Auburn's painful lesson: In the SEC, "close" doesn't count

Atlanta—In the SEC, “close” doesn’t count.

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In the SEC, ”close” breaks your heart, keeps you up at night and, in some cases, gets you fired.

In the SEC, you can never say “but we were close” because “close” just means you didn’t get it done.

Harsh? Probably.

But that’s the reality you live with when you step into the arena that is SEC football. And that’s the reality Auburn has had to live with after posting a 10-4 season in 2017 that could have been so much more.

“I thought we were close,” said head coach Gus Malzahn, knowing fully what the word means.

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Last season Auburn’s football team accomplished a lot:

**--On Sept. 9 Auburn traveled to Clemson, which was ranked No. 3 and would eventually make the College Football Playoffs. Auburn lost 14-6. It was a loss that would look better and better for Auburn as the season went along.

**--On Nov. 11 the Tigers hosted No. 1 Georgia, which would eventually make the playoffs, and pounded the Bulldogs 40-17.

**--Two weeks later Auburn hosted Alabama, another No. 1 and playoff-bound team, and won 26-14.

**--Auburn won the SEC West and advanced to the SEC Championship game with Georgia. Another win would put Auburn into the playoffs.

So, so close.

With a banged up Kerryon Johnson, the SEC’s offensive player of the year, Auburn could not hang with Georgia in the second meeting and lost 28-7. The Tigers were placed in a New Year’s Six bowl (Chick-fil-A Peach) where they lost to undefeated UCF 34-27.

“We didn’t get it done," said Malzahn.

And as Fate would have it, Auburn and its players sat at home on Jan. 8 and watched while Georgia and Alabama, two teams it had beaten decisively, played for the national championship.

So painfully close.

Which is why, Malzahn said on the final session of SEC Media Days on Thursday, that he has a very motivated football team for 2018.

“We have a lot of our players back (who) experienced that (missing the playoffs),” said Malzahn, who was rewarded with a new 7-year, $49 million contract after the season. “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.”

Now most of the pieces appear to be in place for Auburn to make another run at the SEC West championship:

**--For only the second time in Malzahn’s nine years as a head coach or assistant coach at Auburn, the Tigers return their starting quarterback. Jarrett Stidham threw for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns a year ago while he was learning the offense of OC Chip Lindsey.

Stidham will be given a lot more freedom in his second year. The expectation is that he will get off to faster start.

“We have a lot of guys coming back, especially at the skill positions,” said Stidham, who led the SEC in completion percentage (66.5 percent). “We’re going to be hitting on all cylinders.”

**--Auburn has posted a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last nine seasons and hope to have another one in Kam Martin, who averaged 6.12 yards per carry as a backup.

**--Auburn lost only one assistant as offensive line coach Herb Hand went to Texas. But he was replaced by veteran J.B. Grimes, who is in his second tour of duty at Auburn. Grimes has work to do with a line that is long on talent but short on experience.

**--The Auburn defensive line was one of the best in the nation last season. This group, led by Dontavius Russell and Marlon Davidson, will be even better.

So Auburn has the talent to win the SEC West again. But the schedule is just brutal.

Auburn opens the season on Sept. 1 with Washington in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta. Washington is the early favorite to win the Pac-12 and perhaps make the playoffs. The Huskies return senior quarterback Jake Browning (68.5 completion percentage), one of the Pac-12’s best running backs in Myles Gaskin (1,380 yards rushing) plus seven starters from a defense that was No. 4 nationally against the run last season.

The SEC schedule also flips so that this season Auburn plays Georgia (Nov. 10) and Alabama (No. 24) on the road.

Auburn also has road trips to Mississippi State (Oct. 6) and Ole Miss (Oct. 20).

It seems like a lot for Auburn to overcome. Still Malzahn feels good about this group.

“I really like our team. I like our leaders,” he said. “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 hunger from that group.”

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