HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — Auburn coach Gus Malzahn makes it clear that his top early priority for preseason camp is picking a starting quarterback.
He said Thursday he expects “a fierce battle” between redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and five-star recruit Bo Nix. Both are threats to run the ball, and Malzahn has had his biggest success at Auburn with dual-threat quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Nick Marshall.
“That’s really a game changer,” said Malzahn, who took over play-calling duties again starting with the Music City Bowl against Purdue. He got off to a good start with a 63-14 victory.
The Tigers are replacing two-year starter Jarrett Stidham, who left early to enter the NFL draft. They sputtered at times last season before the bowl game and went 8-5.
Whoever wins the job will make his first start against Oregon in Arlington, Texas.
Gatewood’s only action came in the bowl game when he attempted only one pass but gained 28 yards on three runs. Nix was rated the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback prospect by the 247Sports composite rankings of the major recruiting sites.
Last year’s backup, Malik Willis, has transferred to Liberty.
As for the competition, Malzahn said he doesn’t want to rush into picking a starter.
“Usually what happens is the whole team knows,” he said. “I hope that is early, but I’m not going to try to push it. I’m just going to let it happen.”
WHAT NEXT, KENTUCKY?
One of the perks of finally ending Kentucky’s 31-game losing streak against Florida last year is that coach Mark Stoops didn’t have to answer any more questions about it on Thursday at SEC media days.
At least Stoops thought he was done with the topic.
The coach drew some laughs after he groaned and said, “Oh, come on now,” when asked if the Wildcats were ready to start a winning streak against Florida.
Stoops said with a grin, “I’m just going to avoid that question.”
Kentucky won 10 games last year for the first time in 41 years but must replace several stars from that team, including running back Benny Snell and linebacker Josh Allen. The Wildcats are part of the increasingly competitive Eastern Division. Georgia and Florida are expected to finish near the top but just about everyone in the division has high expectations.
Stoops said: “It’s no surprise that the East is improving. But we all know so is the West. So you’re just trying to constantly do your part. I can’t be affected (with) what’s going on with the rest of the league, you know. We’ve really got to focus on Kentucky.”
MASON’S HIGH HOPES
Derek Mason is striking an optimistic note about his sixth season at Vanderbilt, like most coaches this time of year.
Flush with an offseason contract extension, he is still seeking his first winning record with the Commodores despite flirting with one a couple of times.
“I believe right now this is the best football team that I’ve had,” Mason said Thursday.
Mason has led Vanderbilt to a pair of 6-7 records and two bowl bids over the past three seasons, along with three consecutive wins over in-state rival Tennessee.
“I want you to know this is a different-looking Vanderbilt football team with maturity, depth, athleticism, leadership,” he said. “It’s all in place for us.”
Mason also feels good about his quarterback position. Graduate transfer Riley Neal, who started 32 games at Ball State, and Deuce Wallace are vying for the starting job. Mason also announced the addition of four more grad transfers in June.
The Commodores open the season against defending SEC East champion Georgia.
AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this report.