Editor's note: This is Part V in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn has probably replayed the Florida State game in his head time and time again since that fateful night. If a play or two goes his team’s way, Auburn could have been national champion. Instead, it was the Seminoles who fought back and won, leaving the Tigers wondering what if.
As disheartening as it was to fall short after coming so close, the future remains bright for this Auburn team. Malzahn alluded to it in his postgame news conference.
“We're going up,” he said. “The experience that we had, and we got most of our guys coming back. Recruiting is going great. Our goal is to get back here, and I really believe we'll do it.”
The Tigers should be among the favorites in the SEC heading into next season. They return eight starters on offense and seven on defense. They will have four of the five starters back on one of the nation’s most dominant offensive lines and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Nick Marshall.
However, there’s already a different feel this offseason. When Malzahn arrived at Auburn, he took over a team that finished 3-9 the season before. The players went through a storm, and it was up to Malzahn and his staff to bring back their confidence and change the culture around the program. Mission accomplished. The Tigers nearly won the national championship.
Now, as Malzahn enters his second year, it’s about handling success, staying motivated and staying on top.
There’s plenty for Auburn to do this offseason. The staff is currently focused on recruiting, but eventually, they need to find a way to replace the likes of Tre Mason, Greg Robinson and Dee Ford. They need to retool a defense that struggled at times last year. They need to work with Marshall and help him evolve as both a passer and a runner.
The list goes on, but the No. 1 priority should start with the returning players and their mentality. If they don’t have that edge back, nothing else matters.
“We want to try and build on the foundation that was laid this past year,” Malzahn told reporters this week at the Senior Bowl. “Our guys are a year into the program. The guys are excited about getting back out there, working out. That’s exciting for me.”
The players returned to the weight room this week, eager to put the BCS title game behind them and start fresh. It’s a little over two months before the first day of spring practice, and the season opener against Arkansas is just seven months away.
Will Auburn have another magical run like it went through this past fall? It’s too early to tell. But duplicating the success of last year hinges on the players and how hungry they are to get back to the top.