After closing last season with back-to-back losses at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – the first to Georgia in the SEC Championship game, the second to Central Florida in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl – Auburn’s football team will return to the same venue to open this season.
The Tigers will face Washington in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game Sept. 1, a notable matchup for several reasons: It’s a rare SEC-vs.-Pac-12 pairing; it’s likely a meeting of preseason top-10 or top-12 teams; and based on an ESPN metric, it’s the nation’s most important Week 1 game in terms of College Football Playoff implications.
“It is a good measuring stick for where this team is the first game,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Thursday as SEC Media Days wrapped up at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
Auburn has played in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff twice previously, losing to Clemson in 2012 and beating Louisville in 2015, and will return in 2020 to play North Carolina as one of three Kickoff games here that year.
Malzahn said his program is attracted to the event because the Auburn campus is “just right down the road from Atlanta,” because of Auburn’s large alumni base in metro Atlanta and because of another trip the Tigers hope to make here each year.
“Any time you get a chance to play in the same venue that your conference championship game is played in, I think that’s a very positive thing,” Malzahn said.
After November victories over Georgia and Alabama last season, Auburn was ranked No. 2 nationally when it came to Atlanta for the SEC title game against the Bulldogs on Dec. 2 -- “one game away from the College Football Playoff,” as Malzahn wistfully put it Thursday.
But the Tigers lost the rematch with Georgia 28-7 and then lost 34-27 to Central Florida in the Peach Bowl, becoming the first college football team to lose two games in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis said the Tigers didn’t play their best in the SEC Championship game or the bowl game.
“That’s when you’re supposed to play your best,” Davis said of the SEC title game, “and we played our worst.” Then the bowl was a tough motivational assignment because “you thought you should have been in the College Football Playoff,” he said.
Defensive lineman Dontavius Russell said that perhaps the Tigers’ experiences at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last season can benefit them against Washington.
“I think it’s helpful we have played there, and we’re used to playing there and used to the field and the turf,” Russell said. “But other than (the losses), man, it’s just a good venue to play in.”
Auburn will have to overcome a strong Washington team to avoid a third consecutive loss in Atlanta.
Coach Chris Petersen’s Huskies, 10-3 last season and the likely Pac-12 favorite this year, have fourth-year starters at quarterback (Jake Browning, who has 9,104 passing yards the past three seasons) and running back (Myles Gaskin, 4,055 rushing yards the past three seasons).
“It will be a good challenge for us,” Malzahn said.
But he also thinks highly of his team.
“We have a chance to be as good defensively (as last season) or possibly even better,” Malzahn said. “Offensively, the big thing that stands out to me is our quarterback (Jarrett Stidham) is back.
“You know, overall, I really like our team. I like our leaders. There's nothing like experience in our league. And we experienced some highs, some lows, and we were close. And I just really sense urgency and a hunger from that group.
“When I say that we’re hungry,” Malzahn added, “it’s really because of … being close to winning the SEC championship, being close to being in the final four. And we got to figure out a way to take that next step.”
It starts in the same place where last season unraveled.
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