HOOVER, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn didn't waste much time Thursday putting his 2017 football team in the same breath as the very special 2013 Tigers team he first coached. All that team did was go 12-1 before losing to Florida State in the final seconds of the last BCS National Championship.
"Probably the biggest thing that's standing out to me about this team, that they're hungry," Malzahn said Thursday at SEC Media Days. "They're hungry, and they've got something to prove. And really the last time I felt this was 2013. So that's a good comfort for me."
That's quite the comparison when you consider that 2013 team averaged more than 38 points a game, 501 yards per game and led the nation with 328 rushing yards per game. Running back Tre Mason was a Heisman Trophy finalist at (1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns), while quarterback Nick Marshall averaged 234.2 yards of offense per game, as a 1,000-yard passer and rusher.
There was also that little thing called the Kick Six, which turned the Iron Bowl upside down in a second.
However, there are legitimate correlations between the two to justify Malzahn's excitement.
For one, redemption is a major factor. Malzahn's 2013 team bounced back from a disastrous 3-9 season that led to previous coach Gene Chizik being fired. Last year, the Tigers went from 2-2 in September to 7-2 after the first week in November, but went 0-3 down the stretch against FBS opponents, including losing to Alabama and Oklahoma by a combined 34 points in their final two games.
"We weren't happy the way we finished [either season]," Malzahn said. "And so those guys had that chip on their shoulder of rebounding. We got to redeem ourselves. You know, from a coach's standpoint, that's what you want. And when you got a chance to have one of those special teams, they have that characteristic, and so that's the reason I brought that up."
When it comes to talent, the Tigers have become a trendy pick to be the best competition for Alabama in the SEC. Eight starters return to a defense that finished the 2016 season in the top five of the SEC in scoring, rushing and total defense. The offense has at least five starters coming back and the nation's third-most experienced offensive line.
Most important, the offense could finally have a fix at a quarterback position that hasn't seen adequate numbers the past two years. Former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham is competing for the starting job -- along with former starter Sean White and freshman Malik Willis -- but is considered by most to be the favorite to win the job. In 2015, Stidham threw for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman at Baylor before becoming ESPN's No. 1 junior college prospect at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas.
Malzahn stayed away from starter talk, instead praising both his newfound quarterback depth, but he did compliment the athleticism of Stidham, who Malzahn said has a 35-36 inch vertical and runs a 4.6 40-yard dash.
"He's a good athlete. He's a lot better athlete than people think," Malzahn said. "He can run. In our league you have to escape because things are going to break down. Defensive lines are too good."
Senior safety Tray Matthews said he's been impressed with the team's new quarterback, whom Matthews said has shown tremendous leadership skills since arriving before the spring.
"It seems like he has that 'it' factor already," Matthews said. "It seems like he's way mature and above his time, right now. He's a very crafty guy.
"When he's throwing the football out there, man, it's like a pitcher throwing the ball with how fast it comes. I'm excited about this quarterback situation."
Malzahn said there's more excitement outside of just quarterback with his team, and there's motivation to make up for last season's shortcomings. Like the 2013 team, players feel as though they are out to prove that they can surprise people inside and outside of the SEC this fall.
"We're not settling for anything," Matthews said. "We want to get things done this year because we didn't finish like we wanted to last year, and that was very upsetting. We know we have more in the tank than that.
"[Malzahn] believes in everything that we're doing and saying."