AUBURN, Ala. — The last time Auburn football won the Iron Bowl, Gus Malzahn was worried about his team.
The Tigers had just beaten Alabama with one of the greatest finishes in college football history, but they had a championship game to play for six days later. Emotions were through the roof. The first-year coach feared the worst ahead of the SEC Championship Game against Missouri.
“I was real concerned to get over that because it was so crazy at the end and everything that went,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “I was very concerned, could we have that high of emotion and be able to rebound and play.”
Four years later, Auburn beat an undefeated No. 1 Alabama team at home to secure a spot in the SEC Championship Game. Once again, the tone around the Plains is one of jubilation, as the Tigers beat their biggest rivals by more than 10 points for the first time since 1969.
But 2013 was a different team and a different situation, Malzahn said. He could tell this team was different quickly.
“This team is a lot more stable,” Malzahn said. “You’re definitely concerned, but I feel great about it. Because when we got in Sunday team meeting, it was flip the page. I mean, that was over with. We’ll think about how fun [the Iron Bowl] was after the season.”
That’s the “24-hour rule” at work. After Auburn’s 10 wins in the regular season — from the pedestrian ones over smaller nonconference foes to emotional double-digit ones over its two biggest rivals — the players knew that once practice rolled around Sunday evening, the celebrations were finished.
“We live it up, we celebrate within those 24 hours after the game,” senior safety Tray Matthews said. “Once that’s up, you’ve got to move on. You can’t just stay in the past. That game is over with. We’re not even talking about it anymore. We’re ready for the SEC championship.”
After their biggest rivalry win in nearly 50 years, the Tigers say they’re completely past it.
And they have to be. Their SEC Championship Game rematch pits them against 11-1 Georgia, whose only subpar performance of the entire season came against them in Jordan-Hare Stadium three weeks ago.
“They’ve drilled the two teams they played [since the first Auburn-Georgia game],” Malzahn said. “I mean, they came out and put them away. They played good football. You’re talking about one of the best teams in the country. They’re really good, and they’ve showed that through the whole season.”
Malzahn isn’t concerned nearly as much about his team’s mental focus heading into Atlanta this weekend. Auburn has bigger goals ahead of it than an Iron Bowl win. If it defeats Georgia in the rematch, Auburn will be virtually guaranteed a spot in the College Football Playoff — and the Bulldogs could snatch that spot if they win.
“I mean, it’s the SEC Championship,” senior offensive lineman Austin Golson said. “If we can’t get ready for that then we don’t deserve to be there. So I don’t think that’s going to be an issue at all, us being ready. We’re going to get Georgia’s best, and hopefully we’ll give them our best.”
Auburn can credit that mental state to defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who is in his second year with the program.
He instituted the 24-hour rule last year with his defense, and that attitude has carried over to the rest of the roster.
“He’ll say, once we watch the film, we’re going to put this aside and we have to move on to the next opponent,” Matthews said. “So starting Tuesday , we’re going to put on our pads, we’re going to go do Tiger drill, we’re going to do what we do, and do what we do best, and that’s what we do. We keep the same routine. Nothing has changed.”
And that routine doesn’t matter if the previous win was against a Sun Belt team or the three-time defending SEC champion.
That’s what Malzahn likes about his team, one that’s much more stable than the one that went on an unprecedented — and, in some ways, fortunate — hot streak to play in the final BCS title game one year after a 3-9 record.
Auburn’s 2017 squad has bounced back from two ugly losses to win five straight games, even two against No. 1 teams, in dominant fashion.
“We’ve got a mature bunch, a hungry bunch,” Malzahn said. “… Sunday, when we went out to practice, it was great energy. They’re excited. It’s finally here. There’s something to be said for that. But, nah, we won’t have any kind of emotional letdown in this type of game.”
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