HOOVER, Ala. — Ready. Set. Gus.
After spending three years as Auburn's offensive coordinator from 2009 to '11, helping the Tigers to a 30-10 record and the 2010 national title, Gus Malzahn is back on the Plains as the head coach. He was hired last December to revive a program that suddenly skidded to 3-9, and he is hoping a rapid turnaround can be led by a rapid offense.
"We will run our offense at a two-minute pace the entire game," Malzahn said Wednesday as the Southeastern Conference's media days continued. "Our goal is to play faster than anybody in college football. We feel that if you can execute an offense at a faster pace that it's a big advantage, so we'll be striving for that."
Auburn returns eight offensive starters, including junior tailback Tre Mason, who rushed for 1,002 yards and 5.9 yards a carry last season. That's looking at the bright side, because there are concerns both at quarterback and receiver.
Quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace are back from a unit that averaged 10.1 points per game in SEC contests, and there was no clear-cut starter between the two coming out of spring practice. In a couple of weeks, they will be joined by junior-college transfer Nick Marshall and touted freshman Jeremy Johnson.
Malzahn would like to know his starter sooner than later, but having four potentially even candidates could make that challenging.
"To properly evaluate four guys, we're going to have to have strategies in place," Malzahn said. "We're going to have to put them in different situations as early in fall camp as we can."
Make that four
Kentucky has a quarterback competition that has commonly been framed as a three-way race among sophomores Jalen Whitlow, Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles, but senior tailback Raymond Sanders kept correcting people Wednesday. Sanders insists there are four in the hunt, with the fourth being Reese Phillips of Signal Mountain High School.
Phillips enrolled in January and flourished throughout the spring, completing 10 of 12 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown in the spring finale.
"I think we have four," Sanders said. "Reese is still learning, but he's a good quarterback with a nice arm and throws a nice ball. The older guys are helping him learn, and he's come in and done a great job."
It was inevitable that new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who guided Wisconsin to the last three Rose Bowls, would be asked a question about the difference between the SEC and Big 10. Bielema has yet to coach the Razorbacks in a game, but he had an answer.
"The national difference you have in recruiting," he said. "We got a quarterback out of Egg Harbor, New Jersey, that we tried to recruit at the previous institution I was at. He reached out to us once I switched because he wanted to play in the SEC."
Mississippi State opened its first four seasons under Dan Mullen against Jackson State twice and Memphis twice. It's different this time around, as the Bulldogs will face Oklahoma State in Houston on Aug. 31.
The OSU Cowboys have won 31 games the past three seasons.
"It gets the attention of the players a lot more," Mullen said. "A lot of times in training camp, they're looking at the season as a whole and preparing for the season as a whole. Starting with a big-time game like we're going to have really draws the urgency right from day one that the clock is ticking to kickoff."
Malzahn will not need much of a personnel report for Auburn's Sept. 7 matchup against visiting Arkansas State, having coached the Indians to a 9-3 record last year.
"We recruited some very good players last year, and I know Coach [Hugh] Freeze recruited very good players the year before," Malzahn said. "They're used to winning, and that will be a tough test."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops created a stir earlier this offseason by claiming the SEC was overrated because it was not as strong from top to bottom as the Big 12.
One of the SEC's cellar-dwellers last season was Kentucky, which fired Joker Phillips after going 2-10 and 0-8 and SEC play and hired Mark Stoops, Bob's younger brother. Mark arrived in Lexington after serving as Florida State's defensive coordinator.
"I certainly understand Bob defending his conference," Mark said. "I just left the ACC, and I think everyone is going to defend what they're doing in their conference. With that being said, I don't think any of us need to defend what's going on here in the SEC."
Asked if he spoke to his older brother about his comments, Mark said, "Not really, to be honest with you. It didn't surprise me. I wasn't at Kentucky last year, so it didn't offend me that bad."
Odds and ends
Auburn has not had an off-the-field incident in the eight months since Malzahn was hired. ... Wednesday was "rebuilding day," with Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee going a combined 3-29 last season in league play. ... Mississippi State has sold out 23 consecutive home games.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...