Rabalais: Football divisional realignment not on the radar at SEC Spring Meeting _lowres

Associated Press file photo by Brynn Anderson -- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn

AUBURN

Goodbye, 2015; hello, 2016

The Tigers were a trendy pick to emerge from a deep SEC West to take a coveted spot in the College Football Playoff but stumbled to a disappointing 7-6 mark. With that in mind, Auburn’s mantra heading into 2016 is “Earn it.” No preseason titles are going Auburn’s way this offseason, and coach Gus Malzahn appears to appreciate that fact.

What’s up?

One of biggest reasons for the Tigers’ struggles last year? They only scored 22.1 points per game against SEC opponents, down nearly two touchdowns from the year before. Malzahn said his team needs to get back to “playing with pace” after averaging fewer than 70 offensive plays per game for the first time in his tenure.

Coachspeak

“One thing that hit me pretty hard is that I got to be more active with the daily X’s and O’s and coaching that goes with that. And that’s what I look at as my strength. … I’m looking forward to getting back in the middle of things and enjoying the actual coaching on the field.”

— Malzahn

The final word

Malzahn said he believes this will be the best defense of his tenure, but that might not matter if the Tigers are not able to get their offense back to its previous levels.

FLORIDA

Goodbye, 2015; hello, 2016

Jim McElwain’s first year was an overwhelming success, but all the coach can think about is how it ended with a thud, losing the SEC championship game and Sugar Bowl. The expectations will be higher this year, and McElwain said he’s happy about the way his team responded to the disappointing finish.

What’s up?

McElwain said suspended receiver Antonio Callaway and quarterback Treon Harris are still on campus and using the athletic facilities, but there was no update on their status with the team. Both were suspended in January, and McElwain said “there isn’t a timetable on it.”

Coachspeak

“The key is competition and what (transfers Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio) do to give of themselves to help those two younger guys in Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks. … Here’s the good thing: We’ve got really good arm talent. I’m excited about being able to stretch the field vertically. Should be a lot of fun.”

— McElwain on his quarterbacks

The final word

Florida lost seven players to the NFL draft, including two first-round picks from its secondary and a 1,000-yard rusher in Kelvin Taylor. The Gators do not have a quarterback on the roster who has thrown a pass in a Gators uniform. But McElwain likes the pieces he has returning, and the SEC East is wide open.

VANDERBILT

Goodbye, 2015; hello, 2016

The Commodores finished 4-8 last season but were more competitive than they were in Year 1 under coach Derek Mason, who hopes that trend continues. Vanderbilt returns its statistical leaders in passing, rushing and receiving, and more importantly, returns the majority of a defense that had a bounce-back campaign.

What’s up?

Half of Vanderbilt’s losses came by single digits last year, which Mason chalked up to his team’s poor focus, an attribute he’s made a priority of strengthening this offseason.

Coachspeak

“I think my ethnicity has nothing to do with my position. I think I’m intelligent enough to be a head coach, and I’ve proven over time that I can, you know, do the job. ... There’s a reason Vanderbilt hired me. They felt I was the best coach.”

— Mason on if he feels added pressure as a black coach in the SEC

The final word

Mason is a defensive coach, and that’s where Vandy made the most strides in the second season. It’s not a sexy way to win games, but the ’Dores return eight starters on defense and could surprise some in the muddled SEC East.

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.