AUBURN, Ala. -- It may be that Chris Lindsey doesn't quite grasp what he's getting into as Auburn's offensive coordinator.

The scrutiny. The criticism. The nitpicking. The Other Team In The State. Every single freakin' hour of every single freakin' day.

Or so it seems.

"You're a lot more famous than I am," Lindsey told a reporter, trying to diffuse his sudden celebrity.

Whether that's true (and it's not), the reporter would still be willing to trade salaries. But we digress …

If he does not indeed know, Lindsey will soon will realize what he's gotten himself into. For now, that is becoming the first offensive coordinator to start a season calling plays for a Gus Malzahn-coached team.

That means replacing one of the most brilliant offensive minds of the last 10 years because that brilliant offensive mind himself has decided to replace himself.

That means being the tip of the spear for an offense that is – on paper – the most potent on The Plains since Nick Marshall led the Tigers to the last BCS title game four years ago.

"The last time I felt this way was 2013," Malzahn said.

That means having a definitive answer -- for now -- to a question that bugged the SEC during a down 2016: Who is the conference's second-best team?

"We went to the Sugar Bowl," Malzahn reminded.

Yeah, but that January appearance was possible only because the contract with the SEC said so. Auburn's 8-4 record was the worst by a Sugar Bowl participant since LSU in 1968 (6-3-1).

The 16-point loss to Oklahoma only highlighted what was one of the worst SEC seasons of the modern era. For the first time in league history, every team but one (Alabama) had at least four losses.

For the third year in a row, Auburn lost at least five games.

"It's unfortunate," Malzahn summarized. "I'm not ever going to make excuses."

You never can in a league that is so unforgiving even a coach with back-to-back nine-win season is supposedly in danger of losing his job (Tennessee's Butch Jones).

But assuming Alabama is the preseason SEC and national No. 1, an SEC comeback starts with having some legitimate challengers -- at least a solid runner-up to restore some of the luster.

That leads us back to Lindsey. He's the right man for the right job right now. Malzahn first found him as a high school coach in 2013,  making him an offensive analyst.

"'Chip, you come and in a year and you'll be a coordinator in Conference USA,'" Lindsey recalls Malzahn telling him.

That's exactly what happened after an SEC title. Lindsey then served a proper apprenticeship coordinating offenses at Southern Miss (2014-2015) and Arizona State (2016) before stepping up in class in terms of competition, competition and comparisons.

As a play caller, can Chip Lindsey measure up to Gus Malzahn? What does that even mean when Malzahn gave up calling plays in the middle of last season?

"He was really my right-hand man in 2013," Malzahn said. "He was in every meeting with me. He'd come in early and watch extra tape. Seven o'clock Friday morning until noon Friday. Just one more time going over every possible scenario."

"He's a grinder," Lindsey said of his boss. "So you're with him all the time. He's here at night."

There is a general feeling that Auburn is as close to that 2013 offense as any time since. Eight starters return. The offensive line is solid. Kamryn Pettway is college football's leading returning rusher.

Mostly, Auburn has a quarterback. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham looks like a plug-and-play starter behind center.

"Here, I think we've got a guy who's a little bit more polished, from the standpoint of intermediate routes, the timing throws," Lindsey said. "Understanding coverage and leverage and getting us the right route. Those guys from Texas are really good throwers, are a little more advanced."

That's code for Stidham being able to throw downfield, something Auburn hasn't had for a while. It may a quarterback controversy only within Malzahn's offense.

Sean White is trying to hold onto his job after Auburn finished tied for 91st in pass completions of 20 yards or more. Without throwing a pass, Stidham has gone from a 50-1 shot to win the Heisman Trophy to tied with J.T. Barrett for fourth-best odds (12-1, Las Vegas Westgate Superbook).

Lindsey starts with a working knowledge of the players, the coaches and his boss. Malzahn gave up those play-calling duties last year to middling results. During a six-game winning streak, "we were one of the best teams in the country," Malzahn said.

But the Tigers didn't beat an FBS team after the first week of November, losing three of their last four.

Former offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee then departed for Connecticut. The "new" offense continues to be centered around Malzahn's famous desire for a power-running attack. Lindsey has been more an Air Raid guy in his career.

"I think it says in his mind, he's kind of taking the next step as a head coach," Lindsey said of his boss. "People forget, he really changed offenses in the SEC. … Whatever Spurrier did, I think he did the same thing in the 2000s."

In 2015, Lindsey made his mark guiding a Southern Miss attack that produced a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and two 1,000-yard rushers.

"I definitely see a difference," said defensive back Tray Matthews, Auburn's leading tackler. "[The offense is] more fast-paced. It's Auburn Fast."

As part of this next great step up, Lindsey knows it matters a lot that a picture of him surfaced on social media of an 11-year old Lindsey posing with Aubie, Auburn's mascot.

"My first college game ever was here at Auburn -- 1985 homecoming. Bo Jackson. I was mesmerized," Lindsey recalled.

Sorry, Aubie. Lindsey would also become an Alabama grad.

"This is how scary it is to be offensive coordinator at Auburn," he said. "… I try to keep that under wraps."

Little of this is worth pointing out if not for the general assumption that Stidham is going to be the quarterback. As a freshman in 2015 at Baylor, Stidham showed loads of promise throwing for 1,265 yards in 10 games that included three starts.

"It's just a matter of when and what time," said Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, who recruited Stidham.

When Baylor's sexual assault scandal broke in May 2016, Stidham was one of the first players to leave. He stayed in Waco, Texas, and took online classes from a local junior college while sifting through football choices.

Auburn seemed a logical landing spot. There had been quarterback upheaval since the Marshall era. Remember Jeremy Johnson, Heisman contender?

The Auburn and Baylor offenses were similar. Malzahn spoke to both Art Briles and SMU's Chad Morris -- both of whom coached at one time at Stidham's high school (Stephenville, Texas).

That's where the trail sort of disappears. Malzahn essentially hasn't allowed Stidham to speak to the media alone since he arrived on campus. That's strange for a veteran Power Five QB and in a way only heightens the scrutiny and pressure on Stidham, Lindsey and Malzahn.

There is much respect for junior Sean White, who has started 16 career games. There is also the memory of the (over)hype Johnson endured.

"Having known Sean longer, I will never count Sean out," tailback Kerryon Johnson said. "I know what kind of competitor he is. I know what kind of flavor he brings."

The head coach wants -- at least -- the impression that there's a job to be won in August. Stidham played the entire first half of the spring game and was featured, throwing for 237 yards. White was injured and did not play.

"I wouldn't read too much into that," Malzahn said.

While it looks like Stidham is the guy, no one in the facility is deviating from the prescribed narrative. 

"I'm not sure really when I met Stidham, but I like the kid a lot," Matthews said. "He's very mature, a hard worker. He's a leader. If you have a great work ethic and go hard all the time and you really love the game, I can be your friend."

So is this a quarterback controversy that really isn't? Stidham won't run like Marshall, but he will be more accurate. Marshall had that "it" that allowed him to make plays no matter what.

Ask Matthews. He was victimized as a Georgia defensive back during the Prayer at Jordan-Hare in 2013. Teammate Josh Harvey-Clemons seemed to tip Marshall's throw away from Matthews into the arms of Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

"My friend [Harvey-Clemons] was kind of selfish," Matthews recalled. "… You know they're throwing deep. I'm in the middle. You're on the other side. Why would you come over here and try to catch it when I'm right here waiting?"

Lindsey played receiver at North Alabama in the early 1990s until he realized coach Bobby Wallace was going to run the triple option. Lindsey made the travel roster that included all of four receivers.

"We didn't complete a pass for the first five games of the season," Lindsey said.

He left North Alabama, following an old high school flame to Tuscaloosa, and thought about walking on before eventually settling into a college student's life. A history degree served well as he became a Revolutionary War and Civil War buff.

The man knows a little bit about gobbling up territory.

"He literally just did it yesterday," Johnson said. "He did it when he got here. He did it in spring ball. He puts up a slide [saying], 'This is who we're going to be. We're going to be a downhill running football team.'"

As for being the SEC's designated runner-up? Well, that would be progress. Since Lindsey showed up at Auburn the first time in '13, the Tigers have only the fourth-best record in the SEC.

Second place in the state and the conference doesn't look too bad right now.

"It doesn't matter because everybody wants to win the SEC championship," Matthews said. "Everybody wants to win the natty."