ATLANTA — Gus Malzahn faced fresh questions about his future after Auburn's bid to make the playoffs skidded to a halt.
Malzahn led the fourth-ranked Tigers (10-3, No. 2 CFP) on a late-season tear into the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday, where they lost 28-7 to No. 6 Georgia.
The uncertainty about Malzahn's plans is as much, if not more, of a concern to Tigers fans as the drubbing they took in the title rematch.
Malzahn hasn't explicitly addressed reports in recent weeks that he is the top target to fill the coaching vacancy at Arkansas, his home state.
"I'm happy at Auburn," Malzahn said. "We have great players. I love my players. As I said before this game, we worked extremely hard to get here to this point, and we've got a very good foundation built, and I think the best is yet to come."
When he was asked if that meant the Razorbacks shouldn't bother pursuing him as Bret Bielema's replacement, he repeated his conviction — but still didn't completely close the door.
"I'm the head coach at Auburn, and I just said I want to be the head coach at Auburn," said Malzahn, a former Arkansas offensive coordinator. He also expressed optimism about the state of a program that is slated to return most of its key players, saying he "wouldn't be surprised if we're back in this moment next year."
Malzahn spent some time on the proverbial hot seat following a midseason loss to LSU and after two 8-5 records and a 7-6 season. But the Tigers won five straight games to make it to Atlanta, including wins over two teams that topped the playoff rankings at the time, Georgia (12-1, No. 6 CFP) and Alabama. Then the talk became that he might leave of his own accord.
Malzahn received a one-year extension but no raise after last season. He earns $4.725 million annually in a deal that runs through 2020.
Auburn players mostly denied hearing the Arkansas talk and said Malzahn hadn't addressed it with the team. Tailback Kerryon Johnson expressed hope that his coach will stick around.
"Gus Malzahn loves this school," Johnson said. "I love Gus Malzahn. If he leaves, he leaves. I don't think he will, but that's a grown man. He makes his own decisions. I can't tell the future. All I know is today he's our head coach and I believe tomorrow and next year and whenever I leave, he will be as well."
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham said the only mentions he has seen linking Malzahn and Arkansas have been on the ESPN ticker.
"I deleted Twitter at the beginning of the year," Stidham said. "I really don't hear anything outside of what goes on in the locker room, really, or in our building. Speculation is speculation. People have their own opinions. I haven't listened to anything.
"I think our future is very bright. I believe we're going to be back."
Like Stidham, Johnson was a big part of Auburn's resurgence. The SEC's leading rusher was slowed during the title game with a right shoulder injury. He lost his first fumble of the year early in the fourth quarter and carried 13 times for 44 yards.
"Toughest guy I've ever been around," offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said.