Gus Malzahn, connoisseur of Mexican food (per SEC commissioner Greg Sankey), usually does his four-hour stint at SEC Media Days looking as if he had a particularly bad burrito for breakfast.
That wasn’t the case on Thursday as the Auburn head coach was, by his standards, downright affable, stopping to speak with random media members in the hallways between stations, making a joke or two and generally spreading sunshine about the 2019 Auburn Tigers.
There were two lines of thought about that. Some reporters felt that Malzahn feels really good about this year’s team, which is well-stocked with the talent. The other was that, even if this year doesn’t pan out, he’ll be getting a $30 million buyout — down a bit from last year but still set-for-life money and then some. He can take that, perhaps spend a year or two dabbling in broadcasting and still have a record and reputation that would make him intriguing for, to just pick a team at random, Arkansas, in case things don’t work out for Chad Morris. If that’s not a win-win situation, it’s pretty close.
First things first, though. Malzahn wants to win.
“I’ve got a job that expects to win championships, and I expect to win championships,” he said at the podium in Hoover, answering a question from a reporter from— you’d never guess in a million years— Arkansas. “In the years that we win championships, it’s good.
The years we don’t, it’s hot seat this, hot seat that. And I think out of the six years, four have been this same rodeo. And it’s just part of the job description.
“We expect to win championships. I’m very excited about this year. And you ask how you deal with it, that’s just part of being at a place that expect to win championships. Some places (get) eight wins and they celebrate. That’s just not part of Auburn. We expecting to win championships. We’ve done that. And we’re going to have more championships in the future here, too.”
That’s not out of the realm of reasonable possibility. One thing that is notable when listening to Malzahn discuss his upcoming team is the number of seniors he mentions — seniors on the offensive line, seniors on the defensive line, seniors in the secondary. It’s a stark contrast to Nick Saban, who has only a handful of seniors to mention, largely because so many juniors exit for the NFL. Auburn may not have been loaded with potential first-rounders (although All-SEC defensive lineman Derrick Brown, who is back, certainly would have been one) but there were players who would have been fourth- and fifth-round types returning at what seems like a much higher rate than at Alabama (and, to some extent, LSU). Seniors matter and, except at linebacker and quarterback, Auburn has them.
“We have a lot of experience coming back,” Malzahn said. “We had eight of our juniors that seriously considered leaving early to NFL that chose to come back. I really think that’s where the core heartbeat of our team is, with those guys.”
If those are the elements of a contender, AU has to overcome one thing. They have to choose an inexperienced or talented quarterback, either Joey Gatewood, who spent last season behind Jarrett Stidham, or Bo Nix, a true freshman and the son of former AU quarterback
Patrick Nix. Then, that inexperienced quarterback has to navigate a lethal schedule that includes road games at LSU, Texas A&M and Florida before a closing home stretch of Georgia and Auburn. (My opinion, for what it is worth, is that the Tigers will outmuscle Oregon in the opener.)
So is a title run likely? The schedule says no, but Auburn seems to accomplish the most when people least expect it.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.