Gus Malzahn will introduce his Tigers to the world this week, one of the ringleaders at the annual circus made out of SEC Media Days, there taking his turn at the podium in Birmingham previewing the upcoming 2019 season and answering questions from all around about his new-look team charging into an all-new season.
Under the lights and in front of the cameras, of course, Malzahn will still be amid his own search for answers — now less than a month away from the start of fall practice.
SEC Media Days begins today at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Birmingham. Auburn’s representatives will speak Thursday on the last day of the four-day event. Throngs of media members will pack the hotel every day. Representatives from Florida, LSU and Missouri will have their allotted time with them today. The SEC embraces the circus its preseason press conference has become.
Thursday under the big top, Malzahn and the players he brings won’t be able to answer every single question that’s burning in the minds of Auburn fans this summer and preseason. Malzahn always likes to keep some things close to the vest and behind closed doors on the Plains, and besides, there are some things even Auburn won’t know until the ball is kicked off Aug. 31.
But there are a few questions Auburn fans could see answered this week, even before practice opens. Here’s a handful:
1. What will Auburn reveal about its quarterbacks situation?
Auburn left spring and hit summer workouts with its quarterback battle narrowed down to two potential starters in freshman Bo Nix and redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood. Barring any off-the-field trouble, there won’t be any movement toward naming a starter between them until practice opens and they’re competing in drills again. Even then, it’s possible a position battle between the two could last all camp and into the season.
But depending on what Malzahn wants some certain coaches in Eugene, Ore. to be thinking about for the next month or so, he could tip his hand as to whether Auburn has definitive plans to name one full-time player, or if he and the Tigers coaches will be open to playing both when the regular season kicks off.
Auburn plays Oregon in its opener on Aug. 31 in Dallas.
Depending on what Malzahn says, the Oregon coaches might be leaned toward preparing for Nix’s skills or Gatewood’s skills, or the skills of both — and Auburn fans could have a clearer picture of what to expect going into the fall if he decides to play that game.
2. Who’s targeting the Tigers?
Auburn entered last season as the SEC West division’s defending champion, openly trumpeting its goal of getting back to the SEC Championship Game after a run to there in 2017.
Auburn came up short of that goal last season, falling short of many of its expectations on the way to five losses — all of them coming to SEC opponents.
This year, Auburn’s schedule is lined again with some of the conference’s best teams.
So this week, Auburn fans could get a small idea of just what those teams think of the Tigers going into this year now that there’s no target on Auburn’s back. Will opposing coaches and players invoke Auburn’s name when listing the biggest threats in the league? Or will Auburn be in the more enviable position as a sleeper underdog going into 2019?
3. How confident is Auburn?
Auburn powered into the offseason with a romp over Purdue in the Music City Bowl, proclaiming that performance showed what the team could truly be on a weekly basis, and bent on carrying that momentum into 2019.
Will Malzahn and Auburn’s players bring that same momentum and confidence with them to Birmingham?
Auburn senior left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho will speak there alongside senior defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.
The Tigers’ confidence could’ve been shaken after last season. The team entered the year with championship aspirations and established leaders on both side of the ball, and now comes back licking wounds from losses to all the team’s major rivals, and this time without a returning starter at quarterback or at middle linebacker.
Will Auburn’s aspirations be dialed back, or will the Tigers boom with confidence like after that bowl win? Fans should be able to glean at least an idea from the words of those players.
4. Does Malzahn take responsibility for the reins on offense?
Malzahn enters the 2019 season back as the team’s offensive play-caller, after a rousing success behind the play-sheet in that win over Purdue. Malzahn first publicly gave up down-to-down play-calling in 2016, then hired established play-caller Chip Lindsey to take control of the offense for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. After Lindsey left, Malzahn hired a young up-and-comer in his 20’s, Kenny Dillingham, to be Auburn’s new offensive coordinator with the clear plan in place for Dillingham to learn under Malzahn’s wing and for Malzahn to steer the ship on offense.
Now going into a season under scrutiny — months after Auburn athletics director Allen Greene felt the need to pen a letter to Auburn fans putting his support behind Malzahn after a five-loss season — Malzahn will have to shoulder responsibility for Auburn’s success and struggles on offense this season, and Auburn fans will learn how much Malzahn is willing to lean into that at Media Days.
Before with Lindsey, Malzahn often asserted the offense was Lindsey’s and that he was confident Lindsey would do right by Auburn.
Will Malzahn brazenly wear the same confidence in himself?
5. How is Malzahn adapting under pressure?
Davidson said this spring: “He’s just a different coach.”
The defensive lineman who is coming with Malzahn to Media Days this week said back during the start of spring camp that his head coach had shown a different energy in practice.
“Coach Malzahn showed a different type of fire than he normally would,” he said. “If you see your head coach show that fire then you are always going to want to play for your head coach, no matter what.”
It’s a change. It’s an evolution. That’s according to Davidson and some of his teammates.
Auburn’s listening to music in practice now, Big Kat Bryant said, which is different from his freshman year on campus. It might just be little things like that, but it’s a change that players appreciate as an adaption and an effort to evolve. “That lets you know that he is actually trying and he is actually here for us,” Davidson said.
As this season under scrutiny begins, Malzahn has nothing left to prove or do but win football games — his eyes set on winning plenty more this season and then in years to come at Auburn.
With that, Malzahn has the chance to let his guard down and just coach. We could see some of that ‘new’ Malzahn at Media Days this week.