By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
SEC Media Days
When Auburn took the stage on the final day of SEC Media Days last week in Birmingham, head coach Gus Malzahn and three of his players walked into the Wynfrey Hotel with high expectations for the second time in three seasons. Alabama was picked to win the conference, but Auburn is projected to finish second in the SEC West Division behind its archrival.
The arrival of transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham has many pundits predicting the Tigers will be a top 10 team this season. Auburn also returns several key players, including running back Kamyrn Pettway, offensive lineman Braden Smith and seven starters on defense.
Smith, defensive back Tray Matthews, and kicker Daniel Carlson appeared at Media Days with Malzahn, who said this year’s team is “hungry.”
“Overall I’m very excited about this team,” Malzahn said. “We have a lot of experience back. I think we’ve got more returning starters than we’ve had in the last 12 years at Auburn, and of course in this league there’s nothing like experience.”
Malzahn also said his team has “quality depth” and “strong leadership,” including the trio of players he brought with him to Media Days.
The biggest change Auburn made in the offseason was the hiring of offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Malzahn said the Tigers will have one of the more experienced offenses in the SEC in the fall.
“I’m excited about Chip,” Malzahn said. “I got a lot of confidence in Chip. He’s going to provide more balance for us. And he’s a quarterback guru, too. So I feel very good about that.”
Malzahn was asked specifically about Stidham, who is presumed to be the starter, but he said he feels good about Sean White and that he’s pleased with the depth at quarterback. He said quarterback depth has “been our Achilles’ heel the last two years.”
Malzahn was asked if he thinks anyone in the SEC can catch up to Alabama this year. The Crimson Tide has won the SEC three straight years, but Malzahn thinks this Auburn team can compete with Alabama.
“What I do like about this team is they have high expectations,” Malzahn said. “Their goal is to win the SEC Championship. And to do that, you’ve got to beat Alabama. And the last two times we beat them, we won the league and we played for the national championship, winning one of those and coming close to a second time. But we got them a home. That’s a positive. But we have a very confident team.”
Auburn was the only team to bring a kicker to Media Days, but Carlson might be the most valuable weapon on the Tiger roster. Carlson is a two-time second team All-American and has twice been a first-team All SEC selection. Carlson said he thinks this Auburn team feels similar to the 2013 team, which won the SEC championship and played for a national title.
“I think that we do have a special team this year,” Carlson said. “This is my fifth year and I was here during 2013, and it feels special and similar to that year. We’re all working hard and this team is really coming together. All of the talent and all of the pieces of the puzzle that need to come together, we have a shot at a really special year. I think we’re all just going to have to wait and see, but I’m really excited for the first game.”
Matthews, who transferred to Auburn from Georgia, said it’s important for the Tigers to beat Georgia this season. Auburn has lost the last two games to the Bulldogs.
“It’s very important to me,” Matthews said. “Winning that game would be a great way to go out and finish things at Auburn. I’m looking forward to it. We have high expectations, so we’ll see.”
Matthews has struggled with injuries during the last two seasons and wants to prove he can stay healthy this year.
“This past year showed exactly what I can do when I’m healthy,” Matthews said. “I’m in the same system with Coach Steele, and I feel like I’m going to have a blast this year. You want to be out there with your teammates. You’re sacrificing your body just to be there, but you’re not playing up to par. You’re not playing to the best of your ability, but you’re out there because you want to be.”
Smith has played mostly guard the past two seasons but could see some time at offensive tackle in the fall. He said he is still dealing with the transition between the two positions.
Smith reiterated Malzahn’s point about the Tigers’ depth on offense. Auburn has experience returning on the offensive line, running back and quarterback.
“It makes us comfortable knowing that we have that kind of depth,” Smith said. “We can plug in any player at any position and we have multiple options. We don’t have to fear that if one guy goes down we don’t have anyone to fill that spot. So definitely having that depth is very key.”
Smith said Stidham has established himself as a leader since arriving on campus.
“When you come in, you just have to get a feel for things,” Smith said. “He came in pretty early just to kind of get a grip of the offense, and he just kind of slowly took it and made a leadership presence. He was really talking to guys and gaining our trust that way.”
Stidham hasn’t been named the starter yet, but he is expected to be at the top of the depth chart when Auburn takes on Georgia Southern to start the season. The Tigers play at Clemson in Week 2, and will have a chance to establish themselves as a serious contender if they can knock off the defending national champion.