Hoover, Ala.—Welcome to SEC Media Days and the official beginning of what Coach Steve Spurrier used to affectionately call “Talkin’ Season.”
Over the next four days 14 SEC head coaches and 42 players will run the gauntlet of about 1,000 media members at the Wynfrey Hotel. And all we’re going to do is talk….and talk….and talk…..and talk.
And that’s okay. It’s been over six months since we gathered in San Jose, Calif., to watch Clemson put a major-league beat down (44-16) on Alabama for the College Football Playoff championship. The first practices begin on July 26 and the first games will be on Aug. 24. So we have to do something to entertain ourselves until the games mercifully begin.
If we are to believe the experts--and we'll have a grand ballroom full of them this week,--Alabama and Clemson will meet yet again for the national championship on Jan. 13 in New Orleans. That would make the third time in four years these two teams have decided the title. Whether or not that’s good for the sport is a debate we’ll have all season.
We are not expecting any drama, like the time that Phillip Fulmer got subpoenaed the moment he hit the hotel, or the time that Nick Saban’s dog got out of the room and interrupted his press conference. But we do have a number of story lines to follow. Here are just five:
1—All 14 head coaches return for the 2019 season and that is rare. Will we be able to say the same in 2020? The odds say no.
A lot of people are pointing at Gus Malzahn if he goes 7-5 or worse. Well, let’s do the math: half of Auburn’s schedule is Oregon (neutral), Texas A&M (road), Florida (road), LSU (road), Georgia (home), and Alabama (home).
But Gus has an athletics director who didn’t hire him and the president (Steven Leath) who gave him a huge contract is gone, too. If the powers that be let him go Gus will have to get by with a $26 million parting gift. Amazing.
2—The graduate transfer quarterbacks and their impact: Ben Hicks (Arkansas from SMU); Nick Starkel (Arkansas from Texas A&M), Riley Neal (Vanderbilt from Ball State); Kelly Bryant (Missouri from Clemson); Tommy Stevens (Mississippi State from Penn State); Sawyer Smith (Kentucky from Troy). How many will start the first game? I say three: Hicks, Neal, and Bryant.
3—If not Alabama or Georgia then who?
We all know that Georgia and Alabama will be picked to win the East and West Divisions. Last year only 15 media people out of 286 votes picked a team other than Georgia in the East. A total 21 (out of 284) picked someone other than Alabama in the West. How lopsided will those numbers be this time?
And by the way: Last year the media picked Alabama to win the SEC championship, marking only the seventh time since the 1992 season the Fourth Estate has been right.
4—Stop me if you've heard this before: LSU Coach Ed Orgeron is bringing in Joe Brady from the Saints to open up the offense and this time he really, really means it. LSU has the talent to run any offense it wants and I like the toughness of quarterback Joe Burrow. But the issue is that if you change the offense then you have to step out of your comfort zone and run it once the game starts. Les Miles would never do it and now he’s the head coach at Kansas. Coach O knows that every day of his coaching life has to about finding a way to beat Alabama. Since beating LSU 21-0 for the 2011 national championship, Alabama has beaten the Tigers eight straight times. Only once did The Crimson Tide score less than 20 points. Alabama beat LSU 29-0 last season in Baton Rouge.
5—Georgia and Florida are the two best teams in the SEC East. But who is No. 3?
You can make the case for Missouri, which brings in Clemson transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant and has a very manageable schedule, playing Ole Miss and Arkansas from the SEC West.
Tennessee had a couple of moments (beating Kentucky and Auburn) last season but that roster still needs a lot of work. But I will say this: QB Jarrett Guarantano is going to improve even more under new OC Jim Chaney.
Kentucky went 10-3 last season but loses 16 seniors and arguably the school’s two best-ever players at their position in RB Benny Snell and DE Josh Allen. Coach Mark Stoops doesn’t want to hear anything about a drop-off.
From a depth standpoint this will the best team Will Muschamp has had in his four seasons at South Carolina. But they have to get better at running the ball (12th SEC), stopping the run (13th SEC) and QB Jake Bentley has to protect the football (14 INT last season) better. And did we mention that the schedule includes:
No. 1 Alabama
No. 2 Clemson
No. 4 Georgia
No. 10 Florida
No. 17 Texas A&M
Vanderbilt has some of the best skill people in the SEC in RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, WR Kalija Lipscomb, and TE Jared Pinkney. But the SEC East is improving once more and it’s hard to see many conference wins for the 'Dores.