This year finds the SEC taking the next step in its evolution. The old guard have retired, been fired, or have left for greener pastures. Last season saw that to great effect, as nearly half of the faces at SECMD18 were new ones. This year there was no turnover at head coach, but that doesn’t mean the Winfrey is going to be staffed with old hands either.
Nick Saban is the dean of the conference, now entering his 13th campaign (wow, already?) And Dan Mullen at Florida is now attending his 11th consecutive SEC Media Days, albeit at two schools. After that, the SEC veterans are slim: Malzahn 7 years (AU,) Mark Stoops 6 years (UK), Derek Mason 5 years (VU) — even fudging a bit with Will Muschamp in his 6th season. Even Kirby Smart and Barry Odom can be considered veterans, now in their 4th year at UGA and Mizzou, respectively. But everyone else is in their second- or third-year. And many of these guys find themselves with serious questions already.
So, here are some things to keep an eye on this week:
- The Montgomery press has never been Gus Malzahn’s biggest cheerleader. And, with no playoff appearances, a bad draft showing, average recruiting results, the annual exodus of players exiting the program, and no SEC title since 2013, that relationship is likely to be considerably more strained. Is this the last year for the Gus Bus? At $7 million per year, Auburn thinks it deserves more (which is true), and that it should be a larger national player (which is not true.)
- Gus is just the most obvious name on this list, but it’s not exactly like Barry Odom (Missouri) and Derek Mason (VU) are safe. Vanderbilt has been especially disappointing.
Probably safe, but there are tough questions incoming
- When last we saw Kirby Smart, his Georgia Bulldogs were imploding Atlanta, no-showing in the Sugar Bowl, having shade thrown at them by recruits, and facing a racially-charged, well-publicized transfer of yet-another No. 1 QB. Don’t think for a second that he’s getting softballs this week, particularly about getting over that Elephant-sized hump.
- Nick Saban isn’t immune from a hot panel either. Saban will almost certainly face questions about the team’s attitude down the stretch last season and coaching staff turnover — particularly in relation to recruiting and the exiting staff. Not that he’s apt to answer them, but see how much he gives away about the change in scheme and coordinators for 2019. Clemson will come up...and keep coming up...and keep coming up. And, of course, there’s the Finebaum troll job that is almost certain to happen on Wednesday.
- Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks were enigmatically lifeless about half of the season, and particularly looked crappy in the Belk Bowl. Despite that, Boom got an extension until 2024, and a raise to $5.4 million. Yet, there is absolutely no buzz around this program, and there are few gamechangers on the roster. How can he sell this program — and for how long?
- If you think the questions Kirby has to answer are tough, and the Alabama Issue a pressing one, double the intensity of those for Ed Orgeron — LSU hasn’t even made it to Atlanta since 2011. And there’s another recruiting cycle marked by losing in-state talent to Alabama; another faceplant against the Tide at home; throwing his players under the bus; another season of inconsistent play. Why is this year going to be different? Caveat Emptor, Tigers. Caveat Emptor.
- Joe Moorhead wasted a national title-level defense, a Senior QB and veteran group of skills players, and a favorable home slate last season. And, when I say “waste,” I mean it in every sense of the word. That team had no business finishing .500 in the SEC, 4th in west, and going a pedestrian 8-5. Did we mention Alabama took two of his better coaches and are targeting some key MSU leans? This could be a long day for Joe.
- Last season, Mark Stoops entered SEC Media Days with as much scrutiny as anyone. Then there was the special season marked by some nice upsets, and the play of the nation’s best edge rusher and one of its most dynamic running backs. Even then, Georgia showed the chasm between No. 1 and No. 2 is vast, vast. Why should be believe Kentucky has turned the corner into a consistent contender, rather than a mediocre program clawing its way to bowl eligibility, especially with the loss of Benny and Allen?
- Admins aren’t escaping some tough ones either. Likely every coach, and certainly Greg Sankey, is going to be peppered with questions about the maddening NCAA transfer policy. So too will there be tons of questions about rule changes, and the inconsistent application of existing ones: Don’t think that NOLA.com is not ready to tear into Roger Redding about Devin White when given the chance. Declining attendance, TV deal restructuring, bowl alignments are all fair game as well. Then, there’s the uncertainty about NLI rights, pay-for-play, and a myriad of other issues winding their way through the grist mill of the legal system.
Hope springs eternal
- You can probably skip Texas A&M, Arkansas, and maybe even Tennessee — all enter this season with some buzz, and in the case of A&M, quite a lot of it. These will be kumbaya fests.
- Florida: who knows?! Really, who knows. The Gators should be much better in Year Two under Mullen, but so many of those veteran defenders are gone and UF lost some key battles off the field vs. Georgia. But, there is reason for optimism this year too. If ever the Bulldogs were vulnerable, it’s now.
- Not that there’s much hope in Oxford, but watching Matt Luke bumble around for 45 minutes should be fun.
Okay, here’s your open thread for the day. Feel free to tell us what you’re keeping an eye out for, what surprises may be in store, and otherwise cheer the unofficial Beginning of the End of the Offseason.