There wasn’t any waver in Gus Malzahn’s voice.
There wasn’t much, either, in the words of the three representatives the Tigers sent with him to SEC Media Days in Hoover this week.
Auburn is confident and prepared with big plans in place for this upcoming season, they all said — and in fielding a flurry questions from media members from across the country, the Tigers there sounded certain in their responses, which gave fans and spectators an inside look at what’s being said and thought behind closed doors on the Plains in the weeks before the start of fall practice.
Earlier this week, we presented five questions that surrounded the Auburn football program going into SEC Media Days.
In one way or the other, Malzahn and the 13 other SEC coaches who descended on Hoover this week offered answers to them all.
Here are those five questions revisited, with a bit of what we learned this week on each topic:
1. What will Auburn reveal about its quarterbacks situation?
Malzahn made a firm statement on what he wants behind center this fall: Auburn’s goal, he said, is to name a starter who will solidify that spot and around whom the Tigers can build their offense.
Auburn enters fall camp with redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix as the two leading candidates to earn the starting job. As neither has played any significant minutes on the highest level of college football, it’s natural for speculation to arise wondering whether the position battle could last into the regular season or if both could play during the year.
But Malzahn said plainly that he thinks that having one clear starter is most ideal. He hasn’t set a timeline on when he’ll name one, but he hopes that a clear frontrunner emerges in competition after fall camp opens in August.
2. Who’s targeting the Tigers?
Auburn walked into SEC Media Days to see a different room than the program saw at last year’s event. A year ago, Auburn entered Media Days as the SEC West’s defending champion, and openly discussed the team’s goal of getting back to the conference title game. The Tigers fell short of that and earned eight wins instead, and it seemed the Tigers would enter Media Days more under the radar in the perception of other teams and the media, and with less of a target on the back.
That was the case. In 13 other head coach press conferences outside of Malzahn’s, only three mentioned Auburn’s team. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron called his team’s win at Auburn last year a big win, as did Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said the Auburn-Georgia rivalry is special.
Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason did mention Auburn, but only in saying that that’s where a new addition to his staff, former Auburn running backs head coach Tim Horton, came from.
Meanwhile, the media picked Auburn to finish fourth in the SEC West standings this year, behind Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M.
3. How confident is Auburn?
In many ways, the Tigers are restarting this year after a disappointing season in 2018, and they stare a daunting task in the face in doing so, lining up against what’s projected to be one of the hardest schedules in college football.
Auburn, though, still believes it has its puncher’s chance.
“We have a chance,” Malzahn said in the hotel in Hoover, meeting with the local media before he stepped on the podium on the main stage. “I mean, the makeup of our team and all that — I don’t think every team in our league can say that. But we have a chance.
“Now, with that being said, you’ve got to win close games, you’ve got to stay healthy. There’s a lot of variables— but when you’re sitting here this day and time in the season, you can at least say you’ve got a chance.”
4. Does Malzahn take responsibility for the reins on offense?
Not only did Malzahn unequivocally shoulder his duties as play-caller for Auburn’s offense this season, he said in a moment of honesty that he considers his giving up of those play-calling duties years ago to be a “mistake.”
Malzahn called plays through his first three seasons as Auburn’s head coach, before handing over the duties to then-offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee in the 2016 season and hiring established play-caller Chip Lindsey to take the task in 2017 and 2018.
Malzahn mentioned Thursday that he took advice somewhere along the line three years — which he presumably means led to him trying to step out of the in-the-weeds work of calling plays down-to-down, in order to seek a better oversight of his program.
But it didn’t work, and he’s fine admitting it. “I wasn’t really good at standing back and watching,” he said.
Now, Malzahn’s running the offense, and the successes and failures rest on his shoulders — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
5. How is Malzahn adapting under pressure?
Simply put, Malzahn said he’s felt the hot seat before.
He’s fine riding it into the 2019 season.
“I got a job that expects to win championships, and I expect to win championships,” he said plainly. “I knew that when I signed up for that. In the years that we win championships, it’s good. The years we don’t, it’s ‘Hot seat this,’ ‘Hot seat that,’” he said.
Malzahn pointed to 2013 and 2017, when his Tigers won the SEC West and moved on the SEC title game — and to his other four seasons as head coach on the Plains, when that didn’t happen.
“I think out of the six years, four have been this same rodeo,” he said. “And it’s just part of the job description.”