AUBURN, Ala. — Before Auburn’s game against top-ranked Georgia last week, Gus Malzahn had a message for his football program.
“Our guys have worked extremely hard and I want our guys to have fun playing the game,” the coach said. “That was kind of one of those things I wanted them to do. Obviously, when you win big it’s funner, OK.”
Yet the sentiment, which came after weeks of hot-seat talk and frustrations, was just as much a reminder to himself as an order for his players.
“But I wanted our guys to be a little looser and, really, I wanted to be a little looser and I wanted to have fun myself,” Malzahn said. “That was one of our messages.”
Coaches always want their players to have fun, regardless of the sport or the level it’s being played. That’s no different on the Plains. Still, the days leading up to the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry were unique. There was a different feeling on campus. The energy was palpable.
When the Tigers practiced at the outdoor practice field at the Auburn Athletics Complex, players could hear fans driving by honking and yelling, “Beat Georgia! Beat the Bulldogs!”
Malzahn and his staff didn’t want to add more pressure. So after stopping a losing streak to Georgia, the thing they emphasized most was the importance of enjoying the moment.
“I actually feel like this was the first time our coaches allowed us to have fun like that on the sideline,” linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “Usually it’s, ‘Y’all lock in. Sit down and lock in.’
“Y’all know as a unit, we’re big kids. We like to have fun, and so when we hear a song we can dance to we dance to it and then we go back out there and get three-and-outs. That’s just how we operate.”
The mindset is especially true for Auburn’s defense. Kevin Steele turned things around and built a monster inspired by fun. The defensive coordinator was determined to keep things simple yet lively. The combination would only lead to more success each week.
“The big thing is energy and enthusiasm is great in football,” Steele said. “Now, you can’t get so involved in that that you lose your edge. Because you’re not at the club, you’ve got to go back out there and play. I think they were having fun, they enjoyed it.
“It’s like anything else. You know when you’re doing your job, and you know when you’re affecting things in a positive way. That gives you confidence, and that breeds confidence.”
Not every team is gifted with a chance to upset the No. 1 team in the country. Even fewer teams facing a top team post a double-digit win.
Playing Alabama in the Iron Bowl is another exclusive setting. But playing in an Iron Bowl to decide the SEC West champion? Having a chance to vie for an SEC championship?
And that’s not even the best hypothetical. Auburn could navigate its way into the College Football Playoff as one of four to make the cut.
There will be 126 FBS college football teams watching and wishing they could experience that for themselves. Playing for that opportunity will be something Auburn players look back on for the rest of their lives, so best to cherish the moment as it happens.
“It’s a player’s game. It’s all on us. Just bring that energy on the sidelines and at practice, have that enthusiasm,” wide receiver Ryan Davis said. “They just want us to go out there and leave it all on the field.
“Just have fun, because you don’t get these moments like that in a game like Georgia — those moments don’t come too often. You just have to enjoy them while they’re there and take advantage of them.”