Gus Malzahn’s seat is always warm.
That’s part of the gig at Auburn, which fired Gene Chizik two years after he coached the program to a national championship.
Malzahn, who enters his sixth season as the Tigers’ head coach with a 28-20 record in SEC games (53-27 overall), won’t be the only play caller under the microscope when No. 11 Oregon opens the season against No. 16 Auburn on Saturday at AT&T Stadium.
Outside of the bubble of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, Marcus Arroyo was criticized during an inconsistent 2018 season for the Ducks, which ended with a 7-6 victory over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
Arroyo, who is entering his second season as Oregon’s offensive coordinator and third year as Justin Herbert’s position coach, isn’t sweating from any heat some fans think he should be feeling.
“I don't really pay attention to that stuff independently. I really don’t,” Arroyo said after Tuesday’s practice. “I'm focused on our job, doing my best job for the team, and for myself.”
Oregon, which returns 10 starters on offense from last year’s 9-4 team, will face one of the nation’s most talented defenses in the opener.
Four-year starting offensive lineman Calvin Throckmorton said Auburn’s defensive line is similar to Michigan State’s stout front. The Ducks mustered only 11 first downs and 203 yards of total offense against the Spartans in last season's bowl win.
After announcing his decision to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft, Herbert was held to 19-for-33 passing for 166 yards and a touchdown by Michigan State. Dillon Mitchell accounted for six of those completions for 70 yards and the winning score.
“We had a chance to come off a bowl game that ended up being against the top-ranked defense in the country,” Arroyo said. “Michigan State was strong and big and physical. I think that was great to have seen right at the end of the season and going against this great (Auburn) defense we're playing.
“I don't try to liken anybody to anybody else. They do a lot of things really well, they've got a lot of talented players, and we’ve got to go out and put our best foot forward.”
Oregon’s offensive line returns all five starters and seven players with a combined 153 starts. The unit will open holes for running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, who combined for 1,757 yards and 14 touchdowns last season as freshmen.
The Ducks averaged 179.4 yards rushing last season, which ranked 54th in the FBS.
“We know we made a lot of mistakes in the bowl game,” Throckmorton said. “So we spent the entire offseason correcting those and improving. Now we're excited to go out there.”
Herbert passed for 3,151 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a junior. His statistics, including the 59.4 percent completion percentage, were hampered by 53 dropped passes.
Senior Juwan Johnson and juniors Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson will start against Auburn at wide receiver. Senior Brenden Schooler and dynamic freshman Mycah Pittman are both unavailable due to injuries suffered during fall camp.
Freshmen Bryan Addison, Josh Delgado and JJ Tucker are also on the two-deep for the opener.
“It’s going to be a great stage for them,” Arroyo said. “We’ve really pressed them all. We try to apply pressure in practice so that situations such as Saturday don't sneak up on guys. … They're going to have some stuff to deal with anxiety wise, and that's going to be good. We’ll overcome that.
“I’m excited to see them go out and play. They did a nice job in camp and in spring, and those guys are going to be fruitful for us for a long time.”
Oregon ranked 25th in points (34.8 per game), 50th in passing yards (247.8 per game) and 41st in total yards (427.2 per game) during Arroyo’s first season calling the plays for coach Mario Cristobal.
The Herbert-led offense is expected to be much more productive this season, which would perhaps cool down some of those critics.
“We look back critically and introspectively at what we need to do within our walls. Really, the rest will take care of itself,” Arroyo said. “The guys have responded., the staff has been great, and we haven't paid much attention to that at all.
“We've been really united as far as a team. That's all I'm really focused on. I'm not worried about myself.”