ATLANTA — It would’ve been easy for Auburn football players and coaches to become fixated on the crushing disappointment of its 28-7 SEC Championship Game loss to Georgia on Saturday.
And while there were plenty of long faces and mea culpas at the postgame podium and in the locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there was still a strong sense of hope for the future.
“Got a bunch of hurting coaches and players in the locker room,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “But I will tell you, though, even though it’s tough right now, the future’s very bright, and I’m proud of our team getting us to this point.”
Auburn will find out its bowl fate Sunday with a 10-3 record to its name. It’s the first double-digit win season for the Tigers since 2013 and only the fifth in the last two decades. The Tigers most likely will head to a New Year’s Six bowl — their second in a row. Auburn’s trip to the SEC title game Saturday was its sixth since the game was introduced in 1992.
And there’s a lot of belief that Auburn could keep things rolling from a team that outscored its SEC opponents by 154 points, a total that includes the loss to Georgia on Saturday.
“Yeah, we’ve got a lot of young guys in this program and a lot of guys that have committed themselves to the program and bought in,” junior Deshaun Davis said. “A lot of them contributed. I feel like the future is bright.”
Auburn is only guaranteed to lose seven starters from the squad that started the SEC title game Saturday — four offensive linemen, one linebacker and two safeties. The Tigers will return three offensive linemen with starting experience and several defensive backs with quality experience with the first-team defense.
Stars such as quarterback Jarrett Stidham, running back Kerryon Johnson, defensive end Jeff Holland and cornerback Carlton Davis are all draft-eligible.
While they haven’t formally made their decisions yet, the belief is most of them will return for 2018. Holland, who led the team in sacks, told SEC Country’s Benjamin Wolk on Saturday night he was “planning on playing next season” at Auburn.
“Yeah, I’m coming back,” Holland said.
That will be a huge boost to Auburn’s defensive line, which could return every single contributor from a deep and elite unit. It’s enough to make sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson think big for the future.
“With the pieces coming back — hopefully we’ll have Dontavius and Jeff Holland coming back — we can really kick off this thing like we’re supposed to,” Davidson said.
Those seniors who definitely won’t be back in 2018 can see the potential, too.
“They’re going to be fine,” senior linebacker Tre’ Williams said. “It would’ve been great to get the result that we wanted, but then again, we had a lot of people coming back, and those boys will be great next year.”
For the Auburn offense, which scored 37.1 points per game in SEC play this season, there’s plenty of promise to go around, even after a crushing loss to Georgia.
“I believe that next year, we’ll be back here,” sophomore running back Kam Martin said. “I believe that with all my heart. We have the right tools, the right pieces. But, you know, Georgia was just the better team today.”
Every one of the skill position players, from the backfield tandem of Stidham and Johnson to every key receiver, can return next year — most likely for a second year under offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.
“We’ve still got it,” sophomore receiver Nate Craig-Myers said. “We’re a young team on offense. We’ve got guys leaving us, but I still think we’ve got momentum going into next season.”
With as many as 17 starters potentially coming back to a team that beat both Georgia and Alabama by double digits, Auburn has a real chance at championship-level stability. In an SEC filled with coaching turnover this offseason, that’s rare.
If Malzahn sticks to his public comments and stays on the Plains, he’ll have another team capable of contending again.
“We have great players,” Malzahn said. “I love my players. As I said before this game, we worked extremely hard to get here to this point, and we’ve got a very good foundation built, and I think the best is yet to come.
“I believe we’re going to be back. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re back in this moment next year.”