College football: Auburn Tigers motivated by last year's 0-2 finish, hungry to take ‘next step' to CFP
ATLANTA — It's often said that wounded Tigers are dangerous. Gus Malzahn hopes the same applies to hungry Tigers.
Auburn won the SEC West title last year but lost in the conference championship game and was left out of the College Football Playoff.
The Tigers jumped into the Playoff picture with major regular season wins over Georgia and Alabama in a three-week span, but they finished with back-to-back losses to Georgia in the SEC title game and to UCF in the Peach Bowl.
Auburn finished the season 10-4.
"We were close. I really sense an urgency and a hunger from our group," Malzahn said. "We won the West, which is a man's league. If you win the West you've done something. There's such a fine line between winning the conference championship and coming close."
The Peach Bowl loss took away some luster from last season. Auburn had three turnovers in the game and lost 34-27 after an early 3-0 lead.
That Iron Bowl winning order... pic.twitter.com/sm806us0xx— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) July 19, 2018
The Tigers' motivation was questioned by television analysts as UCF completed an undefeated season and has since proclaimed itself national champion.
"We laid an egg that day. Not to take anything away from our opponent, but we were not happy with the way the season ended," Malzahn said. "Our team really used that for motivation over the summer."
Auburn returns six starters on offense, including its quarterback for only the second time in Malzahn's nine years as coach. Jarrett Stidham, in his second season after transferring from Baylor, was third in the SEC in passing yards per game, fourth in efficiency.
The Tigers also return seven starters from a defense that ranked third in the SEC in points allowed.
"We know we have to finish better. The last two games we played weren't up to the Auburn standard," linebacker Deshaun Davis said. "It's something we're using as motivation. We know we came so close to our goals, and we know they're realistic now."
Part of figuring out things will be solving issues on the road. The Tigers were 7-0 at home — where their impressive Georgia and Alabama wins occurred — but were 3-2 on the road and 0-2 in neutral site games.
A coaching staff that returns almost entirely intact adds to Malzhan's optimism. The only vacancy was filled by J.B. Grimes who begins his second tour as Malzahn's offensive line coach.
Malzahn said he moved quickly to re-hire Grimes when the Auburn opening occurred. He believes the Tigers, missing Kerryon Johnson, the SEC's leading rusher at 115.9 yards a game, will be in position to produce a thousand-yard rusher for the 10th-straight season.
"We have to figure out how to take that next step," Malzahn said. "It's easier said than done."
This article is written by Parrish Alford from Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.