Nothing heralds the drama of Southeastern Conference (SEC) football like the melodrama of SEC Media Days.
You can argue the conference with seven straight national champions is overrated, but the personalities arriving here this week are certainly not. And the storylines only seem to grow in this group, right along with the number of National Football League (NFL) draft picks. Even the non-elite teams have intrigue this summer. So while most media days are horrendously banal (looking at you, Super Bowl), this reunion will surely rate at least 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and five out of five sharknados. This is must-see SEC.
How can we be sure something interesting will come out of three days where zero downs will be played, every team will emerge undefeated, and no coaches will be fired (we think)? This year there is a Heisman winner who is arguably more controversial than Tebow waiting for (or maybe dreading) his moment before 1,200 members of the press. (Tebow, by the way, was ushered into a back door here – as if he was a member of One Direction. No word on whether Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel will arrive in similar “style”)
Remember the last time we saw SEC football: in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) game. The most memorable moments of that affair were not only the spectacle of the Crimson Tide’s punishing run game, but also the buzz over quarterback A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend and (perhaps even more exciting) the near-scuffle that broke out between McCarron and beloved center Barrett Jones.
So yes, the football here in the South is unrivaled (though watch out for Stanford and Ohio State), but it’s hard to beat the plot lines. And incredibly, just about every single SEC team has burning questions to address – not all of them pleasant ones.
The most anticipation surrounds not the defending national champions, but a team that wasn’t even in the SEC two years ago: Texas A&M. Specifically, its quarterback. “Johnny Football” has an ironic nickname now that his reputation has less to do with football than it should. Just Monday he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor from a 2012 bar fight that nearly got him suspended for his Heisman-winning freshman season. That came a day after his father explained to a Texas paper that “dehydration” was a factor in his early exit from the much-respected Manning Passing Academy over the weekend. Now, pretty much every college student has suffered from “dehydration,” just like every college student has gone to a casino, or professed his desire to leave campus after a late night that didn’t go so well. Manziel, however, is the face of his school and arguably, because of his Heisman, the face of the college game. Should the standards be higher for him? That’s something he might have to answer this week. And keep in mind, Manziel was shielded from the media last season.
You can argue the defending Heisman winner isn’t even the most exciting player in the conference. Jadeveon Clowney was last seen in uniform in Tampa, nearly decapitating Michigan running back Vincent Smith. That was a signature play from a signature player, and it pushed calls for him to be allowed to turn pro right away. Instead, Clowney will be here this week to start his candidacy to become the first ever defense-only Heisman Trophy winner. Personality is certainly part of the campaign, so Clowney will be reintroduced as more than just an incredible talent. It will be interesting to see if he’s asked about college football’s new hitting rules, and whether he’s concerned highlight-reel sacks could result in ejections. That might also be a question for the most quip-happy coach in conference history: Steve Spurrier. It’s hard to find a stage like this where the Ol’ Ball Coach has failed to deliver some withering blow to a rival, whether Phil Fulmer or Nick Saban or Mark Richt. This year, however, he can do more than just talk; the Gamecocks are a threat to contend for the conference and (therefore) the national title. Spurrier has a statue in Gainesville, but turning historically dormant South Carolina into a conference champion would arguably be his most impressive accomplishment yet.
The man who now works only steps away from Spurrier’s statue is Will Muschamp. His program has had a rough few weeks, not at all because of any current players, but because of the Aaron Hernandez fiasco. Just a week and a half ago, the school put out a statement expressing shock that a former student might have been involved in a fatal shooting. Muschamp never coached Hernandez, but the Gators have drawn plenty of headlines lately because of the legacy of former coach Urban Meyer, who won two national titles but saw 40 players get arrested. Muschamp has worked hard to change the culture left by Meyer, and he’s got plenty to be proud of coming off a one-loss regular season, but he might be asked to talk about the past. And if he doesn’t want to talk about the distant past, he could be asked about the recent past: his defense got shredded in January by Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville.
Florida’s other defeat (and surely the one that irks Muschamp most) came in a turnover-filled mess at the hands of Georgia, which can make a case as the national runner-up after playing Alabama to the wire in the SEC title game and then watching on TV as Notre Dame got boat-raced to end the season. Is this the year for Richt? Georgia is oddly both a national title contender and on upset alert, as they return to Atlanta to face Clemson in the season opener.
Speaking of Atlanta, Crimson Tide fans are surely counting on yet another trip there in December for yet another SEC title game. (How many, one wonders, have gone and bought a place there?) Pride goeth before a fall, yet Tide Pride seems to goeth before more wins. Alabama is favored by roughly six touchdowns in every game this season (save LSU and Texas A&M). So what’s the drama? Well, coach Nick Saban is being compared more and more to the mighty Bear Bryant. Is he better than Bear? Can he win 10 titles? In a row? You think this idea is preposterous. It’s not. It’s Alabama. And watching Saban get annoyed with the media is never as dull as his answers.
The Tide’s biggest West rival has a coach who is never dull: Les Miles. While Saban delights the locals and annoys haters, The Hatter does just the opposite. He’s beloved nationally for his curious phrases and more curious play-calling, while a lot of fans in Baton Rouge have had enough of watching great defensive efforts fall just short. Les will enchant this week, as always, but the more interesting Tiger might be Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback who tends to overthrow in crucial situations but has the talent and experience to match McCarron. Keep in mind: Mettenberger nearly beat Alabama last year.
SEC skeptics always point to the conference’s also-rans as proof that the group as a whole is overrated. Maybe so. But the interest level among the so-called non-elite is stronger than ever this year. Bret Bielema left perennial Big Ten contender Wisconsin to try to put out the tire fire left at Arkansas by Bobby Petrino. Unlike John L. Smith, who presided over the Razorbacks last year, Bielema will not be a stranger to verbal engagement. He’ll ruffle feathers as soon as this week, probably at the expense of some of his former Midwestern opponents.
Feathers are certainly ruffled in Mississippi, as the Rebels and Bulldogs are both playing for more than the Egg Bowl this year. Hugh Freeze won a bowl game and then brought in an incredible recruiting class, raising hopes in Oxford and skepticism everywhere else. Dan Mullen has been rebuilding in Starkville for a few years now. Both programs are going places for the first time in a while. It would be fun to hear them spar with each other here.
The other evolving in-state feud is directly to the north, in Tennessee. It’s hard to imagine saying that, considering Tennessee won a national title as recently as 1998 and Vanderbilt has historically won little more than praise for raising the conference’s academic ranking. Now James Franklin has not only a budding power on his hands, he also has a budding scandal: four players were kicked off the team amid a sex crimes investigation. Franklin has a sterling reputation and a lot of charisma, but the Commodores’ feel-good revival story now has a disturbing wrinkle. There’s no such controversy in Knoxville, but Vols fans are surely wondering whether Butch Jones will do any better than Derek Dooley. The man is upbeat and excitable, but colorful isn’t enough. (Just ask Dooley’s pants.) A surprising report about Tennessee’s shaky finances came out during the offseason, and now the days of Peyton Manning and Al Wilson seem eons away. Jones has to make a good impression immediately.
So does Gus Malzahn. He has his own reputation at Auburn working for him, and he’ll bring offensive excitement back, but Cam Newton is not walking through that door. We all know how impatient Tigers fans are.
That leaves Kentucky and Missouri, which are unlikely to make big headlines this week. Perhaps those teams will surprise some people in the fall: Mark Stoops is recruiting well and Gary Pinkel could come into conference play undefeated.
For now, the conference will have to get by with some of the biggest coaching egos in college football. If they can’t provide the entertainment during the 14-ring circus that is the SEC Media Days, rest assured Johnny Drama will deliver.
This article is reprinted here with the written permission of Yahoo!