Today Coach Gus Malzahn is Focused on Just One Game
By Joey Johnston
Auburn University coach Gus Malzahn prefers to focus on current events, such as finding ways to help his Tigers (9-3) defeat the Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-2) in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
That would make for a monumental finish. It would mark the third double-digit victory year in Malzahn's seven-season head-coaching tenure.
"That's all I'm thinking about,'' Malzahn said.
But sometimes, he can't help but look back.
Thirteen seconds away.
Nearly six years have passed, but Malzahn said he flashes back to the game at least once a week.
Thirteen seconds away.
It was Jan. 6, 2014 at the Rose Bowl's national-title game. Auburn, in Malzahn's first head-coaching season, almost pulled it off. But the Florida State Seminoles, behind Heisman Trophy-winning freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, rallied for a 34-31 victory against Malzahn's crestfallen Tigers.
"Had we won (the national title), I think I'd be the same person,'' Malzahn said. "In high school, our team got beat in double overtime. I think about that once a week. The Florida State game, that's about once a week, too.
"I think that's what motivates you. Our goal is to get back. We've been close. One day, we'll take that next step and win it. We're a program that has a chance to do some things.''
This season has been impressive enough. The Tigers lost just three games, all to top 10-ranked SEC opponents, by a combined 21 points. Auburn opened with a riveting 27-21 win against Oregon, which eventually earned a Rose Bowl bid as the Pac-12 Conference champions, and finished the regular season by defeating arch-rival Alabama 48-45.
Auburn played the nation's most difficult schedule. So if the Tigers finish with 10 victories and an Outback Bowl title, that's remarkable in its own way.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Malzahn's customary innovative approach already has given him some sleepless nights.
"I've watched every one of Auburn's games this season and it's one of the best football teams I've played against as a head coach,'' Fleck said. "They are so explosive and creative on offense. What you see one week is going to be about 20 percent of what you see the next week.
"It's a reflection of Guz Malzahn. He takes that basic system and spins it 20 different ways so you can't get a bead on them. They find multiple ways to win and they are always so dangerous. It's characteristic of Coach Malzahn's teams. It's no fun at all.''
Unless you're an Auburn fan.
Then it's great fun.
Malzahn, 71-33 at Auburn, has produced three Heisman Trophy finalists in 10 seasons of SEC coaching, while directing two of the top four offenses in SEC history (2013 and 2010, while Auburn's offensive coordinator).
"Gus fully understands the fabric of the Auburn family, the City of Auburn and the state of Alabama,'' Auburn athletic director Allen Greene said. "He developed great relationships with our players and coaches in such a creative manner. He represents Auburn in a first-class manner.
"We're coming off a great win against Alabama, one of the best games I've seen in person in my life. I think I'll remember that one forever. But we know - and Gus knows, too - that we want to finish on a high note. That's why this Outback Bowl is so important to us.''
Malzahn, deep in preparation mode, is full-speed ahead toward New Year's Day.
"With any bowl game and the extended time to get ready, you've got to be careful about your approach,'' Malzahn said. "At the end of the day, you've got to do what got you there.
"At Auburn, we're family. Auburn allows me to be me. We're able to recruit some of the top players in the country. We're in a state with no professional sports, so (the support) is as good as it gets. We've always got a chance to win the whole thing and not a lot of programs can say that. But right now, we want to keep this season's momentum going for one more game.''