HOOVER, Ala. — Gus Malzahn knows his fifth season as Auburn football coach will be make or break.
If Auburn suffers another late-season swoon and lose to hated rivals Georgia and Alabama for a fourth consecutive year, his job outlook will be bleak.
But that didn’t cause him to undersell his 2017 Tigers at SEC Media Days on Thursday.
“We’re at the point now where we’ve had five top-10 recruiting classes in a row,” Malzahn said. “Right now, we have the best quality depth we’ve had since I’ve been here. We’ve got the most experienced team that I’ve had since I’ve been here. … The fact that we have a very hungry team, they’ve got something to prove.
“Really, if you look back to 2013, I feel the same way about our team.”
The 2013 season was the last one in which the Tigers beat both Georgia and Alabama in the same season. They went on to win the SEC Championship Game and lost the BCS national title game in the final seconds to Florida State.
This week in Hoover, as everyone asked who could knock off Alabama at the top of the SEC, Malzahn recalled the last team that did.
“I’ll just say this: I really like this team,” Malzahn said. “I like where we’re at. They’re hungry, they’ve got a chip on their shoulder. We’re looking forward to coaching them.”
That mindset carried over to Malzahn’s players at SEC Media Days.
Senior kicker Daniel Carlson, who redshirted for the Tigers during that 2013 campaign, sees the similarities like his coach.
“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 biggest push behind Auburn’s rising expectations in 2017 came in the form of transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The former Baylor signal-caller is expected boost the Tigers’ weakest link of 2016 — multiple, serviceable options at quarterback.
Stidham is a heavy favorite in an upcoming battle with returning starter Sean White. The duo, along with true freshman Malik Willis, gives Malzahn even more confidence this fall.
“Just from a head coach’s standpoint, the biggest comfort I have right now is that quality depth aspect going into the season,” Malzahn said. “That was our Achilles heel the last two years. Everybody knows that. But we’ve got that solved.”
Malzahn spoke highly of Auburn’s depth across its roster. The Tigers have their most returning starters in more than a decade with 17. The offensive line is one of the most experienced in college football, and every key linebacker returns.
“We have all the pieces,” senior offensive tackle Braden Smith said. “We’re really disappointed to how we finished last year. … I think this year, being able to finish is the main thing.”
All that combined has made Auburn the popular pick as the SEC’s best shot at having a champion not named Alabama.
“We’ve got to seize the moment, we’ve got a chance,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got an unbelievably tough schedule. But we do have some key opponents at home. I like where we’re at.”
Auburn’s schedule, for the second consecutive season, includes the defending national champion on the road and the defending national runner-up at home. The Tigers go to Clemson in Week 2 and host Alabama on Nov. 25.
Auburn also hosts Georgia, another rival that has won three consecutive times against the Tigers. Bringing both of those final two SEC foes to Jordan-Hare Stadium brings back good memories for Malzahn.
“Our goal is to win the SEC Championship,” he said. “We’re disappointed from the last two years in the way we finished. … We have both of those guys at home, and the last time we beat both of them, we won the SEC Championship.”
Another late-season slide just won’t cut it on the Plains, and Malzahn realizes that. But he’s also raising the bar for this season.
“What I do like about this team is they have high expectations,” Malzahn said. “Their goal is to win the SEC Championship. And to do that, you’ve got to beat Alabama. And the last two times we beat them, we won the league and we played for the national championship, winning one of those and coming close to a second time.
“We have a very confident team.”