HOOVER – The other day on I-65, I spotted a car with a vanity tag that had a variation of “Gus Bus” written on it.
My first thought was, will the former Auburn athletic department employee Mike Hubbard one day be stamping out a similar license plate from his new accommodations?
My second thought was, well, there will be no passing from that car.
I’ll take a moment’s pause for you to make up your own joke here.
The “Gus Bus” at Auburn was once supersonic.
Then it wasn’t.
To predict whether it’ll sputter and smoke or if it’ll cruise fast and steady is folly right now. We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes of the past, and it only takes a 365-day rewind to recall how many considered Auburn a national title contender for 2015 and proclaimed that Jeremy Johnson already had his fingerprints on the Heisman Trophy.
Then a 7-6 season went and happened.
“No one,” said wide receiver Marcus Davis, “wants to go 7-6 again this year.”
In the increasingly unforgiving landscape of college football, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn can’t afford another 7-6 season. But as the 2016 season approaches, he’s often called upon to look in the bus’s rear-view mirror, to see what went wrong.
“We had high expectations (last season) and we do every year,” Malzahn said. “We weren't able to reach our goals. And that was very frustrating and it was very humbling to go through an experience like that. And I think you got to evaluate everything, like we talked about. You got to figure out a way to improve.
“I will tell you that I'm extremely motivated this year, as well our staff and our team is. But, like I said, it really comes down to, in our league, winning close games, and the difference in last year and the years before, we've been one of the best in the country in winning close games. And last year, we didn't get it done.”
Malzahn’s forte had been a hurry-up offense, but the Gus Bus was in school-zone speed much of 2015. An important step will be “getting back to playing with pace. That's the edge of ours in the past, and that's got to be the same this coming year.”
Of the countless questions lobbed at Malzahn during SEC Media Days here in mid-July, quite frankly there won’t be any definitive answers until October. That’ll be after the Sept. 3 opener against 2015 national championship finalist Clemson comes to Auburn. That’ll be after a stretch of five consecutive home games, including a visit from LSU, which may be even more of an enigma than Auburn.
That’ll be after the starting quarterback position has been determined, after we see how capable he may be in the cauldron of competition – or if Malzahn and his staff are again forced to the bullpen early in the schedule to find a replacement QB.
Give Gus credit. He’s even being optimistic there, reminding that Auburn has “experience” in entering fall drills without knowing its No. 1 quarterback. That was in 2013 and Nick Marshall emerged as a quality leader. Not a bad outcome there.
Somebody has to win that job. Somebody has to win the confidence of his teammates and his coaches.
“Our theme this year is ‘earn it,’” Malzahn said. “Our players came up with that. Earn your teammates' respect, your coaches' respect. Earn it every day on and off the field and our guys have done that in the offseason.”
A year ago, Auburn had too much respect. It had lofty expectations. It conked out on the side of the road.
This time, among media and impatient fans – and probably from some opponents – the respect is missing.
How the quarterback situation develops, how much Auburn returns to a fast pace, how well it does in close games, all those things to answer.
There’s something even larger than respect at stake. All that may determine who’s driving the bus this time next year.
Long-time sportswriter Mark McCarter is a special contributor for WHNT News 19. Follow his coverage of the SEC Media Days on WHNT.com and in nightly reports on WHNT News 19 this week.