SEC media days began with its new commissioner using Periscope as he entered the Wynfrey Hotel. It went on to feature its usual array of sideshows: The swaggy shoes of various coaches. Mark Richt’s buzz cut. Steve Spurrier jabbing, as usual.
There were also the more serious subjects (the Confederate flag, how to deal with bad behavior) and heartwarming (Malcolm Mitchell writing a book, Joshua Dobbs being a budding rocket scientist.)
When the discussion came around to that distraction called football, a team’s appearance tended to be dominated by a recurring theme. (Other than quarterback, which was an issue for over half of the league.) Here’s how it went down for each team:
Are there cracks in the process? Nick Saban used that word only five times in his appearance in the main room, and instead spent a lot of time talking about the NFL draft’s “process” of evaluating underclassmen, and whether it was excuse-making for the way last year ended.
Alabama did win the SEC last year, it’s easy to forget, and is many people’s pick to do so again. But when a couple of Ohio State fans showed up at the Wynfrey to troll Alabama, it was a reminder that, as tailback Kenyan Drake put it, “the last couple years we haven’t finished exactly where we wanted to.”
The Will Muschamp factor. Seven SEC teams have new defensive coordinators, but the biggest splash was Auburn landing Muschamp, the deposed Florida coach who Gus Malzahn called “the greatest defensive mind in all of football, not just college football.” Malzahn also said Muschamp, as a former head coach, has been “a sounding board for me.”
Apparently a lot in the media are buying in. Muschamp’s addition, optimism in new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson, and faith in Malzahn’s offense equaled Auburn being the pick to win the SEC championship.
How long it will take Jim McElwain. The SEC’s only new coach was hired to figure out Florida’s long-dormant offense, but with uncertainty at quarterback and the offensive line, McElwain said this week that “it doesn’t happen just overnight.”
Florida was picked to finish fifth, the lowest it’s been picked in this poll, and few made a big deal out of it. That’s how far the Gators have to go.
When will the Bulldogs get over the hump? The SEC’s second-winningest program (after LSU) since 2001, when Mark Richt took over as coach, is still seen as underachieving because of the lack of championships. No division titles the past two years, no conference title since 2005, no national championship since 1980.
In what was either a show of faith or a set-up, Georgia was overwhelmingly picked to win the SEC East in the media vote. Apprised of that, senior linebacker Jordan Jenkins’ responded: “Now that people are saying that, it’s more pressure for us to win it … and just to finally get over that hump and win big.”
Getting back to a bowl. The Wildcats were painfully close last year, starting 5-1, before losing the rest of their games. Coach Mark Stoops has publicly marked six wins and a bowl bid as the goal for this season. That may not seem very ambitious to the rest of the SEC, but Kentucky hasn’t been to the postseason since 2010, and people are getting restless.
“I don’t want anybody to take away from our team’s improvement from a year ago,” said Stoops, entering his third year at Kentucky. “We have a long way to go. I knew what I was doing when I took this job, and I’m very optimistic about where we’re at and where we’re going.”
Leonard Fournette (and Nick Chubb). There weren’t many stars in Hoover this week (Georgia didn’t bring Chubb) but Fournette was there. And while there he doused compliments on Chubb, his fellow tailback, calling him “hands-down the best running back in the SEC.” Fournette also said he was competing against Chubb every day, even though Georgia isn’t on the schedule. It’s hard what to make of LSU, which came in third in the SEC West poll. But Fournette and Chubb figure to be compared a lot in 2015.
Everyone is overlooking Dan Mullen’s team again. The Bulldogs were picked to finish last in the SEC West even though their quarterback (Dak Prescott) was preseason first-team All-SEC. That had never happened at Media Days since 2000, as the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger pointed out.
“This is my seventh year coming here, and I think all seven years they’ve pretty much picked us to finish last in the West. It’s kind of like a tradition, I guess,” Mullen said, adding later: “I love that maybe people look past us, underestimate us, say they don’t have much of a chance this year. We kind of like that role. That fits us.”
Why are you still being overlooked? Not only have the Tigers won two consecutive East division titles, but they have the fourth-best winning percentage among SEC teams this decade, and fifth-best over the past decade. And given they have a returning quarterback, a rarity this year, why do the Tigers continue to receive little deference?
The general reaction seemed to be to shrug it off.
“We’re going to be disrespected, are going to be at the bottom of everybody’s polls, and its’s something we can’t control so we aren’t even going to worry about it,” junior quarterback Maty Mauk said.
Laremy Tunsil, and not how good the junior offensive lineman is. Tunsil wasn’t among the three players brought to Hoover, but the NCAA investigation into Tunsil’s recruitment hangs in the air. Coach Hugh Freeze didn’t say much in his first public comments about it, only that “I’m very confident … in the way we do things.”
Freeze has recruited very well at Ole Miss, and it led to a brief reign at No. 2 in the nation last year. But after wheezing to the finish, being blown out by TCU and now the Tunsil story, the Rebels should be eager for football season to arrive.
Spurrier’s end game. Spurrier was asked some form of the retirement question five times in the main room. His players were peppered with it, too.
“After the season there was some talk about it, but we always knew coach Spurrier would probably come back,” junior linebacker Skai Moore said.
Spurrier, 70, sounded convincing when he told the media: “That retirement thing, I don’t think I’d be very good at it.” But many left Hoover still thinking Spurrier’s desire to coach runs concurrent with how much winning he can do.
Is the breakthrough nigh? Tennessee’s past two coaches didn’t last till the end of their third season. Butch Jones has a chance to finish it in Atlanta, according to some. The Volunteers finished second in the SEC East media poll.
Jones responded to Spurrier’s jab — “contrary to reports, there were no backflips” — but otherwise didn’t engage in any bravado. Neither did his players, with Dobbs saying, “We have to go out and prove it.”
John Chavis. The Aggies’ win total under coach Kevin Sumlin has gone from 11 to 9 to 8, and defense can be blamed heavily for that. So Sumlin poached Chavis away from LSU, which led to a breach-of-contract suit. It also led to this quip from Sumlin when asked if he “kind of” hired Chavis away from LSU because he couldn’t beat him. “I didn’t ‘kind of.’ That’s what exactly what I did,” Sumlin said, smiling.
Fixing last year’s disaster. Derek Mason didn’t pretend that his 3-9 debut season, following consecutive nine-win seasons at Vanderbilt, was anything but a step back. He made quick coaching changes but also blamed himself: “We weren’t a very competitive football team in 2014, and that’s on me,” he said at one point Tuesday.
Mason also pointed to 22 starters coming back, by his definition. But the fact he was the only coach to bring two sophomores to media days may have been a better indicator on where the Commodores are.