HOOVER, Ala. — Gus Malzahn has been chasing the heights of his first season as Auburn football coach since the clock hit all zeroes at the final BCS National Championship Game.
But Malzahn hasn’t found a formula to repeat that 12-2 record in the 2013 season that pulled off the biggest turnaround in modern college football history. Auburn hasn’t fielded the same explosive offensive consistency, late-game effectiveness or thrilling success against its two biggest rivals.
Four years later, though, Malzahn thinks he can get lightning to strike a second time on the Plains.
“Probably the biggest thing that’s standing out to me about this team, that they’re hungry,” Malzahn said last week at SEC Media Days. “They’re hungry and they’ve got something to prove. And, really, the last time I felt this was 2013. So that’s a good comfort for me.”
Malzahn’s 2013 team was motivated by arguably the program’s worst-ever season in 2012 — 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC.
“They were embarrassed,” Malzahn said. “They wanted to redeem themselves. And they had that edge to them that just brought everybody together and just do that little extra more that it takes, and they were an extremely close team.”
Likewise, the desire to make things right again after 8-5, 7-6 and 8-5 seasons weighs heavily on Auburn’s leaders this season.
“I see a lot of similarities (to 2013),” senior safety Tray Matthews said. “I see the hunger, I see the drive. We haven’t finished like we’ve wanted to the last two seasons. We have a chip on our shoulder, and we’re ready to get after it this year.”
Auburn will be able to “get after it” in 2017 with a lot of experience.
The Tigers are in line to return at least seven starters on both offense and defense this fall. The last Auburn team to have that much coming back was none other than the 2013 squad.
“Right now, we have the best quality depth we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got the most experienced team that I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Auburn could start an entire offensive line of seniors. It returns almost all of its rushing yards from an SEC-leading 2016 season. Four of the top five receivers are back.
“The last couple of years, we’ve had a really young team,” senior offensive tackle Braden Smith said. “I think that experience will play a key role, like everybody has seen what the journey is like the last couple of years.”
On defense, Auburn returns all three of its starting linebackers and two of its top linemen. Its top cornerback is back, along with three senior safeties with starting experience.
The nation’s best kicker, Daniel Carlson, rounds out the balanced, veteran-filled depth chart.
“I think that we do have a special team this year,” Carlson said. “This is my fifth year, and I was here during 2013, and it feels special and similar to that year. We’re all working hard and this team is really coming together. All of the talent and all of the pieces of the puzzle that need to come together, we have a shot at a really special year.”
The similarities between 2017 and 2013 don’t stop there.
In 2013, Auburn turned to a transfer quarterback who started his career at another Power 5 school and followed him to a record-breaking year.
While Nick Marshall’s journey was much different than the one taken by Jarrett Stidham, he has the potential to be the lynchpin of an offensive overhaul.
With Marshall, it was a run-first, Wing T-inspired brand of smashmouth spread football brought to the Plains by Malzahn and first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
With Stidham, the plan is for an run-pass option-based Air Raid-influenced attack that seeks more offensive balance under first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.
Auburn will return a junior running back who broke out for a 1,000-yard season in the previous year. Tre Mason did that heading into 2013 and Kamryn Pettway will do the same in 2017.
And, just like it did in 2013 for two instant college football classics, Auburn will host both Alabama and Georgia in 2017.
That stands out to Malzahn, who won’t shy away from any 2013 comparisons or championship whispers this season.
“We’re in a good spot,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to seize the moment. We’ve got a chance. We have an unbelievably tough schedule. But we do have some key opponents at home. I like where we’re at.”