At Peach Bowl, Gus Malzahn looks toward future at Auburn

ATLANTA -- Maybe this isn't the exact return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn had in mind when he was here a month ago. It was then, on the eve of the SEC title game, that his Tigers still had a shot at making the College Football Playoff and competing for an opportunity to appear in the national championship game, to be played here on Jan. 8.

Then a magical regular season, which began with two early losses and ended with five straight victories -- including wins over rivals and then-No. 1 teams Georgia and Alabama -- turned into a nightmare postseason. The Tigers, ranked No. 2 in the next-to-last playoff poll, were dominated in the conference championship game, losing 28-7 to the very same Georgia team they had beaten by 23 points a month earlier.

An SEC title and a shot at the playoff were gone, just like that. Instead, Malzahn & Co. would return to Atlanta earlier than they had hoped, competing in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against UCF on Jan. 1.

Even in that moment, though, as Malzahn digested a loss that included an uncharacteristic blocked field goal, two turnovers and a hobbled workhorse in running back Kerryon Johnson, he had hope.

Even as reporters gauged his interested in leaving for Arkansas, he was thinking about what might come next.

"I'm happy at Auburn," Malzahn said. "We have great players. I love my players. As I said before this game, we worked extremely hard to get here to this point, and we've got a very good foundation built, and I think the best is yet to come."

He ended his news conference with this: "I wouldn't be surprised if we're back in this moment next year."

Less than 48 hours later, news broke that Malzahn had agreed to a new seven-year, $49 million deal to remain at Auburn. In doing so, a new phase of his career had begun.

Despite two seasons dominated by talk of Malzahn being on the hot seat, and despite the allure of him being called home by Arkansas, Malzahn stayed. He and Auburn are together now for the foreseeable future, for better or for worse.

The question is what this renewed marriage will hold. Expectations aren't going anywhere. If anything, Malzahn has already begun the process of fanning those flames.

This won't be some ordinary non-playoff bowl game, he said. Instead, he sees this as a springboard to becoming a playoff team next season.

There's talk of momentum.

"This team gets it," Malzahn said. "We have been talking about how our program is set up for long-term success. There are opportunities you have to accelerate that, and I think our leaders get that -- not just for this year, but for next year, as far as a team that is taking the next step that gets the bigger picture."

On paper, the picture has many sides.

There's the concerning: Johnson, a junior and the heart and soul of the offense, could leave for the NFL draft. So could top cornerback Carlton Davis, who left Atlanta early for what Malzahn described as an "illness." What's more, the bulk of the offensive line will need to be replaced in the new year.

Then there's cause for hope: Quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who found his groove late in the season, could return; the wide receivers are almost all back; and the defense is built to last with good talent in the front seven and Kevin Steele back as coordinator.

The most important question facing the program isn't personnel, though. It's what kind of coach Malzahn will be with what could be a preseason top-10 team next season.

The 52-year-old hasn't exactly been a model of consistency. Early on, when he led Auburn to the BCS National Championship Game, he was the offensive guru with a tendency to micromanage, calling all the plays himself. But after finishing 8-5 in 2014, he decided to take a step back to focus on the bigger picture.

Then, after a disastrous 2015, in which Auburn won just seven games, he felt the need to be in control again, saying, "I probably tried to be too much of a CEO." And only three games into the next season, he announced that he would be handing over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.

Lashlee ultimately left for a non-Power 5 job and less money to become offensive coordinator at UConn. There were questions about whether his replacement, Chip Lindsey, had full control of the offense this season. If Malzahn wasn't calling plays, he at least gave off the appearance that he was heavily involved in the process.

Maybe that's the way to go. Maybe this season, even though it didn't end the way anyone wanted, has shown a formula for success at Auburn.

It's not the conservative, detached Professor Malzahn. It's the hyperfocused, intense coach who isn't afraid of risk.

It's an offense that pushes the tempo, runs between the tackles with authority and consistently plays the role of the aggressor.

Watching Auburn beat Georgia and Alabama during the regular season felt like just that. It felt like a return to 2013, and Gus being Gus again, wild fist pumps and all. And with all the pieces coming back for next season, maybe he's right that this time it will be sustainable.

After coming so close to making the playoff and competing for a national championship, Auburn isn't hung up on falling short. It's back in Atlanta, looking for more.