By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Alabama and Auburn at SEC Media Days
Each summer, SEC Media Days serves as the unofficial kickoff to college football season in the South.
For the first time since 1985, Media Days took place outside of Birmingham. This year, the College Football Hall of Fame hosted SEC Media Days from July 16-19, and the Omni Atlanta Hotel at CNN Center hosted the infamous radio row.
Both Alabama and Auburn are coming off of successful seasons in 2017. While Auburn won the SEC West Division, Alabama won the national championship, the fifth under Nick Saban since 2009. The Crimson Tide are national title contenders in 2018, while Auburn should also be one of the top teams in the conference.
Saban met with the media on Wednesday, July 18 along with running back Damien Harris, offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher and linebacker Anfernee Jennings. Saban addressed a number of topics ranging from the quarterback battle between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa to changes to the coaching staff.
Saban said he’s yet to make a decision on who the starting quarterback will be this fall. However, when asked if he expects Jalen Hurts to transfer, Saban gave an intriguing answer.
“I expect (Hurts) to be there,” Saban said. “I think it’s our job to give both players a very fair opportunity to have a chance to win the team at their position. I think that one of the two guys – obviously, both are capable. We’ll create a role for one or both of those guys on our team, and they’ll all have to make a decision based on what that outcome is as to what their future is, you know, at Alabama.”
Hurts can potentially graduate in December, and Saban said he hopes Hurts will still be in Tuscaloosa to graduate “regardless of what his circumstance is as a player.” While Saban said he hasn’t announced the starter, many analysts believed his comments insinuated that Tagovailoa will be the starter in Week One against Louisville.
Mike Locksley will take over for Brian Daboll as UA offensive coordinator, while Tosh Lupoi will take over for Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator. Both new coordinators were on the staff last year. Saban said he is “very, very confident” that Locksley will do a “great job” because he has a “wealth of experience” calling plays.
Harris surprised some analysts by returning for his senior season after back-to-back 1,000-yard season. Alabama has a loaded backfield, but Harris said it was an easy decision to return to school, and he doesn’t believe the Tide will be complacent after winning another national title last season.
“The mindset going into this season is that we know our success isn’t going to be inherited,” he said. “Anything we accomplish as a team this season is not going to come from the fact that we won a national championship last year. If anything, it is just going to make it that much harder.
“We know that winning a national championship puts a target on your back. We know that day in and day out, we are going to get everybody’s best game. We need to better ourselves, both mentally and physically, so that we can handle these situations thrown at us and that we can have the success that we want to have as a team.”
Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers were at SEC Media Days on Thursday, July 19. Malzahn brought junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham, senior linebacker Deshaun Davis and senior defensive lineman Dontavius Russell.
Malzahn mentioned several times throughout the day that he believes the front seven of the defense will be the strength of the team.
“Defensively, I really feel like our strength, once again, will be our front seven, like it was last year,” Malzahn said. “And I think big picture-wise, we have a chance to be as good defensively or possibly even better. Just from a talent standpoint, front seven, I’ve been at Auburn for I guess nine years, and this is a group that’s at least as talented or more talented than we’ve had. That’s the strength of our team.”
In Malzahn’s nine years at Auburn as the head coach or an assistant, he said this is only the second time he’s had a returning starter at quarterback. Stidham was the SEC Newcomer of the Year a season ago, and Malzahn expects him to improve as a rising fourth-year junior.
“I said this before, but from a quarterback standpoint, in this league, experience, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “Because the defenses are different than other leagues, and I just really like the way he handled himself. He’s a very tough young man, mentally and physically. I think our offense is in very good hands going into this second year.”
According to Malzahn, Stidham will have more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage this fall.
“He’s back for a second year, and he understands our offense. He understands Coach (Chip) Lindsey’s expectation. He’s like a coach on the field. Towards the end of the year, they were thinking the same, talking the same. So, going into this year, he’s going to have freedom to get us in the right play, to check us out of a bad play. We have a lot of confidence in him, and really looking forward to him leading our offense.”
Auburn’s offense started slowly last season but eventually transformed into one of the best offenses in the conference. Stidham believes the offense will start faster this fall.
“I think it’s going to be really good for us this year,” he said. “Obviously, the beginning of the year last year, we started slow, kind of sluggish. We were still trying to kind of figure out what we were going to be best at. I was trying to figure out Coach Lindsey. Him and Coach Malzahn were trying to figure out who I was as a player.
“Throughout the season, we kind of saw a progression week to week. This su-mmer has obviously been really big for us. We have a lot of guys coming back, especially at the skills positions. We’re going to be hitting on close to all cylinders, more so at the beginning of the season rather than waiting till halfway or the end of the season.”
Auburn’s first day of fall camp is Thursday, Aug. 2. The Tigers open the season in Atlanta, Ga., against Washington on Saturday, Sept. 1. Alabama’s first day of fall camp is Friday, Aug. 3. The Tide travel to Orlando, Fla., to take on Louisville in the season opener.