AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Gus Malzahn has been part of several successful seasons at Auburn, one built around an otherworldly player and another on the strength of two surreal plays.
The fourth-ranked Tigers have soared into title contention this time with a pair of wins over top-ranked teams and a steady grind. The effort has been good enough to earn a Round 2 with No. 6 Georgia (11-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference, No. 6 CFP) in Saturday’s league championship game with a playoff berth on the line.
Maybe this time Auburn (10-2, 7-1, No. 2 CFP) is built for more than a one-year run.
”We’re in a real good spot, and the future’s very bright,” Malzahn, who is in his fifth season, said Tuesday. ”We have the ability to sustain it. Now, we’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do all the stuff, but we’re a lot more stable right now than any other time that I’ve been here at Auburn so I feel good about where we’re at.”
In 2010, Auburn was viewed by some as a one-man team with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton. The 2013 team benefited from some huge breaks.
These Tigers don’t want to hear any of that.
They have decisively beaten two teams in the past three games that sat atop the College Football Playoff rankings at the time. The Tigers routed Georgia 40-17 and beat Alabama 26-14 to earn the trip to Atlanta and stretch their winning streak to five games.
The last time Auburn had beaten either one of those teams was in 2013, Malzahn’s debut season. That year, the Tigers topped Georgia on a deflected pass for a long, game-winning touchdown and the Crimson Tide on the now-famous Kick Six to end the game before advancing to play for the national title.
Newton led the 2010 Auburn team to a national championship with Malzahn as offensive coordinator. It was coach Gene Chizik’s second season.
In between, Auburn has lost at least five games every season. But now, Malzahn has had more time to build a sturdy foundation with a succession of solid recruiting classes.
”We have a lot of great players, a lot of superstars on the offense and defense,” Auburn safety Tray Matthews said. ”Back in the day, Cam Newton was just the biggest superstar of them all. Now, as far as our team goes, in every position, everybody’s pretty good and real solid.
”We have a lot of weapons on offense, we have a lot of key players on defense. Pretty much every player on our defense is a key player.”
Matthews was one of the two Georgia defenders in coverage on Ricardo Louis on that tipped 73-yard completion four years ago. Now, the transfer is one of Auburn’s team leaders.
This team has been led by strong defense and an offense with emerging stars at quarterback (Jarrett Stidham), tailback (Kerryon Johnson) and wide receiver (Ryan Davis). All three of have eligibility left after this season.
Johnson, though, is nursing a right shoulder injury sustained against Alabama. Asked if the SEC’s leading rusher would practice Tuesday, Malzahn said, ”We’ll see.”
”I think it’s going to be a day-to-day deal,” the coach said. ”He was better yesterday than he was the day before so we’ll see where that goes when he’s ready to get out there.”
Unlike 2013, one thing Malzahn said he is not overly worried about is his team suffering an emotional letdown after a big Iron Bowl win.
”This team is a lot more stable,” Malzahn said. ”You’re definitely concerned but I feel great about it because when we got in Sunday team meeting, it was flip the page. I mean that was over with. We’ll think about how fun that was after the season. They’ve got the goal – they put it up there the very first day of fall camp – we want to win the SEC championship and they weren’t like shy about it trying to hide it from outside people.
”They’re not going to be distracted, I’ll tell you that.”
This team has already rebounded from a punchless offensive performance against Clemson and a blown lead versus LSU . The team overcame the dismissals of receiver Kyle Davis and former starting quarterback Sean White , the departure of onetime top recruit Byron Cowart and injuries to players like tailback Kamryn Pettway and linebacker Tre’ Williams.
”Everybody doesn’t know what we’ve gone through,” Matthews said. ”We’ve gone through hell and back. And now, it’s just a beautiful thing we have going on here at Auburn.”
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