Like the girl in the Zac Brown Band song, the SEC’s got whatever “it” is.
Look no farther than Hoover, Alabama, for proof.
For many southern football fans, SEC Football Media Days kick off the college football season. The event brings to mind dual pep rallies.
Upstairs at the Winfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama, the annual gathering of league coaches, selected players from each school, and hundreds of national and local media could pass for a big, corporate pep rally. Which it is of course.
Downstairs, a hotel lobby-full of fans decked out in team colors and seeking autographs, pictures, or handshakes from coaches and players is much like a college or high school pep rally. Which it is of course.
A pep rally the SEC Media days may be, but they are typically not much with regard to making news.
Coaches are exceptionally well-versed in sticking to scripted answers (although Steve Spurrier cannot help himself on occasion). Players are similarly prepared, their answers so clean and non-controversial, often seeming like young politicians training for future campaign races.
Commissioner Mike Slive is smoother and a more commanding presence than any of the politicians seeking election in this month’s primaries. He provides concise, positive information about the conference, and deftly addresses controversial topics.
While breaking news may be rare, there are legitimate questions that can be addressed at these media gatherings. Here are several I would like to see answered this week (some are on-field related, others deal with off-field topics):
1. How will individual programs and the SEC as a whole address the growing problem of agents jeopardizing the eligibility of players by offering them financial (or other) inducements?
Reggie Bush and USC may be the most notorious characters in this story right now, but with recent news of an agent hosting dozens of returning college stars at a party in south Florida, a true quagmire may be on the near horizon.
2. Are any programs close to breaking the Alabama-Florida stranglehold on the two conference divisions?
The quick answer based on preseason prognostications is an emphatic “NO.” Nick Saban at Bama and Urban Meyer with the Gators stand shoulder-to-shoulder astride the top of the league, and none of the other coaches can see above the well-polished shoetops of those two.
3. If the division crowns seem to have been conceded, how does the rest of the league stack up?
In the East, South Carolina is a perennial tease, Georgia has underachieved the past two years, Tennessee is coming off a tumultuous twenty-four months, and the Kentucky-Vandy duo is not near championship caliber (although UK is certainly closer than the Commodores). If things fall into place just right, Carolina and/or Georgia could feasibly take the title (unlikely though).
On the other side, the Crimson Tide faces stronger challengers, but even with significant personnel losses still figures to roll over the rest of the West. Arkansas must learn to play defense, LSU needs consistency under center and on the sidelines, Auburn will have a brand-new signal caller as will Ole Miss, and Mississippi State still lacks the talent to compete over the long, arduous season. A semi-educated guess would place Arkansas and LSU atop the challenger list (scheduling has something to do with that).
4. Who are the most important players in the league this season … not necessarily the best players – those most important to the success of their respective teams?
Here are four that immediately come to mind:
Aaron Murray – Quarterback Georgia. The highly touted redshirt freshman is the only new starter on offense for the Dogs. Should he play well, Georgia might provide the biggest challenge to Florida.
Stephen Garcia – Quarterback South Carolina. An enigmatic junior (who seems like he has been in Columbia a decade), Garcia needs to make plays and eliminate mistakes to give Steve Spurrier a chance at another championship. If he doesn’t the head ball coach figures to have a quick hook.
Dont’a Hightower – Linebacker Alabama. This huge (260 lb) inside linebacker earned freshman All-America honors in 2008, but missed the Tide title season with an injury. Hightower will be counted on to stabilize an Alabama defense that lost eight starters, including his predecessor as emotional leader, Rolando McClain.
Cameron Newton – Quarterback Auburn. Notice a trend here? The SEC lost a whole lot of experienced QBs. Newton is a former Florida transfer and Terrell Pryor look-alike who could pose big problems for defenses if he can master the intricate spread attack of the Tigers.
5. Although it’s only July … what games look to be the premier matchups this fall?
There are quite a few … here are five listed in predicted order of significance:
Florida at Alabama (October 2): The league’s two juggernauts square off at the Capstone. This could be the regular season game of the year … in the nation, not just the SEC.
Alabama at Arkansas (September 25): If the Hogs hope to take the West, they’ll need to stem the Tide in Fayetteville. Arkansas plays at Georgia the week before, while Bama is at Duke, but this is also the Saturday before Alabama-Florida … so it could be a trap game for Bama.
Georgia at South Carolina (September 11): These two teams should be the main challengers to Florida in the East. Losing this game will not absolutely eliminate one from the race, but will certainly damage title hopes.
Alabama at LSU (November 6): Yet another installment of the Saban-Miles saga. The animosity toward Saban has waned somewhat among Tiger faithful, but if the defending national champs roll into Baton Rouge undefeated, it will be a big time on the bayou.
Clemson at Auburn (September 18): While the game will have no bearing on the conference race, it is a nice ACC-SEC pairing and could be indicative of how much a threat both sets of Tigers will be in their respective leagues.
Note: Live at the SEC Media Days … Heisman winner Mark Ingram just finished his remarks. Nick Saban led off the afternoon session after comments from Commissioner Mike Slive. BCS head Bill Hancock spoke to media this morning.