HOOVER – Gus Malzahn could be in for a career-defining season at Auburn in 2017.
After going 12-2, with a 7-1 conference record, in his first year with the program in 2013, Malzahn has not had the same success. He has not beaten in-state rival Alabama since then.
“Alabama is on the top,” Malzahn said. “They have won the past three seasons. What I like about this team is they have high expectations. They want to win the SEC championship. To do that, you need to beat Alabama.
“They’re (Auburn) hungry and they have something to prove. Last time I felt that was 2013.”
Malzahn will have a potential star at the quarterback position to help him try to take down Alabama and reclaim the SEC west.
Jarrett Stidham was a five-star recruit for Baylor University. He started three games as a true freshman, but injured his ankle against Oklahoma State and missed the rest of the 2015 season.
He threw for 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions for Baylor. Stidham decided to transfer and eventually choose Auburn as his destination.
Stidham will join the Tigers as a redshirt sophomore, with three years of eligibility left. He is the favorite to win the starting quarterback position. He will compete with Sean White.
“We have two of the better quarterbacks,” Malzahn said. “We have quality depth at quarterback. That has been our Achilles’ heel the past few seasons.”
Stidham will have plenty of help in the backfield in junior running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Pettway led the SEC in rushing at 122.4 yards per game. He ran for an SEC high of 236 yards against Ole Miss. Johnson ran for 895 rush yards and scored seven touchdowns.
Malzahn is excited about Auburn’s depth.
“We have more returning starters than the last 12 seasons at Auburn,” Malzahn said. “We have quality depth at all areas.”
The defense will return seven starters. Auburn’s defense ranked seventh in scoring, allowing only 17.1 points per game and just 23 total touchdowns in 2016.
Tray Matthews, a senior defensive back, is the leader the of the defense, if not the entire team, according to Malzahn. He led Auburn in tackles last season with 76.
The Tigers also boast one of the better kickers in the country in senior Daniel Carlson. He earned second-team All-America honors last season and has been a Lou Groza Award finalist in his sophomore and junior seasons.
“Carlson is one of the biggest weapons in all of football,” Malzahn said.
Auburn started the 2016 season 1-2, with losses to Clemson and Texas A&M, but went on to win its next six games, including a huge win against rival LSU.
Malzahn was proud of the way the team responded, but desires more.
“We felt like we had a really opportunity, we didn’t seize the moment,” Malzahn said.
Auburn will open with a home game against Georgia Southern on Sept. 2.
Head coach: Gus Malzahn
2016 record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters: 17
Toughest question Malzahn faced: You said in the past a move to the East would make sense geographically for your program. What specific methods would there be in a development like that if that ever happened?
Malzahn’s reply: I think our commissioner already answered that the first day. I think it was brought up, Coach dye said something about the map and all of that. I just confirmed, yeah, if you look at the map, that does make sense. You know, hey, I like it the way it is right now. I mean, the West right now is the best league in college football. It’s a man’s league. You got Alabama right now that is the top of the deal. And I like playing against them. I like playing against LSU. I like Ole Miss and Mississippi State, Texas A&M. So, I think that was probably blow out of proportion, but I like the way it is.
You need to know: Kamryn Pettaway and Kerryon Johnson will return for the 2017 season. Pettaway ran for 1,224 rush yards and seven touchdowns while Johnson ran for 895 rush yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Auburn will hope for better quarterback play, with former Baylor five-star recruit Jarrett Stidham transferring in. He is the favorite to start at the position for the Tigers. Tray Matthews, a senior defensive back, returns as the leading tackler from last season, with 76 tackles and one interception.
Best player quote: It feels good. There are a lot of people here, bigger and stronger than me, but it’s fun to be here to represent the special teams, the kickers and stuff across the country It’s a little different than a skill position. Once it comes down to fourth quarter and the game’s close, it’s a tough position to be in sometimes. Glad to be able to be out here and represent my school, along with these two other guys – Senior kicker Daniel Carlson on being the only kicker at SEC Media days.