By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
The weather certainly isn’t an indicator, but the college football season is rapidly approaching and representatives from all 14 SEC schools recently converged in Hoover for the 2019 SEC Media Days.
After moving to Atlanta in 2018, the event returned to the Hyatt Regency Birmingham at the Wynfrey Hotel. Each team brought its head coach and three players to answer questions from the media.
Missouri, LSU and Florida made the trip to start the week, followed by Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas A&M. Alabama brought the biggest crowd – as expected -, and they were joined by Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Vanderbilt and Kentucky started the final day’s festivities, and Auburn closed out the event.
Nick Saban brought along a trio of juniors, including linebacker Dylan Moses, receiver Jerry Jeudy and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Before taking questions, Saban addressed the media and said the focus of the offseason has been to “re-establish the principles and values of the organization” in order to “be the best team that we can be.”
Saban also discussed the two new coordinators on his staff. Steve Sarkisian left the Atlanta Falcons to return to Tuscaloosa after making the opposite decision following the 2016 season. Sarkisian replaces Mike Locksley, who took the head coaching job at Maryland. Pete Golding was promoted to defensive coordinator after Tosh Lupoi was hired as he defensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns. This will be Golding’s second season on Saban’s staff.
Saban was specifically asked about the annual coa-ching turnover on his staff and whether he is hard to work for as a boss.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “You have to ask some of the people that work for me. [It’s] always interesting that…they may say that, but then when they get a job and they go do it, they do it exactly like we did it.”
One of the first questions Saban was asked was how he thought his program would respond after the surprising blowout loss to Clemson in the national title game.
“I think that our players learned a lot from that experience,” Saban said. “I think that we didn’t play with the discipline at the end of the season that we’d like to have as a team. I don’t think that our preparation, so that we can go in a game and be very responsible and accountable to do our job at a high level on a consistent basis, was what it needed to be.”
For the first time in a few years, Alabama won’t have any questions about who the starter will be at quarterback.
Tagovailoa finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2018 and is projected to be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Saban said Tagovailoa has room to improve upon in terms of turnovers and negative plays, but he’s thrilled to have the signal-caller back for another season.
“We’re happy to have him as a leader of our team,” Saban said. “He’s got great character. He’s a hard worker. He affects his teammates in a really positive way. I think he’s very well respected by his teammates. He’s obviously been as productive as anybody in his position in the country, so hopefully we can build on that.”
Tagovailoa said he put in extra work in the training room so he can stay healthier throughout the upcoming season.
“ I am getting into the trai-ning room as much as possible,” he said. “Whether I feel the need to do it or I don’t, I have been getting into the training room more than I think I could ever imagine, and I am not even hurt. When I was hurt, I was in there a lot, and now I am in there more.”
Tagovailoa also said his personal success from a season ago is in the rearview mirror, and he and his teammates are looking to bounce back from the loss to Clemson.
“The success that I had last year is just last year. We need to keep focusing on who we can be this year as far as a team, and we will go from there.
“I think since we lost, it was a good experience for our team entirely, because a lot of us have come back and it’s something that we don’t take for granted now. Winning isn’t something that you should take for granted.”
Jeudy, who won the Biletnikoff Award last year for the top receiver in the country, echoed his quarterback’s sentiments about responding to the Clemson loss.
“It was a really tough loss,” Jeudy said. “Clemson was a great team, but Coach Saban always says, ‘So what, now what?’ So what? We lost last year. Now what? Now, what are we going to do about it to improve our game this year to not finish off the season like how we did last year.”
Moses said it is important for him for Alabama’s defense to continue its reign as the top group in the country and he wants to make sure that the unit plays up to Saban’s standard.
“That’s one of my main things. That’s really what I’m focusing on. It all boils down to the right leadership and guys being on the same page. The coach is going to make the right call. It’s all up to us to execute it.
“With that being said, it’s all up to me to get that done. I tell myself and I tell everyone else, whatever happens with this defense this year is on me. I take pride in all of that.
I’m a perfectionist and I want things done the right way, just as Coach Saban wants things done the right way. That’s how I’m going to take it.”
Auburn finished 8-5 a season ago and many analysts and fans once again have Gus Malzahn on the proverbial hot seat. Malzahn has been in this position before, and this season he’s adding to the pressure by resuming his play-calling. Malzahn relinquished that duty the last few years but decided to take them back in last year’s the bowl game. The result was a 63-14 win over Purdue, including a bowl-record 56 points in the first half.
“That’s really who I am,” he said. “I’m an offensive guy. That’s what got me where I’m at… It’s been a very refreshing thing.”
Auburn’s offense will have a new leader at quarterback after Jarrett Stidham was selected by the New England Patriots in the NFL Draft. The starting quarterback will either be redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or true freshman Bo Nix.
“Talking about the season offensively, our big question is our quarterback situation,” Malzahn said. “Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix, two freshmen fighting for the position. Both of them are very athletic. They can create things when things break down. They have big-time arms. Both of them are really hungry for the job. We’ll figure [it] out in fall camp. We’ll name a starter and figure out which of those two guys gives us the best chance of winning.”
Malzahn is 53-27 in six seasons and has led Auburn to two SEC West Division titles, one SEC championship and an appearance in the national title game. However, that hasn’t been enough to some fans and analysts considering how much success Alabama has experienced during that same stretch.
“I got a job that expects to win championships, and I expect to win championships,” he said. “I knew that when I signed up. In the years we don’t do that, it’s ‘hot seat this’ and ‘hot seat that.’
I think out of the six years, four had been this same rodeo. And it’s just part of the job description.”
Malzahn said this group reminds him of the Auburn teams he’s been a part of that have won championships. Time will tell if that’s the case, and the Tigers must navigate a difficult schedule to contend as they start the season with a challenging game against Ore-gon in Dallas.
Defensive tackle Derrick Brown, one of three Auburn seniors Malzahn brought to the event along with defensive lineman Marlon Davidson and offensive tackle Prince Tega Wanogho, said it is important for the team to start the season on the right note against the Ducks.
“I think all I can do is go out and give my best effort,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, it is there for us. As a team, I think it is important for us to get off to a good start to the year. That sets the tone for the year.
“Nobody wants to go out there and be 0-1. We play them Week 1, and nobody wants that taste in their mouth. I think just going out and getting off to a good start against [Oregon] is going to be very beneficial to us.”