Optimistic Gus Malzahn senses hunger in his Auburn team

Auburn NCAA college football player Tray Matthews speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Thursday, July 13, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)


The Southeastern Conference today will release the predictions from media days, which will include the projected champion, the order of finish in both divisions and a preseason All-SEC team.

HOOVER, Ala. - Will the next Southeastern Conference football champion other than Alabama be the same as the last league champ other than the Crimson Tide?

Auburn fifth-year coach Gus Malzahn certainly believes that could be the case.

Alabama's toughest challenger this season could come from within its own state, with Malzahn's Tigers returning 16 starters from last year's team that ascended to No. 9 in the country and played Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Auburn hosts Alabama this season, but the Tigers and Crimson Tide have plenty to navigate before then, including Auburn's trip to reigning national champ Clemson on Sept. 9.

SEC media days wrapped up Thursday, but not before Malzahn sounded the most optimistic of the league's 14 coaches.

"Overall, I am very excited about this team," he said. "I think we've got more returning starters than we've had the last 12 years at Auburn, and in this league there is nothing like experience. It's the first time I can say that we have quality depth in all areas, and that's very important. We had some key injuries late the last two years, and it has hurt us.

"Probably the biggest thing that's standing out to me about this team is that they're hungry. They're hungry and they've got something to prove, and the last time I felt this was 2013."

Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2010, when quarterback Cam Newton led the Tigers to their first national championship since 1957, and his first year as head coach of the Tigers was in 2013. Auburn had bottomed out with a 3-9 record in 2012, but Malzahn's debut featured memorable late-season triumphs over Georgia and Alabama that led to 12 victories and an SEC title.

Auburn ultimately fell to Florida State, 34-31, in the BCS championship game, but the past three seasons have yielded 8-5, 7-6 and 8-5 records that have included losses all three years to the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide. The Tigers were ranked among the top four teams in the first college football playoff rankings in the 2014 season, and they had a brilliant October last year that included a 56-3 thrashing of Arkansas, but they faltered in November when quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway were injured.

"Coach Malzahn has a lot of confidence in us because we're very hungry, and he sees the effort and the improvements that we're making," senior safety Tray Matthews said. "He sees that we have that chip on our shoulder and that we're not settling for anything. We didn't finish how we wanted to last year, and that was very upsetting.

"We know we have more in the tank than that."

White was leading the SEC in passing efficiency last season before getting hurt, but he may not even start this time around. The favorite to assume that role is Jarrett Stidham, a 6-foot-3, 214-pounder who completed 75 of 109 passes (68.8 percent) for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions as a Baylor University freshman in 2015.

Stidham attended McLennan Community College in Texas last fall but did not play, while the 6-foot, 200-pound White completed 133 of 208 passes (63.9 percent) for 1,679 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.

"Jarrett Stidham is a very talented young man - I think that's a common-sense deal - and what he's done since he's been at Auburn is just show his leadership," Malzahn said. "He's done a good job trying to win over his teammates with his work ethic. I'm also very excited about Sean White, because when Sean White's healthy, he plays at an extremely high level.

"We've got two of the better quarterbacks, I feel like, and we've got a young one in Malik Willis who really caught my eye in the spring. The exciting thing for me is we've got depth at quarterback, and that's been our Achilles' heel the last two years."

Auburn's two SEC titles since 2010 and LSU's one can't add up to the four Alabama has attained. Either Auburn or LSU should be picked second in the Western Division behind the Tide when media days voting is revealed today, with Malzahn quick to admit it's Alabama's conference right now but that his Tigers are ready to give it a run.

"This team has high expectations, and their goal is to win the SEC, and to do that you've got to beat Alabama," Malzahn said. "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've got them at home. That's a positive, and we have a very confident team."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.