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Auburn preview: Malzahn convinced Tigers special

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Photographs by Associated Press

Auburn NCAA college football coach Gus Malzahn speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Thursday, July 13, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

HOOVER, Ala. -- Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn exuded an aura of confidence during his appearance at SEC media days Thursday.

One of the repeated queries in Hoover was, "Can anyone catch Alabama?" Malzahn made it clear he thinks the Tigers can do it.

Auburn schedule

Sept. 2 Georgia Southern

Sept. 9 at Clemson

Sept. 16 Mercer

*Sept. 23 at Missouri

*Sept 30 Mississippi State

*Oct. 7 Ole Miss

*Oct. 14 at LSU

*Oct. 21 at Arkansas

*Nov. 4 at Texas A&M

*Nov. 11 Georgia

Nov. 18 Louisiana-Monroe

*Nov. 25 Alabama

  • SEC game

Auburn glance

Last season 8-5, 5-3 (tie 2nd in SEC West)

Coach Gus Malzahn (35-18 in fifth year at Auburn; 44-21 in sixth year overall)

Returning starters (18): Offense 7, Defense 8, Specialty 3

Key returning players PK Daniel Carlson, DT Marlon Davidson, CB Carlton Davis, S Tray Matthews, RB Kamryn Pettway, OL Braden Smith, QB Sean White

SEC title scenario The first order of business is establishing how the quarterback reps will be allotted and getting the offense on board. If quarterbacks Jarrett Stidham and/or Sean White steady the reins of a balanced offense, Auburn looks to have enough defensive prowess to contend.

Auburn, with an 11-13 SEC record the past three seasons, is ready to contend, he suggested.

"Probably the biggest thing that's standing out to me about this team is that they're hungry," Malzahn said. "They're hungry, and they've got something to prove. And really, the last time I felt this was 2013, so that's a good comfort for me."

In 2013, Malzahn's first year on The Plains, the Tigers went 12-2, knocking off the defending national champion Crimson Tide en route to a loss to Florida State in the BCS Championship Game.

Malzahn repeatedly mentioned how close the Tigers were to being a force last season, pointing out the team's six-game winning streak and declaring, "I really felt like we were playing as well as anybody in the country."

Malzahn's confidence was reflected in this line during his appearance in the big media room: "Probably the biggest question mark about the team is who is going to be the starting punter."

Malzahn has a reason to feel feisty. The Tigers return seven offensive starters and eight defensive starters.

The defense developed into a force in 2016 under first-year coordinator Kevin Steele during the 13th stop of his coaching career.

The Tigers ranked No. 7 in scoring defense (17.1 points per game), No. 28 in total defense (361.9 yards per game), No. 27 in rushing defense (132.8 ypg) and No. 11 in red zone defense (74.4 percent) last year.

Malzahn lobbied for Steele in the Broyles Award competition -- which is given to the nation's top assistant coach every year -- but he was not a finalist.

"He should have been right in the middle of that thing," said Malzahn, pointing out that one of his goals was to be a top 10 defensive team. "We weren't anywhere close to that the year before, so for him to get us to play top-10 defense ... his defensive staff did a super job.

"I say we got a chance to be really good on defense again, and that's what it takes in this league."

Senior safety Tray Matthews said he's never met a person like Steele.

"Coach Steele definitely hasn't gotten enough credit for that because he's an amazing coach, he's an amazing person," Matthews said. "He's one of those coaches that you want to play for, that you want to put your life on the line for him, because he would do the same. I love coach Steele. All the players can vouch for me, they can say the exact same thing."

The Tigers return five starters from their front seven: linemen Marlon Davidson and Dontavius Russell, and linebackers Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Tre' Williams. Matthews, Carlton Davis and Stephen Roberts are returning starters in the secondary.

The biggest question on offense is the lack of returning experience at wide receiver, where Ryan Davis and Eli Stove are the top returners.

Auburn's running game looks to be in fine shape, with Braden Smith leading a group of three starting linemen.

Kamryn Pettway, now a junior, rushed for 1,224 yards and 7 touchdowns and led the league with 122.4 rushing yards per game. Kerryon Johnson, an all-purpose standout, ran for 895 yards and 11 touchdowns and is likely to assume a larger role in the offense.

Malzahn, who has normally had a low-key demeanor at media days, seemed assured the Tigers will have a say in who wins the SEC West.

"This team, we got more starters back than we've had in the last 12 years," he said. "We were close. We were close. Like I said, we were playing as good of football I felt like as anybody for six games.

"We weren't happy the way we finished. And so those guys had that chip on their shoulder of rebounding. We've got to redeem ourselves."

Sports on 07/15/2017

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