AUBURN, Ala.—I asked Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham to explain how he felt on Jan. 8 while watching Georgia and Alabama play for the CFP national championship.
“Surreal,” said the transfer from Baylor. “It was kind of surreal.”
For 14 days during the 2017 season Auburn was on top of the college football world. The Tigers beat No. 1 Georgia (40-17) on Nov. 11 and on Nov. 25 beat No. 1 Alabama (26-14). The victory over Alabama, which went on to win the national championship, was especially impressive. Both games were in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“We were the best team in the country that day,” said Stidham of the Alabama game. “No doubt.”
But with running Kerryon Johnson at way less than 100 percent (shoulder, ribs), Auburn lost the rematch to Georgia (28-7) in the SEC championship game on Dec. 2. Then in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl the Tigers caught an undefeated UCF team with a whole lot to prove and lost 34-27. Then Auburn’s players, coaches, and fans had to sit at home and watch their two biggest rivals play for the national championship, knowing they had beaten them both.
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Yep. Surreal is pretty much the word.
“When you’re that close to the (CFP Playoffs) and you’re not able to make it, that’s not an easy thing to live with,” said Gus Malzahn, about to begin his sixth year as head coach at Auburn
Auburn, however, has to live with the disappointing finish to the 2017 season. It has no choice. You are, coaching legend Bill Parcells once said, what your record says you are. And Auburn’s record was 10-4. Good but not great and in late November Tiger fans were thinking great.
But what do you do about it? Malzahn believes you take that disappointment and build on it.
In 2013, Malzahn’s first year as head coach, Auburn went 12-2, won the SEC championship, and came up seconds short of winning the national championship. Then it was a roller coaster ride the next three seasons of 8-5, 7-6, and 8-5.
Malzahn believes that despite the disappointing finish, the good parts of the 2017 season have become a stabilizing force for Auburn football under his watch.
“The big picture for me is how close are as a program,” said Malzahn, when I visited him in his office. “Over the years we’ve been up and down but now we feel really good about where we are. Now we have a chance to do something with it.”
Stidham, who threw for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, agrees with his head coach.
“Last season was not the way we wanted to finish but I really think it laid the foundation of where I can see this program going,” said Stidham. “I think a lot of good is going to come from (last season).”
Now to challenge Alabama for the SEC West title the Auburn Tigers are going to have to address some issues:
**--Quarterback is not one of them. Stidham returns for his second season at Auburn after undergoing surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder. He had no contact in the spring. It allowed backup quarterbacks Malik Willis and freshman Joey Gatewood to get a lot of reps.
Stidham had some growing pains last season because, quite honestly, playing quarterback in the SEC is infinitely more complicated than playing the position in the Big 12. And then there was the matter of turnovers. Stidham had a red zone turnover in each of Auburn’s last three regular season games, including a critical one in the SEC championship game with Georgia. Needless to say, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey preached ball security all spring to Stidham.
“We’re going to give him more freedom,” Malzahn said of Stidham. “He’s ready.”
**--The bigger issue is on the offensive line where four seniors have to be replaced. Only three linemen in the program have started games but there is talent there. Veteran offensive line coach J.B. Grimes has returned to Auburn and will have some work to do.
**--Auburn has had a 1,000-yard rusher for nine straight seasons. That’s an SEC record. Kerryon Johnson, who led the SEC in rushing (1,391 yards), last season is the latest. Who will be next? Maybe it will be Kam Martin (6.12 ypc last season). But Auburn always has guys who can run the ball.
**--The offense struggled in the spring game because Stidham and Martin didn’t play. It also struggled because the Auburn defense, once again, is going to be very, very good. Auburn trailed only Alabama (No. 1 nationally) and Georgia (No. 6 nationally) in SEC scoring defense at 18.5 points per game.
“If our guys keep working hard let’s just say that we have a chance,” said defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
He can’t say it but I will: This Auburn defense, because of the guys up front like Nick Coe, Derrick Brown, Dontavius Russell (37 career starts) and Marlon Davidson, will be better than a year ago.
We’ll find out about Auburn in a hurry as the Tigers open with Pac-12 stalwart Washington in Atlanta and two weeks later host LSU. The schedule flips in November as Auburn plays both Georgia and Alabama on the road. Both will be top ten teams in the preseason.
So can Auburn actually build on a good season that ended poorly?
Malzahn says yes.
“We’ve been up and down and now we have a shot to sustain our success,” said Malzahn. “That excites me.”
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