HOOVER — Gus Malzahn is taking the wheel of the Gus Bus.
But can the Auburn coach avoid head-on collisions against the likes of Florida, Georgia and Alabama and keep from driving the Tigers into a ditch this season?
We’ll know soon enough.
After a 2018 Auburn season that featured just three conference wins Malzahn decided to take over the offensive play-calling for the 2019 season. It’s a role he’s comfortable with and something he’s done before at Auburn. He gave up play-calling duties in 2016, handing the reigns over to Rhett Lashlee. He did the same with Chip Lindsey the last two seasons.
“When I decided to go back and call plays, that’s really who I am,” Malzahn said. “I’m an offensive guy. That’s what got me where I’m at. Through the years, you get advice and all of that. And of course I made a mistake. Just decided to getting back to being me and call plays. It’s been a very refreshing thing.”
Kenny Dillingham is the offensive coordinator this year but will also coach quarterbacks.
Malzahn, who enters his seventh season at Auburn and signed a seven-year contract extension in January of 2018, is going to be under some pressure to win this season. This season’s schedule doesn’t do him any favors.
Auburn opens with a neutral-site game with Oregon, ranked ninth in the USA Today preseason poll. The Tigers get No. 8 Texas A&M on the road in late September and Mississippi State at home the week after. Then it’s down to Gainesville the following week to take on No. 13 Florida and to Baton Rouge to face No. 7 LSU in late October.
It gets worse. Auburn has No. 3 Georgia on Nov. 16 and No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 30. The only solace is those games are at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“Our schedule once again is one of the toughest in college football,” Malzahn said. “It’s not a shock to our system. I really believe we’re used to it.”
Along with figuring out how to beat all those ranked teams, Malzahn has to decide on a starting quarterback. The top two candidates are a true freshman, Bo Nix, and a redshirt freshman, Joey Gatewood.
“Both of them are very athletic,” Malzahn said. “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 out in fall camp. We’ll name a starter and figure which of those two guys gives us the best change of winning.”
Seth Williams, a former Bryant High player, enters his second season with the Tigers. The receiver played in 13 games last season and had 26 catches for 534 yards with five touchdowns.
“He’s a guy you can put out there and you can throw it up and they can have two or three on them, he has a chance to come down with it,” Malzahn said. “Seth’s just really working a lot with the little things, understanding leverage and understanding blocking without the ball, playing without the ball.
“And he’s worked really hard on that. I’ve seen improvement in the spring. We’re going to be asking a lot more of him this year than we did last year. I really feel like he wants to be good. And I will tell you this: He’s coachable.”