AUBURN, Ala. — For college football coaches, paradise is landing the best recruits, competing for conference titles and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff year in and year out.
Of the 129 Division I teams, Alabama (and arguably Clemson) has found itself in the national title conversation in the last couple of years. Alabama is the only realistic contender most years since 2009. Oh, and don’t forget about Auburn.
“… How many teams can say they’ve gone to the national championship twice — winning it once — in the last seven years?” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “They’ve been there twice! And now they’re knocking on the door a third time. You know how long teams work to get one chance at a national championship opportunity? It’s hard. Really, really hard to have a chance to get there.”
Cam Newton, a superhuman by normal student-athlete standards, led the Tigers to the title in 2010. Three years later, a couple of miraculous plays cleared the path to Pasadena for Auburn. Yet here we are again, preparing to watch Auburn play in Atlanta and try for a spot in the playoff.
Despite the rumors, stress and turmoil that 2017 has brought, Gus Malzahn is closing in on his utopia — and he could be hanging out there for a while.
“You know I think you can kind of see, I know we talked about it earlier in the year, about where our program’s at. We felt like coming into this year we finally had some quality depth through recruiting. We had a lot of the pieces to the puzzle that’s what it takes,” Malzahn said. “We’re in a really good spot and the future is very bright. We had the ability to sustain it. now we got to do it, you got to do all the stuff, but we’re a lot more stable right now than any other time that I’ve been here at Auburn. I feel good about where we’re at.”
Yet it’s not just Malzahn who believes he’s constructed a contender. Others who watch top teams each week see what the Arkansas native sees. In a climate of unrealistic expectations, Auburn’s self confidence is warranted.
“Auburn’s equipped. They have the resources. They have the ability to recruit players at a high level,” Herbstreit said. “With Gus Malzahn there, they should be saying, ‘We should beat Alabama every year. We’ve got to get to Atlanta every year. And if we do those two things, guess what? We’re going to the playoff with a chance to win the national championship.’ It’s not gonna happen every year, but I think for Auburn it’s realistic to try to hope for that every year.”
At times, things won’t pan out. When that happens, regardless of the circumstances, Herbstreit says the “Fire Gus” chants need to cease.
“Some of these fan bases, they should have lofty expectations, but if you go 8-4 and have some injuries, a little bit of a rebuilding year and you go to the Outback Bowl, I don’t think we need to jump up and down and protest,” Herbstreit said. “I think you have to have realistic goals.”
CBS announcer Gary Danielson echoes Herbstreit’s comments. When discussing the SEC Championship Game, Danielson pointed out the proximity of Mercedes-Benz Stadium from both Athens and Auburn. It’s a matter of a state border really, when it comes to recruiting top young talent.
“So the point being, they’re around all those good football players, too,” Danielson said.
Auburn has proven it’s a top program in terms of recruiting, just look at the last five top-10 recruiting classes.
Yet there are many pieces to make the national championship puzzle fit perfectly every single year. For Malzahn, Danielson says, that will mean holding onto his staff. The veteran analyst points to the Crimson Tide as an example of a team that has to adjust after the departure of important coaches.
“I think there’s been a bit of a transition for Alabama losing Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart within a year and a half, the way it’s happened,” Danielson said. “It always puts pressure on a program when you have to go through the transitions. It might be a step away if Kevin Steele goes in a different direction, but that’s college football all these coaches are dealing with that.”
As long as Jarrett Stidham is at Auburn, Danielson pictures Auburn being “legit.” Malzahn has shown, Danielson says (with the exception of a couple of strange seasons), an ability to produce yards “no matter what type of quarterback he has as long as they’re halfway capable.”
When Georgia and Alabama have to go into Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers are a squad to watch. Auburn might not be in the championship conversation every year. They may be. Regardless of how the seasons to come unfold, Auburn’s expectations are reasonable.
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