The 2019 SEC media days wrapped up Thursday as the spotlight turned toward Auburn, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
No SEC team was a bigger surprise than Kentucky as the Wildcats reeled off 10 wins for the first time since 1977. Matching that success will be difficult in 2019 without leading rusher Benny Snell Jr. and feared pass-rusher Josh Allen.
Auburn is looking to improve after another eight-win season under Gus Malzahn. The Tigers opened 2018 with a big win over Washington, but the air slowly went out of the balloon as the year unfolded.
Derek Mason has done well to make Vanderbilt a respectable program again, yet the Commodores remain without a winning record since 2013, which was James Franklin's last year on the sideline.
Naturally, Malzahn, Mason and UK head coach Mark Stoops faced plenty of questions about their expectations and pressing topics for the season ahead at SEC media days.
Malzahn was blunt about his thoughts on 2018.
"Some places, eight wins, they celebrate that," he said, per The Athletic's Justin Ferguson. "That's just not Auburn."
Malzahn set the bar incredibly high right out of the gate at Auburn. The Tigers finished the regular season 12-1 and lost to Florida State by three points in the BCS national title game. Over the past five years, they have always climbed into the top 10 of the Associated Press' Top 25 poll but never finished better than 10th.
Malzahn discussed how he's routinely under fire as a result, per AL.com's Tom Green:
"I got a job that expects to win championships, and I expect to win championships. I knew that when I signed up for that. In the years that we win championships, it's good. The years we don't, it's hot seat this, hot seat that. And I think out of the six years, four had been this same rodeo. And it's just part of the job description."
Jarrett Stidham moved on to the NFL, leaving the Tigers to rely upon a new starting quarterback. Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix are the likely contenders to replace Stidham. Gatewood was a 4-star recruit and the No. 49 player overall in 2018 and Nix was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in 2019, per 247Sports' composite rankings.
Neither has won the job just yet and Malzahn apparently isn't close to making his final decision:
Patrick Brickman @PatrickBrickman
Gus Malzahn says he doesn't have a specific timetable in mind when it comes to naming a starting quarterback, but would like to be able to name on "sooner rather than later." "Usually what happens is the teammates know, the coaches know, and it's one of those things. #SECMD2019 https://t.co/PZXFxJDyL5
He has a little more than a month to make up his mind. Auburn opens 2019 against Oregon on Aug. 31.
Based on the program's history, it's fair to question whether Kentucky can surpass what it achieved in 2018. Stoops spoke in the Wildcats' defense.
"We are the only team in the country in the last six years that hasn't taken a step back," he said, per Michael Wayne Bratton of Saturday Down South. "We've stayed the same or improved each year for six years and we are the only ones that can say that and what are we doing now to make sure that doesn't happen this year."
Terry Wilson threw for 1,768 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a sophomore. He also ran for 518 yards and four scores. With Snell gone, Kentucky will need to lean a little more heavily on its starting quarter, and Stoops believes Wilson will improve under Eddie Gran, the assistant head coach of the offense.
"We talk about Terry, he's set to make a big jump," he said, per Bratton. "We had a formula last year that gave us the ability to win 10 games, in position [to] win some others. This year that may change. You don't know how it's going to look. You have to adapt and change to each team you have and Coach Gran does a great job of that."
When it comes to filling the void left by Snell, Stoops didn't put that weight on just one player.
"It's now time for guys like A.J. Rose to step up," he said, according to Josh Moore of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Kavosiey Smoke is a young guy that we are very high on. Chris Rodriguez, so we have players there that are ready to step up and fill in."
Senior linebacker Kash Daniel was one of three Kentucky players on hand for media days. He told reporters his team's performance will silence any skeptics, per Moore:
"We're five steps ahead of where we were last year. I'm pretty sure they were talking this same time last year about how we were gonna win four games, five games just like every other year and then we go out and do what we did. So you can keep running your mouth, you can keep talking about us, and we'll shut it up for you on the football field."
Kentucky opens with Toledo and Eastern Michigan before SEC play begins. A home matchup with Florida should be a good barometer for whether the Wildcats can back up Daniel's assessment.
No matter how many wins it collects, Vanderbilt will always struggle to consistently attract blue-chip recruits. Mason emphasized how the Commodores pride themselves on developing the players who come through the program:
Ke'Shawn Vaughn is somewhat of an outlier since he was the 27th-best running back in 2015, per the 247Sports' composite rankings. But Vaughn had a breakthrough in 2018 under Mason's watch following his transfer from Illinois. He ran for 1,244 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 157 carries.
Senior wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb thinks his teammate could stack up against any other running back in college football:
The schedule isn't kind to the Commodores, who play Georgia in their opener. The game pits Mason head-to-head against Kirby Smart, and he explained Thursday how he built a strong relationship with the Bulldogs head coach when they traveled to Mexico for a Nike-sponsored trip.
"I mean, you meet people sometimes and you realize, man, that you got a lot in common, some of the goals," Mason said, per 247Sports' Chad Bishop. "You see football the same way. You see life the same way. And all you're trying to do is move young men from where they are to where they need to be. And that's what our conversations were about."
Mason will have to leave emotion aside on Aug. 31, because upsetting Georgia would represent a huge statement in the SEC East race.