Malzahn: Future bright for Auburn after up-and-down season
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The Auburn Tigers toppled a pair of No. 1 teams, dropped their final two games and held onto their coach.
The seventh-ranked Tigers ended their down-and-up-and-down season with Monday's 34-27 loss to No. 10 UCF in the Peach Bowl but hope the year signaled an upward tick for coach Gus Malzahn's program .
"It was a great season overall," wide receiver Will Hastings said. "Obviously, we wanted to get to 11 wins. A lot of Auburn teams have not done that. We wanted to be different. I wish we could have pulled this one out, but we are going to come back even better next year."
Some question marks remain about who will return, but Malzahn isn't one of them. He spurned interest from Arkansas to agree to a new seven-year deal with Auburn .
Tailback Kerryon Johnson, the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year, announced Tuesday that he will skip his senior season to enter the NFL draft. That leaves a big void in the backfield after Johnson ran for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns.
"Kerryon has made this team better both on and off the field with his great character, competitiveness and leadership," Malzahn said. "He will be very successful at the next level and more importantly in life. We wish KJ nothing but the best."
A handful of other juniors - including defensive end Jeff Holland, cornerback Carlton Davis and tailback Kamryn Pettway - could at least consider entry into the NFL draft. So could quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a third-year sophomore who sat out last season after leaving Baylor.
Johnson supplanted Pettway as the Tigers' star tailback. Both battled injuries during the season and Pettway didn't travel with the team to the Peach Bowl .
Johnson is the only one of that group to publicly announce their plans, but defensive tackle Dontavius Russell has said he's returning for his senior season.
The Tigers finished 10-4, but became the only team to defeat two No. 1 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings in the same season. They beat Georgia 40-17 and Alabama 26-14 in the regular season finale.
But Auburn showed it still has a ways to go to be a national title contender. With a playoff spot on the line, the Tigers were routed by the Bulldogs 28-7 in the SEC championship game with Johnson limited by a shoulder injury.
Auburn wrapped up the season with a sloppy bowl performance. Stidham lost a fumble, threw a pick-six and had a second interception in the end zone end a last-minute drive.
But he still represented a big upgrade for Malzahn and first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey at quarterback. Stidham passed for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns against six interceptions.
Holland had 10 sacks for the Tigers and Davis was a second-team Associated Press All-SEC performer.
That group helped spearhead Auburn's best season since Malzahn's first team in 2013 made it to the national championship game. But the Tigers also blew a 20-point lead against LSU and fell to 1-4 in bowl games under Malzahn, who said "the future is still very bright."
"Big picture, overall, when you look at it, we won the SEC West, which I think is the toughest division in college football," he said. "Obviously, the way we finished against Georgia was disappointing but they're a very good football team."
Then came another disappointing finish in Atlanta, where Auburn opens next season against Washington.
The Tigers are set to return all of their top receivers, and the starting defensive line - if Holland opts to come back for his senior season. But safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts are gone and so is linebacker Tre' Williams. Offensively, four linemen are seniors, including All-America guard Braden Smith.
"These seniors set the foundation for us moving forward," Malzahn said.
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