Gus Malzahn is never going to the life of any party — unless it’s a ping-pong party, apparently.

The great revelation about Malzahn to come out of SEC Media Days on Thursday came via AU quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who revealed Malzahn loves table tennis — or ping-pong, if you prefer — in “almost a Forrest Gumpish way.” That probably isn’t the metaphor Auburn fans would have chosen, but it does get the point across.

This year, Malzahn seemed a little more relaxed as Media Days wound down in Atlanta. He’s never been one to wisecrack, and he more or less sidestepped more than his fair share of Nick Saban questions. He did get a tremendous amount of publicity about the statistic — which is certainly true — that he is the only active SEC coach with a win against Nick Saban, a distinction he may well hold until Hugh Freeze takes over at LSU in 2019. (Well, maybe.)

Malzahn might have the shot to beat Alabama a third time, even with the game in Tuscaloosa, and he might even get Auburn into the College Football Playoff for the first time. The overwhelming chorus of Alabama fans saying “it can’t happen this year” is the same chorus that was saying the same thing last year. To be fair, I thought the same thing in July 2017, feeling fairly certain that Alabama would win easily against the Tigers. This year, I’m going to hedge my bets.

“Last season, I thought we were very close,” Malzahn said on Thursday. “We won the SEC West, which I believe is the toughest division in college football. One game away from the College Football Playoff, which you know is everybody’s goal.

“We have a lot of our players back that experienced that. 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.”

A quick glance at Auburn looks like this: the quarterback, Stidham, is back and should be improved. The offense has to replace two tremendous weapons — running back Kerryon Johnson and kicker Daniel Carlson. The defense, which Malzahn largely leaves in the capable hands of Kevin Steele, should be very good again.

That leaves the matter of negotiating the schedule, which Malzahn calls “the toughest in the country, again.” He might get some debate — Alabama State and Liberty aren’t going to pull any upsets — but he has a point. Auburn probably has the SEC’s toughest non-conference game (Washington), if you go by rankings.

Then it closes the season by playing the toughest cross-division opponent an SEC West team can play, Georgia, and, two weeks later, Alabama, both away from Jordan-Hare Stadium. It’s the sort of schedule that could put two or three losses on any team, even a playoff contender.

There’s such a fine line in this conference of winning the conference championship and coming close,” Malzahn said. “And we came close last year. And we’ve got to figure out a way to take that next step. And that’s easier said than done.

The Tigers aren’t the SEC favorite — Alabama and Georgia will share that role — but they are too good to simply label as a dark horse.

Reach Cecil Hurt at or 205-722-0225.