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Auburn is returning several key players on offense and defense, including quarterback Jarrett Stidham (8).

Auburn football: How realistic is another trip to SEC title game in Atlanta in 2018?

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SEC Champions again or nah?

AUBURN, Ala. — Very few Auburn fans would have predicted Gus Malzahn’s team would be one of the two facing off in Atlanta in December at the beginning of the 2017 season.

Still, even in the first year with a new offensive coordinator and quarterback, it’s exactly where the Tigers ended up after topping two top-ranked programs in November.

As nice as it was to make it to the SEC Championship Game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Auburn didn’t end the season the way it had hoped. Instead, it was Georgia that celebrated and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Malzahn has a team full of veterans that navigated perhaps the nation’s toughest schedule in 2017. Experience is meaningful, especially in the Southeastern Conference, but there are more pieces to the puzzle. So what must Auburn do to again appear in the league title game? What will be the difference between a win and a loss?

MORE: A way-too-early look at Gus Malzahn’s program in 2019 

The first thing Auburn must do to get back to Atlanta sounds simple. It requires a lot of focus and dedication from players, and also perhaps a little bit of luck in staying healthy.

Kerryon Johnson led the conference in rushing, but he started to wear down by the end of the year. In the locker room after the Peach Bowl, Johnson admitted he needed rest. A few weeks later at the end of January, quarterback Jarrett Stidham underwent a minor shoulder procedure.

Those are just a couple of examples, but the bottom line was that Auburn was not the same team in December that it was in November. Players can only do much when it comes to staying healthy. Still, extra time in the training room and doing everything necessary to take care of one’s body goes a long way.

MORE: Who should get credit for success of Auburn wide receivers? 

The second thing Auburn must do to return to the SEC Championship Game is just as difficult: Win on the road.

On several college football weekends last season, Jordan-Hare Stadium was bar none the best atmosphere in the country. Auburn’s home-field advantage was real. This season, the Tigers will travel to Athens to face Georgia and to Tuscaloosa — both places where Malzahn hasn’t had a lot of success.

It will be anything but easy. Georgia and Alabama may have faced each other in the national title game, but both programs will be seeking revenge against Auburn come fall. If the Tigers remain healthy and pull off wins on the road, Auburn could have another chance to compete for a conference championship.

The reality is it’s not out of the question or even an outrageous projection. Auburn returns one of the nation’s most talented defensive fronts, will be led by just the program’s second-ever 3,000-yard passer and will have a group of capable running backs. Competing year in and year out for SEC dominance isn’t a hope anymore. It’s what should happen.