in career passing yards (6,284).
Saturday, he'll bring his Samford squad into Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time since 2011.
Gus Malzahn is looking forward to facing the man he views as a mentor.
"Pat Sullivan is one of the true professionals and gentlemen in the coaching business," Auburn's coach said. "Obviously an Auburn legend. Think the world of him."
Malzahn began to cultivate his relationship with Sullivan in 2006. In his first year in the college ranks, Malzahn was thrilled to meet someone of Sullivan's stature.
"(I) just got to know him well over the years. He's one of the true class guys in college football," Malzahn said. "He's respected by everyone. I've never heard anybody say a bad word about him. He's definitely helped me. I lean on him from time to time with advice."
Not that Sullivan expects the Tigers to go easy on him. After looking over film, he knows his team has its hands full.
"Auburn is very talented and well-coached in every area," he said. "You can see why they were ranked in the top five for most of the year. They are one of the premier teams in the country.”
Malzahn admitted "it is kind of weird" to be facing off against someone he regards so highly. And less than a year ago, Sullivan served as the Tigers' "honorary coach" at the SEC championship game, which Malzahn appreciated.
"He did a great job of speaking to our team," Malzahn said. "He was on the sideline with our team. At halftime, he was there with us, (giving) adjustments, advice. It was a real special moment."
Sullivan's return to the Plains is but one storyline Saturday. One that is every bit as important to Malzahn is sending the senior class off on a positive note in their last game in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"It's a very good group of seniors that have done a lot of great things for Auburn," he said. "I'm really hoping our fans will show up, be loud and send these guys off on the right track."
Reese Dismukes, the most experienced starter on the team, can't wait.
“It’s crazy that it’s all coming to an end. I have spent a lot of great Saturdays over there, some good and some bad," said Dismukes, who has started 47 games at center in the past four years. "It should be one good last ride. I’m looking forward to it."
Saturday won't just be about celebrating, though. Despite Auburn being heavy favorites, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he doesn't look at Saturday as a chance to get younger, less seasoned players more time on the field.
After five straight disappointing performances, Johnson wants to see progress from his starters.
"Right now we just have to get better. We're not even worried about who we're playing. I think Samford's got a really good football team. Obviously they're not in the same division we are," he said. " ... But our starters and our rotators need to play well first. When I'm standing here next Sunday we better be a better football team than we are today, or we're not going to be ready to play Alabama."