Monday should have been a day of celebration for the Auburn football program as the 2014 Southeastern Media Days began at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover (Ala.).
Coach Gus Malzahn, who took Auburn from last to first in the SEC, was the first coach on the schedule to be questioned by members of the media. Auburn returns 14 starters from a team which lost just twice in 2013 - at LSU and to Florida State in the national championship game.
One of those returning starters is quarterback Nick Marshall, who accounted for more than 3,100 yards and 26 touchdowns a year ago. Marshall was one of the three players chosen to represent Auburn in Hoover.
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However, Marshall was given a citation for possession of a small amount of marijuana last Friday. Marshall was not allowed to come to SEC Media Days. Moreover, Marshall's poor decision needed to be addressed by Malzahn on Monday.
"It is a privilege and a reward to represent Auburn at SEC Media Days," Malzahn said. "Nick lost that privilege last Friday. We have high expectations for our players and, specifically our quarterback being the face of our program.
"Until last Friday, Nick has been a model student, teammate and citizen. Nick made a mistake and he'll have to deal with the consequences. I'm not ready to say what those consequences are at this time, but he will deal with it. I know he's regretful and he feels very bad about it."
Malzhan refused to say if Marshall will miss any playing time. Auburn will open its season with a conference game against Arkansas at Jordan-Hare Stadium on August 30.
"That's definitely a challenge when you open your season against a conference team," Malzahn said. "We do have a lot of guys back and we're playing at home. But, we really expect Arkansas to be much improved. We know we're going to have to play well."
Twelve months have made quite a bit of difference in the Auburn football program. At this time last year, Malzahn was replacing Gene Chizik as coach after Auburn went 0-8 in the SEC. Malzahn was the offensive coordinator when Auburn won the national title with quarterback Cam Newton in 2010.
After going 12-2 last season, Malzahn is in control of a team expected to contend for a conference championship. Auburn does have a challenging schedule in 2014 with home games against South Carolina and LSU and road games against Georgia and Alabama.
"It's completely different," Malzahn said. "Last year, we weren't on anybody's radar. We snuck up on a lot of people. This year, we know we're going to be circled. At the same time, that's good pressure. We've got our program back to where it should be, where people have us circled."
Malzahn still has some great memories from last season which included miracle victories at home against Georgia and Alabama.
"Going from worst to first was definitely special," Malzahn said. "Then, at the end of the year coming up 13 seconds short of winning the national championship was a tough pill to swallow. Our players and coaches are extremely motivated going into this next season."
Coach Will Muschamp watched Auburn go from winless in the SEC to the SEC championship last season. The Gators didn't go winless in conference play as they won three times. But, Florida experienced its first losing season since 1979. There is no way Muschamp can survive another losing season.
"There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business," Muschamp said. "That's part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team, which is what we're going to do."
The Gators return 14 starters - the most important being quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of last season with an injury. Driskel has started games for Florida every season since his freshman year in 2011. Muschamp feels very good about the 2014 Gators squad.
"I've got a lot of confidence in this team and staff," Muschamp said. "This is probably the most complete team we've had since I've been at Florida. We were very inconsistent the latter part of last season, which is disappointing. The things that went wrong certainly are fixable."
Injuries had a lot to do with the Gators' 4-8 record. Florida will enter this season on a seven-game losing streak. Four of those seven defeats came by double digits - LSU (17-6), Missouri (36-17), Vanderbilt (34-17) and Florida State (37-7).
"Control the controllable is always what I've said," Muschamp said. "Control the things you can control. There was never any time in my mind that I didn't think I would be retained.
"It's a great thing having an athletic director like Jeremy Foley that has a strong pulse not only on our program, but every program in the athletic department. At the end of the day, (Foley) understood the circumstances we dealt with and we are looking forward to getting them amended this year."
Florida doesn't have an easy schedule. Besides games against the other six Eastern Division teams, the Gators' two non-divisional opponents are LSU and Alabama. In addition, Florida must take on defending national champion Florida State.
"No question, last year was very frustrating and disappointing," Muschamp said. "It's not what we're about at Florida. As a competitor, you want to get back out on the field and play as soon as you can. Our schedule is difficult. It's difficult every year. We look forward to the opportunity we have in front of us."
Derek Mason is in a unique position. He is replacing a Vanderbilt head football coach who has taken teams to three straight bowl games. In addition, the Commodores won nine games the past two seasons.
"Every job is hard," Mason said. "I coached in the NFL, so I coach with a one-year mentality. James (Franklin) established something. But, I would have taken this job if they were 0-12. James did the leg work and Bobby Johnson did the leg work before him to get the players who won nine games."
Mason was around a championship program as Stanford's defensive coordinator the past three seasons. Mason is taking over the reins of a private school just like Stanford.
"The similarities between the two schools are evident," Mason said. "They are both good academic institutions where they play good football. Vanderbilt has its own brand. It plays in the SEC, the best football conference in the country."
Under Franklin, the Commodores won 24 games in three seasons. However, Vanderbilt had just an 11-13 record against SEC teams. The next step for the program under first-year coach Mason is beating some of the better teams in the league.
"Our team is a team of no-names who have a chance to do something great," Mason said. "Our opportunity to compete for a SEC East title is now."
Vanderbilt returns just ten starters from last season's team which ended ranked in the top 25 for a second straight year. In addition, Mason is changing both the offensive and defensive philosophies. The Commodores will run the West Coast offense and the 3-4 defense.
"Jim (Harbaugh) had recruited a certain type of player on offense and defense at Stanford," Mason said. "At Vanderbilt, we are changing our offense and defense. There was a need for a buy-in from the players. That was evident in spring practice."
Even though Vanderbilt has a 9-7 conference record over the last two years, it is still expected to battle Kentucky to escape the SEC East cellar. Mason knows the process at a private school can result in championships.
"We won a lot of games at Stanford with two and three-star players," Mason said. "Those players may not have been as talented, but we had the ability to put the players in the right places and then they executed. That's what we can do at Vanderbilt with players who understand what we want to do."