Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn talks to the media Thursday during Southeastern Conference Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. Photo by: USA TODAY Sports
July 20, 2018 10:21:34 AM
ATLANTA -- Gus Malzahn knows success.
In three years as offensive coordinator for the Auburn football team, Malzahn was part of a national championship. In five years as the Tigers' head coach, he has led the program to a national championship game and is 1-1 in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
Malzahn knows Auburn's best. He thinks he has it in 2018.
"I thought we were very close (in 2017). We won the SEC West, which I believe is the toughest division in college football," Malzahn said. "One game away from the College Football Playoff, which you know is everybody's goal. We have a lot of our players back that experienced that."
Auburn returns 13 starters from the 2017 team that beat Alabama to win the SEC Western Division and went on to lose to Georgia in the SEC title game. UCF edged Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl to drop the Tigers to 10-4.
Still, there is plenty of optimism surrounding the 2018 campaign with six starters on offense and seven more on defense back. On Thursday at SEC Media Days, it was easy to see why Malzahn and his staff have set high expectations for this season.
Jarrett Stidham is one of many reasons on the Plains. In his first year available after transferring from Baylor, Stidham was named Newcomer of the Year after throwing for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns. He completed 75.6 percent of his passes against Mississippi State and Ole Miss and had four touchdowns with no interceptions.
Malzahn, who is entering his ninth season at Auburn, plans to give Stidham more freedom at the line of scrimmage. This is only the second time the veteran coach has returned a quarterback from year to year. He hopes Stidham is ready for the challenge after a busy offseason that saw him participate in the Manning Passing Academy, build a friendship with Missouri quarterback Drew Lock as a counselor at the Elite 11 camp, and propose to his girlfriend in Texas.
"I'm extremely excited about it," Stidham said. "Looking at last year, 99 percent of the time I knew exactly what we were doing. I knew what they were looking at and what was coming.
"I think there's some positives to it. I think we'll go faster at times. I remember LSU, we kept calling one play looking for a specific coverage. Every time they were not in that coverage and I knew exactly what we were going to check to. I think it'll speed up the process a little bit, which will be good. It puts more on my shoulders, which I'm ready for."
The hope is that the continuity also boosts the team's early performance. Last season, Clemson sacked Stidham 11 times in a 14-6 victory on Sept. 9 in Clemson, South Carolina.
Auburn has no time for early losses this season against what Malzahn calls "the toughest schedule in all of college football." Auburn opens the season in Atlanta against Washington. It will play host to Alabama State, LSU, Arkansas, and Southern Mississippi before traveling to Starkville to take on Mississippi State to conclude the first half of the season.
Auburn also will play Tennessee and Georgia from the SEC East. The annual Iron Bowl matchup against Alabama will be Saturday, Nov. 24, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The Tigers believe they have the tools to handle the schedule, which is part of the reason Stidham returned. As a redshirt sophomore, he could have put his name into the NFL draft and likely received a good bit of attention given his ability to throw the ball down the field, but the call for more at Auburn was too much.
"I think we're going to be just as good if not better," Stidham said. "We have a lot of talent coming back and we have a lot of experience, which is kind of crucial. We're going to get up front figured out pretty soon in fall camp."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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