HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn leads the SEC in lemonade sales, live eagle landings and, this summer, negative perception.
“Overall, I really like where our team’s at,” coach Gus Malzahn said Monday at SEC Media Days. “I like where our staff’s at.”
What else is he going to say?
Probably not “We’re too far behind Alabama to matter in Alabama” or “Three defensive coordinators in three years?” or “Sure glad we have Vanderbilt at home.”
Auburn in Malzhan’s three seasons as head coach has gone from 12-2 with a national championship game loss to 8-5 to 7-6 (2-6 in the SEC). The Tigers have five new assistant coaches, seething fans, no good answer at quarterback and national championship runner-up Clemson coming in for the season opener.
Should be a rout.
Odds are, Deshaun Watson gets his Heisman Trophy campaign started right on ESPN prime-time cue.
The most realistic hopes for Auburn wore coats and ties Monday. Defensive linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson showed up in Hoover for the interview session gauntlet at the Wynfrey Hotel.
Auburn’s strength — talent and depth along the defensive line — matches up with one of Clemson’s vulnerable areas, a rebuilt offensive line.
“It will be a great test,” Adams said. “Deshaun’s a great player. He’s a great athlete. Our defensive line has a lot of hype, but if we can stop Deshaun, people will see that it’s not just hype.”
Lawson is similarly motivated.
“What do I say to the doubters?” he asked. “They have their opinions and I have mine, and I’ll just have to prove it.”
Kevin Steele, hired away from LSU to take over as Auburn defensive coordinator after Will Muschamp left to become head coach at South Carolina, has been raving about his defensive line depth. But Steele, a well-traveled Dillon native fired as Clemson defensive coordinator following a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl, is one of five new Auburn coaches.
The offseason almost required name tags. It helps that Steele and Muschamp, longtime friends, run similar systems.
“Being able to adapt makes you good,” Lawson said. “So having so many defensive coordinators isn’t too much of a burden. It’s kind of a blessing sometimes.”
Adams and Lawson are quite familiar with Clemson and its coaching staff, a model of stability compared to Auburn’s revolving door. Adams, a 6-4, 309-pound senior from Dooley County (Ga.) High School, picked Auburn over Clemson and Georgia. Lawson, a 6-2, 253-pound redshirt junior from Alpharetta, Ga., picked Auburn over Clemson and Tennessee.
Just think how good Clemson might be with those two guys.
Or how much more fun Adams and Lawson might have had playing at Clemson.
Lawson’s problem at Auburn has been staying on the field. He missed his entire second year with a torn ACL. He missed five games last season with a fractured hip.
Healthy, Lawson can be a force. That’s why he is a popular preseason All-SEC pick.
“Carl Lawson wants to be the best pass rusher,” Adams said. “He also wants to be a great run-stopper, because at the next level you can’t be both. Well, you can but … You want to be known as being the best of both worlds.”
Emphasis on the positive goes with most summer football outlooks. Auburn is working overtime.
Contrary to all the staff turnover is Rodney Garner, in his fourth season.
“The best defensive line coach in all of college football,” Malzahn said.
Official team motto: “Earn it.”
“I feel like if we all execute and do what we’re capable of doing, we’ll be one of the best defensive lines in the SEC,” Lawson said.
Malzahn on Monday announced that four players busted for misdemeanor possession of marijuana will not be suspended for the season opener. Asked if he considered the quality of opponent when reaching such a decision, Malzahn danced a little.
“We have high expectations for our players,” he said, “no matter who we’re playing.”
In other words, it might have been different if Clemson and Arkansas State flip-flopped on the schedule.
“We have a pretty tough opener, obviously with Clemson, one of the better teams in all of college football, with maybe the best player in all of college football,” Malzhan said.
That puts lots of pressure on the pass rush, and more pressure on Malzahn if his offense can’t keep up with Watson.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.