Thursday was the final day of the 2017 SEC Media Days, and the festivities in Hoover, Ala., were headlined by two of the LSU football team’s SEC West rivals: Ole Miss and Auburn.
Naturally, Ole Miss was the major attraction of the day. Rebels coach Hugh Freeze was stuck in an uncomfortable situation dealing with the media less than one full day removed from former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt suing the school. With regard to that situation, Freeze said he has opinions but can’t share them now.
“I would absolutely love to share my opinion on it,” Freeze said, answering the first question he was asked. “Unfortunately, it’s a legal case, and I can’t comment.”
Beyond that case, Freeze also addressed the situation his team is in with the NCAA Committee on Infractions. Freeze said Ole Miss has “taken responsibility for the mistakes [it] has made” and is trying to move on to the 2017 season, a season with high expectations thanks to the development of sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson and the maturation of its top-20 recruiting classes from 2015 and ’16.
Still, the issues surrounding the Ole Miss program loom large. The Rebels are banned from competing in a bowl game this season and cannot compete for the SEC championship, either.
Despite this, Freeze doesn’t think his players will be without motivation.
“They got 12 opportunities to play in the greatest conference in America, and you can prove a lot in those 12 games one way or another,” Freeze said. “And, certainly, we wish we had it where we could have some carrot at the end of those 12 games, but right now that’s not reality for us. So, what is reality and how do we deal with it? And I get to set the tone for that.”
As for Auburn …
If the Rebels’ expectations are high, those of the other Tigers are through the roof.
Coming off a second-place finish in the SEC West and a Sugar Bowl appearance last season, Auburn is a trendy pick in the SEC. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is considered to be one of the top passers in the SEC this year, and the Tigers return talented running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson.
“Overall, I’m very excited about this team,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We have a lot of experience back. I think we’ve got more returning starters than we’ve had the last 12 years at Auburn, and of course in this league there’s nothing like experience.”
Experience aside, Auburn is in the same boat as LSU: It’s chasing Alabama. Auburn hasn’t defeated Alabama since the famed “Kick Six” game in 2013, and the Tide have won seven of the last nine contests after Auburn won every game from 2002-07.
To Malzahn, it’s obvious Auburn is chasing Alabama, but it’s not a two-team race atop the SEC West.
Regardless of the talent in the ACC Atlantic and the Big Ten East, Malzahn said he still considers the SEC West to be the class of college football.
“I like the way it is right now,” Malzahn said. “I mean, the West right now is the best league in college football. It’s a man’s league. You got Alabama right now that is the top of the deal. And I like playing against them. I like playing against them every year. I like playing against LSU. I like Ole Miss and Mississippi State, Texas A&M. So, I think that was probably a little bit blown out of proportion, but I like the way it is.”