Auburn wants to go out the 'right way'

Dec 28, 2017 - 8:54 PM Auburn may not have made it to the College Football Playoff, but coach Gus Malzahn still calls the matchup with unbeaten Central Florida in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl a "very important game" for his Tigers.

"Our guys understand that," he said as the 10-3 Tigers arrived in Atlanta to put final touches on preparations for Monday's game in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"It's not only a chance to win our 11th game, which we've done six times in school history, but to finish this season off the right way."

Malzahn said a victory over the Knights (12-0) would be "the next step" for his program.

"Our guys are locked in," he said. "We're here with our game face on, and we should be with playing the opponent we are.

"We know we're going to get their best. I know they're here to win, too. Our mindset is more of a business trip probably than it has been in the past with a bowl. That's by design. Our leaders, our seniors, that's what they want, that's what they expect. So that's a good thing from a coach's standpoint."

UCF looks to be missing a starting offensive lineman (left tackle Aaron Evans), but the Tigers look to be in good shape health-wise, with running back Kerryon Johnson recovering from shoulder and rib injuries that limited him in the SEC Championship Game in Auburn's last outing. Johnson has scored 19 touchdowns, 17 of them rushing, despite missing two games this season.

"Like I said before," Malzahn said, "he's going to play, and I'm hoping he'll be as close to 100 percent as he can."

The loss to Georgia in the conference title game relegated the Tigers to the Peach Bowl while putting the Bulldogs into the playoff, but Malzahn said there are no lingering effects from that disappointment. The Tigers had put themselves into consideration for one of the final four playoff berths with their win over Alabama, which is in.

"I think this group gets it," Malzahn said. "We've been talking about that our program is set up for long-term success. There are opportunities you have to accelerate that.

"Our leaders get that, not just from this year, but from next year as far as a team that's taking the next step that gets the bigger picture of the future of the program."

The Tigers potentially have 17 starters returning in 2018, though many underclassmen who are eligible for the NFL draft -- like Johnson -- have not announced their decisions.

One issue that's not likely to come up is Malzahn's future.

Speculation entering the season was that Malzahn was on the coaching "hot seat" with the Tigers, and the temperature went up with the poor offensive performance in the loss at Clemson in the second week of the season.

But it was reported the day after the title game that Malzahn, who is 45-21 at Auburn, had agreed to a new seven-year deal to stay on the Plains. His original contract ran through 2020. He recently signed 15 players for what widely is considered a top 10 recruiting class.

NOTES: DT Dontavius Russell has announced he will return to the Tigers for his senior year. He has 41 tackles (6.5 tackles for loss with three sacks), five quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. ... RB Kamryn Pettway did not make the trip to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl. He has not played since injuring his shoulder in the win over Arkansas on Oct. 21. He rushed for 313 yards in five games. ... CB Carlton Davis missed Auburn's second practice in Atlanta due to illness, according to a report on Coach Gus Malzahn did not confirm if Davis, a potential first-rounder who has an interception to go with 11 pass breakups, would be available for the bowl, other than to say the junior was "here, same as everybody."

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