HOOVER, Ala. – Fourteen head coaches and 42 players passed through the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham over the past three days during the 2013 SEC Media Days.
A record 1,239 credentialed media attended this year and the spotlight on the SEC is bigger and brighter than ever before with the SEC winning seven straight national titles.
Be sure to check out all of Nooga.com's coverage from the week:
• Preseason picks and All-SEC Teams announced (here)
• Tennessee hopes its grueling summer program will help it become a better second-half team (here)
• Evaluating South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's chances at the Heisman (here)
• Why Tennessee's seniors are helping Butch Jones on the recruiting trail (here)
Here are some thoughts and reflections on all 14 teams after their appearances in Birmingham:
ALABAMA: Nick Saban gave his usual no-nonsense remarks, pointing out that even though the media picked Alabama to win the SEC again, it has only been correct four of the last 21 years. He said he would be out of a job if he only won four out of his last 17 games. Among the other topics for Saban were replacing nine players who were drafted, SEC scheduling and his stance on hurry-up offenses. The most elaborate hat of the week belonged to this Alabama fan.
ARKANSAS: New head coach Bret Bielema was entertaining and somewhat abrasive when he defended his statement that hurry-up offenses are a health risk to players because they cause fatigue and increase the total number of snaps they must play. He was adamant that Arkansas will play what he termed “normal, American football” that uses a more traditional pace and a fullback and tight end. Among his three player representatives were a center and fullback, so he obviously views them important in the offense he brings to Fayetteville from Wisconsin.
AUBURN: New head coach Gus Malzahn was one of the most outspoken critics of Bielema’s theory on hurry-up offense, calling it a “joke.” The former Auburn offensive coordinator and head coach at Arkansas State returns to The Plains this year as the head coach. The players seem confident in his offensive scheme, but finding a quarterback and fixing a defense that was one of the worst in the nation last year remain two of the toughest tasks Malzahn and his staff must work on in Year 1.
FLORIDA: The Gators were trending upward after a strong start to Year 2 of the Muschamp era, but a 33-23 loss to underdog Louisville in the Sugar Bowl made some question their progress. Players admitted that their focus and preparation wasn’t what it should’ve been for that game and they vowed for that to improve in 2013. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley had one of the biggest goofs of the weeks when he admitted he had never heard of legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant.
GEORGIA: Mark Richt was fairly straight-laced and spent a lot of his time complimenting his offense, which returns virtually every major contributor from 2012. Questions remain about the defense, though, after seven starters from last year were drafted. Richt was asked about South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney saying that quarterback Aaron Murray is scared of him. Richt responded by saying he would be scared of Clowney on the field and that he thinks the players should be able to have fun with comments like that.
KENTUCKY: New coach Mark Stoops has the biggest rebuilding job in the SEC. He seems to understand that. “We understand there’s a lot of hard work that lies ahead, but we're embracing that process,” he said. Finding a quarterback among the trio of Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow is one of the first tasks. Stoops said there will be open competition there this spring. Stoops has, however, shown great progress on the recruiting trail thus far. The Wildcats currently have a top-five recruiting class, according to most recruiting services.
LSU: As always, head coach Les Miles entertained the media with plenty of funny comments and good anecdotes. He spoke in an Australian accent, mentioned the Harlem Shake and talked at length about social media and his policies involving it for his players, saying that banning it would be like banning a car in favor of a horse and buggy. Scheduling was Miles’ biggest point of contention. The Tigers must play Georgia and Florida as their SEC East opponents, while Alabama plays Kentucky and Tennessee – teams with a combined one SEC win from last year. Miles also confirmed that running back Jeremy Hill, who was arrested in late April, remains indefinitely suspended.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: There was a quiet sense of urgency from coach Dan Mullen, who led MSU to a 7-0 start last year, but then lost five of his last six, including a 41-24 loss to rival Ole Miss to end the season. The Bulldogs were picked sixth in the SEC West this year despite returning star quarterback Tyler Russell. With Ole Miss off to a good start on the field and in recruiting under Hugh Freeze, 2013 will be a big year for Mullen to prove the Bulldogs can be relevant in the SEC.
MISSOURI: Gary Pinkel might be under the most pressure of any SEC coach heading into 2013. Missouri was 48-19 in its previous five seasons in the Big 12, but the Tigers were 5-7 in their first season in the SEC. Pinkel hopes that a healthier squad will lead to better results next year. Quarterback James Franklin is back after missing significant chunks of 2012 with injuries and running back Henry Josey is hoping to play after missing all of 2012 with a knee injury.
OLE MISS: Hugh Freeze has come a long way since last year’s Media Days. He was a little-known new coach last year, but after a strong year on the recruiting trail and a 7-6 campaign with a bowl win, he’s one of the hottest coaches in the SEC. He’s hoping to build on that success in 2013. Quarterback Bo Wallace returns along with star receiver Donte Moncrief, but Ole Miss does have a brutal schedule that includes a stretch of four out of five games against Texas, Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU. Linebacker Mike Marry had one of the most interesting fashion statements of the week with his pink suit.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Steve Spurrier was as entertaining as star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was popular with the media. Spurrier made a push for SEC football and basketball players receiving expense stipends of around $300 per game to help with things such as families travelling to the game. Clowney complimented UT tackle Tiny Richardson, calling him one of the best he’s gone against, but he also said he is guilty of frequently holding. Clowney also said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd both “fear him.”
TENNESSEE: Jacques Smith showed up in a sharp-looking orange blazer and Butch Jones was impressive in his first SEC Media Days appearance. Jones didn’t supply any memorable quotes or moments, but he did stay on message and talked a lot about his plan to rebuild Tennessee and the success he’s had at Central Michigan and Cincinnati in the past. Smith, Richardson and James spoke glowingly of their new coach, saying they would run through a wall for him and saying there’s a new focus and attitude in Knoxville. That will be tested quickly with Oregon, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia on the schedule.
TEXAS A&M: Johnny Manziel, better known as Johnny Football, was the most popular person in Birmingham this week. The reigning Heisman winner had a throng of reporters following him to every room and he could barely be seen thanks to the crowd of writers and photographers that surrounded him. Most of the questions centered around his recent trip to the Manning Passing Academy, where he left early. Manziel called it a mutual decision between he and the camp directors and declined to comment further on rumors that he had been out partying the night before he was late to drills the next morning.
VANDERBILT: Franklin wasn’t able to comment on four players who were recently dismissed from the program amid a sex crimes investigation despite multiple questions about it. He did focus on the recent success Vandy has seen on the field, including two bowl appearances in three years and the most wins (9) last season since 1915. Franklin pointed out that Vanderbilt and Notre Dame were the only two programs in the “20-20-20” club last year – top 20 in football, academics and recruiting.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga