Alabama has dominated the Southeastern Conference the past three seasons with a 22-2 record and three league championships.
No school is more familiar with those numbers than Auburn. The Crimson Tide has outscored the Tigers 114-69 during this stretch. However, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn seemed to be quite confident about his team’s chances of ending the Alabama run in 2017.
“Alabama has been on top the last three years,” said Malzahn at SEC Football Media Days in Hoover (Ala.) on Thursday morning. “To win the championship you need to beat Alabama. The last two times we beat them we won the SEC and played for the national championship.
“We got them at home this year and that’s a positive. We have a real confident team. We have a hungry team with something to move. The last time I felt that was 2013 (the last time Auburn beat Alabama and won the SEC title).”
Auburn returns 15 starters – eight on offense and seven on defense. The Tigers return two backs – Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, who combined for more than 2,100 rushing yards last season. But, the most critical player on offense is not a returning starter – transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
Playing in five games at Baylor two years ago, Stidham completed 69 percent of his pass attempts with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. Stidham did not play football while attending a junior college last year.
“I am most excited about the quality depth we have at quarterback,” Malzahn said. “That’s been our Achilles’ heel the last two years. Jarrett Stidham is doing a good job trying to win over his teammates with his work ethic.
“Jarret’s a good athlete. In our league, you have to be able to escape. Things are going to break down. The defensive lines are too good. I like the way he reacted against our defensive line in the spring.”
Auburn was much better on defense last year – former LSU assistant Kevin Steele’s first as coordinator. The Tigers gave up nine points per game less under Steele than the preceding year. Six of Auburn’s top seven tacklers are back in 2017.
“Kevin Steele turned around our defense,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got seven starters back this year. They understand his expectations.”
Obviously, the talk surrounding Ole Miss football is not centered on what is happening on the field. The Rebels are under NCAA investigation for 21 violations – some of which are directly tied to coach Hugh Freeze. On Wednesday, former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt filed a civil lawsuit against the school.
“This is five straight years here that I can’t talk about our players,” Freeze said. “That’s the least likely thing I enjoy doing. We have taken responsibility for the mistakes we have made. We are excited to get (investigation) to end where next year I can talk about the players.”
Ole Miss will not be eligible for a bowl this season because of a self-imposed ban. The Rebels did not participate in a bowl last year because of its 5-7 record. The Rebels went 2-4 in the second half of the schedule – with all four defeats by double digits. Ole Miss lost at home to Mississippi State 55-20.
“Last year was not what we were used to,” Freeze said. “Dropping the Florida State and Alabama games after having three-touchdown leads (in the first three weeks) rattled our confidence. I did a poor job of recapturing the confidence we needed to finish the year like we hoped.”
Freeze does have potentially one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the conference in Shea Patterson, who made three starts in 2016 after Chad Kelly was injured. Patterson completed 55 percent of his passes for 880 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions.
“Shea’s ceiling is really high,” Freeze said. “His release is good and his feet are good. Shea is going to run around and be elusive. It will come down to how well he prepares himself in the film roof. He needs to get to the point where he sees things before they happen.”
The Rebels must find a way to perform much better on the defensive side of the ball. Opponents averaged 461 yards and 34 points per game. In its seven defeats, Ole Miss gave up at least 34 points. The Rebels allowed 246 rushing yards per game.
“We’re going to have to get better on defense,” Freeze said. “We could not stop the run last year. We scored enough points to win a lot of games, but we could not stop anyone.”
Will Muschamp appears to be more comfortable as he prepares for his second season at South Carolina. The Gamecocks went with a freshman quarterback in the second half of the 2016 schedule and won four of six games to attain bowl eligibility.
Even though South Carolina lost its bowl game to South Florida, Muschamp believes that strides are being made in Columbia. It’s possible the Gamecocks could edge out Tennessee and Kentucky for the No. 3 spot in the SEC East behind Georgia and Florida.
“The most important thing about your second year is understanding your roster,” Muschamp said. “You can mold your team a little more in the direction you want to go. That gives you a little bit more of a comfort level.
“You must credit our players, who have bought in to the culture we want in our organization. I think we are on the verge of some really good things.”
Muschamp, a defensive coach, must concern himself mostly with what happens the opposition has the football. The Gamecocks allowed 412 yards and 27 points per game last year. In South Carolina’s last two games – against Clemson and South Florida, it gave up a total of 102 points.
“We have a lot of unknowns on our defense,” Muschamp said. “There are questions to be answered. We must make decisions on the who and the what – who will play and what can they handle. For us to play well defensively, guys up front have to play well.”
The offense should be improved with ten returning starters. Jake Bentley was excellent as a true freshman, who started the last seven games. Bentley completed 66 percent of his passes for more than 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns with only four interceptions.
“Jake is taking the next step as a quarterback,” Muschamp said. “He is learning protections, blocking schemes and identifying defenses. What we do and identifying defenses are the biggest areas in which Jake has improved mentally.”