The circus is back in town … in Hoover, Alabama, of course. The SEC Media Days return after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there will be plenty to talk about over the four-day event at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham — The Wynfrey Hotel.
Alabama will look to defend its national title this season, while Georgia has all eyes on dethroning the king, LSU has as much upside as any team in the country, Florida is facing a bit of a rebuild offensively, and four new coaches will make the rounds during the event.
What should you expect from this year’s event? Let’s break down some of the biggest talking points that are sure to dominate the highest-profile event of “talkin’ season.”
Alabama’s offensive holes
The Crimson Tide have earned the benefit of the doubt of replacing stars with stars during the Nick Saban era, but this year is a bit different. They lose the a Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver in DeVonta Smith, a Heisman Trophy finalist in quarterback Mac Jones, the Rimington Trophy winner at center in Landon Dickerson, the Outland Trophy winner at left tackle in Alex Leatherwood, the Broyles Award winner in offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and the best Swiss Army Knife in college football in wide receiver/kick returner Jaylen Waddle.
Whew, I’m tired just typing all of that out.
Sure, sophomore quarterback Bryce Young has as much talent as any signal-caller to roll through Tuscaloosa, and wide receiver John Metchie III got plenty of run last year (especially when Waddle got injured). Bill O’Brien is an accomplished play-caller at the pro and college levels, and there’s enough talent on the roster to create a medium-sized village.
That makes it extremely likely that coach Nick Saban will be able to fill those holes relatively quickly. With that said, this is a much tougher task than it has been in year’s past. Expect the majority of the on-the-field questions about the Tide to focus on that side of the ball.
Is this, finally, Georgia’s year?
No, seriously. Those words have been prevalent in Dawg Nation since 1980, which is the last time the red and black won it all. The Bulldogs have all of the ingredients to eradicate those four words this year: quarterback JT Daniels, one of the strongest running back rooms in the country, and a filthy defense and top-to-bottom roster talent that is comparable to the sport’s juggernauts.
What’s more, the wave of draft-eligible players who chose to return to Athens, Georgia, with the hashtag #unfinishedbusiness makes this team feel a lot like Clemson in 2018 when the entire defensive line returned instead of going pro.
The window in the SEC East is wide open given Florida’s talent departures on offense and recent struggles defensively. Considering Alabama’s question marks, the conference as a whole should be fighting to get on Georgia’s level rather than the other way around.
For that to happen, though, coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken have to show that they can work together and produce the kind of offense that it showed during the final month-plus of the season when it averaged more than 6 yards per play. Georgia is no stranger to offseason hype, and this year is no different. But this year’s hype is comparable to 2008 when it started the season ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Where have the quarterbacks gone?
The conference is lacking in star power under center — at least compared to other years. Outside of Daniels and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, how many others do you truly trust? Bo Nix hasn’t lived up to the recruiting hype at Auburn, Myles Brennan and Max Johnson both have small sample sizes at LSU, Connor Bazelak is still developing at Missouri, and there is a major absence of true stars around the rest of the conference.
Sure, there are plenty of potential stars including Young, Emory Jones at Florida, Texas A&M’s Haynes King or Zach Calzada, and many more. Jones, in particular, has received an inordinate amount of NFL Draft love to the point that he has been mentioned as a top 10 pick in early 2022 mock drafts. But there’s a difference between “potential” and “established.” Quarterbacks are always hot topics of conversation during “talkin’ season,” and that will be on display in Hoover this week.
Florida QB Emory Jones
Put up or shut up time for LSU
LSU put together one of the best college football seasons of all time two years ago when it ran the table and demolished Clemson to win the 2019 national title. Coach Ed Orgeron and the Tigers followed that up with the most disappointing title defense since Auburn in 2011. Which way will the Tigers go from here?
The quarterback battle is extremely healthy between Johnson and Brennan, Kayson Boutte is the best healthy receiver in the SEC, the running back and offensive line rooms are two of the most experienced in the nation, the defense is loaded with talent, and former defensive coordinator Bo Pelini no longer is employed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All good things.
But the offseason drama that engulfed the entire athletic department has shed a negative spotlight on the entire school, which has put a ton of pressure on Orgeron to not only clean up play on the field but ensure that there aren’t any more scandals that could further derail a program that has the potential to be a freight train.
Watching how Orgeron, defensive back Derek Stingley Jr. and offensive lineman Austin Deculus handle a wide-ranging series of questions throughout their appearance will be fascinating.
New faces in familiar places
The pandemic has further limited access that fans and media have to programs which has created a sense of mystery surrounding Auburn, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and South Carolina and their respective new coaches Bryan Harsin, Josh Heupel, Clark Lea and Shane Beamer. Now’s the time to change that.
We have seen coaches market themselves and their programs in big ways in the halls of The Wynfrey. Ex-Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason once brought gold-plated business cards, Dan Mullen has rocked expensive footwear while at Mississippi State and Florida, and who could forget the time when interim Vandy coach Robbie Caldwell discussed not-safe-for-work stories about working on turkey farms as a kid? If you don’t know what that means, look it up. It was … interesting.
Harsin has a particularly daunting challenge considering he’s replacing Gus Malzahn, who beat Nick Saban three times, won two SEC West titles and came within 13 seconds of winning a national title during his eight-year stint on the Plains. Harsin is a bit of an outsider to SEC country and can use this opportunity to put a stamp on his vision of this program.
Heupel was great as a coordinator and head coach at UCF, but now he has taken over a championship-starved program that has been the most dysfunctional program in the country for more than a decade. The Volunteers also got decimated by the transfer portal, so now’s the time for Heupel to explain the plan on Rocky Top.
Name, image and likeness
Expect the new NIL legislation, specifically the deals that many players already have in place, to be a hot topic during all four days of the SEC circus. That shouldn’t be a surprise since it has dominated the headlines for the entire month of July, but this will be the first time that coaches will be asked to dig into their true feelings on the matter.
Spoiler: They’ll say that they love the chance for the players to benefit from their work on the field. Is that their true feeling, though? We’ll never know. But coaches have more to worry about off the field than they ever have before. That’s what you call a “rich man’s problem,” and head coaches are some of the richest men in the sport.
Vaccines are available, stadiums will be open to 100% capacity and it seems like it’s all systems are “go” for a normal college football season. How normal will it be, though? There have been athletic events canceled because of positive COVID-19 test this week, including Thursday’s Yankees-Red Sox game.
What will be the SEC’s stance on teams falling below the personnel threshold that was in place last year? Will there be forfeits instead of postponements if teams don’t meet certain vaccination thresholds? How are teams going to handle the push for mass vaccination within entire fan bases?
There will be plenty to talk about on the COVID front. But hey, at least we are at a point where we are discussing how “normal” the football season will look rather than if there will be one at all.