AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn football takes the field in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on New Year’s Day, it won’t be playing in a consolation game, despite missing out on the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Tigers will be hunting a historic season.
The 2017 group has an opportunity to accomplish something only a few squads before them could — ending the year with 11 wins.
“I think the biggest thing right now is our team is hungry, our team is excited to play in this game against the only undefeated team left,” Malzahn said. “We’re extremely motivated from the standpoint of a chance to win 11 games.
“The tradition we have here at Auburn is the best in the country, and it’s only been done six times. This will be a team that, if we can pull off the 11th win, will be remembered and talked about for a long time around here.”
Legendary Auburn coach Pat Dye was the first one to reach an 11-win season (1 loss). Terry Bowden followed in 1993 with an undefeated 11-0 season (The Tigers were on NCAA probation that year, banned from TV and postseason play) and Tommy Tuberville did it twice — in 2004 (13-0) and then again in 2006 (11-2).
Malzahn is not unfamiliar with the feat, either. He was a part of similar success as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010 (14-0) and again during his first year as head coach in 2013 (12-2).
Those two seasons will serve as helpful reference points as Malzahn tries to become the first coach to win at least 11 games three times. The fifth-year coach knows the drill.
“I think the more experience you have in anything, it gives you a good reference, especially when you’ve been successful and you try to do the routine, or you haven’t been successful and you try to change things up,” Malzahn said. “We’ve had a lot of experience and we feel like we’ve got a very good plan for this year. We’re going to start practice Friday and we’ll be here, I believe, for six practices and once we go to the bowl site we’ve got a good plan as far as that goes.”
It’s more evidence of the bright future Malzahn continued to point toward even as rumors about his possible departure to Arkansas raged on. Now that he’s reportedly agreed to a seven-year deal, Auburn is hopeful this is just the beginning of another historic run.
“I’m very blesssed to be the head coach of the Auburn Tigers. I’m really looking forward to the future,” Malzahn said. “Any time you have stability, especially in this day and time in college football, I think it gives you an advantage. We’ve got a very stable program right now. The future’s very bright. I think it does nothing but help with all of the above.”
Still, with another 11-win season on the line, Auburn will take any edge it can get, and the Tigers feel they have one in the Peach Bowl venue.
It will be almost exactly a month since Auburn last played in the new Atlanta stadium — and it won’t be the last time, either. Malzahn’s team opens the 2018 season in Atlanta with a nonconference game against Washington. The shiny, futuristic stadium may stun other visiting college teams, but for Auburn, it feels like home.
“There’s no doubt about that. We’ve had a lot of success in Atlanta, specifically in this bowl,” Malzahn said. “Obviously, we had a tough time the last time we were in this venue. We definitely want to redeem ourselves. The fact that we open up in the same place, I like that, and I think our players do. You’re talking about one of the best environments in all of college football and one of the best stadiums. It’s just right down the road. We look at it as a home away from home.”
Uncharacteristic turnovers and a rash of injuries were just some of the reasons Auburn fell to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2. The loss hurt, but now Malzahn’s team can use the defeat as more motivation to step in the direction of history.
“I will tell you this, our team will learn from that game,” Malzahn said. “A chance to play another game in the same arena is big. Our team will be extremely hungry, and that’s exciting to me.”