If former Fort Smith, Arkansas high school player, University of Arkansas player, Henderson State (Ark.) player, cross-state high school coach, University of Arkansas offensive coordinator and Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn wanted to return to his home state for what most would consider a dream job at the helm of the Razorbacks, December 2017 was the time to do it.
At the tail end of Arkansas' efforts to court Malzahn back to his stomping grounds, the school offered the coach a contract in the range of $50 million over seven years, according to a CBS Sports report that surfaced after Auburn's 28-7 loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship.
The Razorbacks had been in hot pursuit of Malzahn since he defeated them on October 21, 52-20. The whipping in Fayetteville all but sealed the fate of then head coach Bret Bielema, who was unsurprisingly fired seconds after the team's final game, a loss to Missouri.
To many, a return to Arkansas was a no-brainer for Malzahn, with the way Auburn's season had been going. With an embarrassing loss at LSU at their backs and a daunting November ahead, the Tigers needed their best performances of the year to seal a double-digit win season and possibly their head coach's job.
The ending was bitter sweet.
Auburn obliterated No. 1 Georgia, then smashed No. 1 Alabama two weeks later to skyrocket all the way up to No. 2 in the CFP rankings. The explosive offensive and corrosive defense couldn't pull off the 3-for-3 against arch rivals miracle however, falling to UGA in the title game. The Razorbacks saw this as their opportunity to strike.
Malzahn saw it as a chance to cement his loyalties.
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"I'm happy at Auburn," Malzahn said following the loss. "We have great players. I love my players. As I said before this game, we worked extremely hard to get here to this point."
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn celebrates on the sideline in the waning minutes of the second half. Auburn vs Alabama on Saturday, Nov. 25 in Auburn, Ala. (ADAM SPARKS / PHOTOGRAPHER)
True to his word, a seven-year, $49 million contract was hammered out the next day by Malzahn and University president Steven Leath.
"Strength and stability go hand-in-hand, and we have both in Coach Malzahn," Leath said in a statement. "We're excited for the future of Auburn football. This means a lot to the Auburn Family."
Unfortunately for Auburn faithful, despite a 2-1 record, bragging rights against Georgia and Alabama were lost on Sunday, when the Dawgs and Tide were welcomed into the 2017 College Football Playoff at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.
The Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl then chose Auburn to make a return to Atlanta. The No. 7 Tigers will do battle with the last undefeated in the country, 12-0 UCF, on New Year's Day for a chance to reach 11 wins, the most for Malzahn at Auburn since 2013.
Unlike last season's Sugar Bowl vs. Oklahoma, there's a lot to gain for Auburn back at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A victory over UCF would be Auburn's third win over an undefeated team this season, and would couple well with the Tigers' two wins over No. 1 teams in November.
"They're going to be extremely excited to go back to the same venue and play better than we did (on Saturday)," Malzahn said. "We didn't play our best. Got to give Georgia credit.
"I know this team is going to be extremely hungry to win this bowl game and to finish the season off the right way for our seniors and a chance to win 11 games. So we'll be very excited. We're going to be very motivated. There's no doubt in my mind about that."
The Peach Bowl pairing against No. 12 UCF adds to Auburn's 2017 strength of schedule as well, ranked No. 1 in the country by TeamRankings.
Despite the stigma for Group of 5 teams against Power 5 opponents in bowl games, Central Florida will be no cake walk for Auburn. The Knights boast the top scoring offense in the country, however it will be the program's last game with mastermind Scott Frost at the helm.
Frost, a national champion quarterback at Nebraska, took the Cornhuskers opening recently, but will coach his UCF swan song in Atlanta.
“You can’t put a price tag on it,” Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said about Frost coaching the Peach Bowl. “It’s a three-and-a-half-hour marketing commercial for Nebraska football. Because that’s what those guys are going to be talking about, the announcers. They are going to be showing ‘Scott Frost in Nebraska’ and all of this.
“Then recruits are going to be watching that offense and go, ‘Boy, I could fit into that.’ I think for whatever small negatives there might be, there are tons more positives.”
Still hard at work on his second-best season on The Plains, Malzahn returns a talented group in 2018. SEC Newcomer of the Year Jarrett Stidham is a sophomore, while SEC Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson's decision whether to turn pro will loom large in the offseason. Auburn graduates zero players from the receiving corps.
A senior return for junior buck linebacker Jeff Holland, who holds a tie at second for the 2017 SEC lead for sacks, would give Auburn's one of the best defensive lines in the nation on paper for next season, a year for which Auburn players seemed amped about following the SEC Championship loss.
"One game doesn't change the way you feel about the future," defensive tackle Dontavius Russell said. "We have a lot of players, and we have a lot of talent. So I feel like the future is bright, and I don't think one game defines a team. It's just one game."
With momentum from a New Year's Six bowl game win up for grabs, Malzahn's aura of confidence about his abilities to lead Auburn to success going forward did not waver. Although 2018 features an opener against Washington and road games at playoff teams Georgia and Alabama, the Arkansas native still has his sights set on a return to the championship gridiron.
"We've got a very good foundation built," Malzahn said. "I think the best is yet to come. I believe we're going to be back."
Following this story's publication, Central Florida hired Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel as its new head coach. The Plainsman will update this story if UCF's head coach for the Peach Bowl changes.
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