The loss dropped Auburn to seventh in the final College Football Playoff rankings and out of consideration for the semifinals.
Malzahn believes that disappointing loss to UCF could be the impetus the Tigers need heading into a new season.
“We do have a lot of the players that experienced how close we were, and we have our staff back that experienced that,” he explained. “So, when I say that we’re hungry, it’s really because of that.”
Senior linebacker Deshaun Davis was a bit more direct in his assessment of the Tigers’ loss.
“Honestly, it was hard to get up for that game knowing that we should have been playing in the College Football Playoffs,” Davis told reporters Thursday during SEC Media Days. “The two teams we beat conventionally (Georgia, Alabama) were playing in the playoff and the national championship game.
“They (UCF) took that game way more seriously than we did, not to take any credit away from them. They’re a great football team and have every right to hold their heads up high. They made plays and we didn’t make plays.”
Senior quarterback Jarrett Stidham said the team has changed.
“You can sense a different attitude this offseason and everyone is really bought in,” said Stidham, who was named SEC Newcomer of the Year in 2017 after passing for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Others are more focused on simply moving on.
“Honestly, it’s one of those things that you just have to put it behind you,” senior defensive tackle Dontavious Russell said of the bowl loss. “Our success from last year can’t push us forward to next season as well as our pitfalls from last season can’t harm us in this coming up season.”
Davis added, “We just have to get that bad taste out of our mouth when we come back to Atlanta this year. It’s in the past and we’re looking forward to playing Washington in Week 1 and opening up the season.”
Auburn returns to Atlanta to open the 2018 season against Washington in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic on Sept. 1.
When asked his thoughts on the decision by UCF to proclaim itself national champions, Malzahn took the diplomatic approach.
“I really don’t have an opinion on that, other than the fact that they got after us, they played extremely well that day and I thought they were a very talented team,” he said. “I don’t get into that debate as far as that goes.”
Davis, however, had a different take on UCF’s claim.
“There’s really only one national champion and that’s Alabama as much as I hate to say it. They are the national champions,” said Davis, who was the Tigers’ top tackler last season with 82 stops. “I’m not a moral victory type of guy and if we were to go undefeated, I wouldn’t be walking around saying we’re national champions.
“If we win the SEC, then we know we have a huge right to say we deserve to be in the College Football Playoff and Georgia did, so that’s why they deserved to say it. We fell short of our goal and we need to try and get back there.”
Malzahn added, “There’s such a fine line in this conference of winning the conference championship and coming close. And we came close last year. We’ve got to figure out a way to take that next step and that’s easier said than done.”