SEC Media Days 2014 Opens with Uncertainty Over the Conference

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SEC media days open today in Hoover, Alabama, and the biggest questions hanging over college football’s flagship conference have nothing to do with carriers for its new network.

Rest assured, no shortage of written words and airtime over the next week will be devoted to the forthcoming SEC Network–perhaps at the expense of the conference’s on-field product. The story lines that will play out on Saturdays this fall are of paramount intrigue.

The 2014 season brings a new era. There’s the most obvious subplot with the inaugural College Football Playoff, a system that has drawn both exuberance and hand-wringing from those in SEC Country. These conflicting attitudes on the SEC’s standing within the Playoff landscape nicely crystallize the extremes, but I digress.

SEC pessimists need not fret; landing two teams in the College Football Playoff may not be a guarantee, but almost nothing short of an executive order from the White House will keep the conference shut out of the championship.

Less certain is the road from the Southeastern Conference to Arlington, Texas, and Jerry World. Point A in this half-year trek is Hoover and SEC media days, where the outlook is decidedly murkier than a year ago. And given Auburn and Missouri teams coming off 3-9 and 5-7 finishes represented the SEC’s divisions in last December’s championship game, that’s saying something.

This isn’t just a new era for college football: it’s a new era for the SEC. That’s abundantly clear from SEC media days, which a year ago offered star power from the likes of Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney, Aaron Murray and A.J. McCarron. The individual names are not as celebrated as they were a year ago, but that should make for an even more interesting season.

The conference is perhaps deeper, with more contenders able to contend in 2014. For programs like Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas, expectations will likely be tempered from the outset of a new season. But for the rest of the SEC, 2014 is wide open.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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Consensus among national media is that Alabama is a leading contender for the Playoff, because of course. Since Nick Saban became head coach in 2007, the Tide have gone consecutive seasons without national championships: Saban’s first two years. A half-decade of dominating the recruiting scene has Alabama stocked to make a run at its fourth title in six seasons.

And yet, Alabama transitions into the 2014 season on an un-Alabama-like losing streak. Gone is three-year starting quarterback A.J. McCarron, and so too is offensive Doug Nussmeier. Saban responds with the additions of Florida State transfer Jacob Coker and ousted USC head coach Lane Kiffin.

There’s uncertainty with both. Coker offers plenty of promise, albeit untapped. The question then becomes is Kiffin the coach to unlock that potential? Kiffin was maligned at USC for his play-calling.

Auburn Tigers

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Gus Malzahn’s remarkable one-year turnaround came literally seconds away from yielding a national championship. What can the Auburn head coach possibly do for an encore, short of making good on the final seconds of January’s BCS Championship Game?

Another run at the SEC championship would certainly be a crowd-pleasing follow-up, but navigating through the Tigers’ treacherous might require Malzahn pulling an ace from his sleeve.

Returning quarterback Nick Marshall is a nice building block, but a citation just before SEC media days casts a cloud on Malzahn’s first two-year starter since he became a college coach in 2006.

Florida Gators

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Florida is garnering some preseason buzz as a possible sleeper in the SEC East. With a bevy of talent and the Florida name, it’s understandable pundits would throw their confidence behind the Gators.

But the arrival of Kurt Roper from Duke gives Florida its fourth offensive coordinator since 2010, which matches the Gators’ win-total from 2013. Roper helped turn Duke’s offense into one of the most prolific in the nation, a minor miracle given the Blue Devils’ state for years, and Roper will need to conjure up some more sorcery.

From Steve Addazio in 2010, to Charlie Weis in 2011, to Brent Pease in 2012 and 2013, Florida has a long run of anemic offense. Jeff Driskel came to Gainesville with 5-star billing, but has just one more chance to live up to the hype–and Will Muschamp may have just one more season to remain the Gators head coach.

Georgia Bulldogs

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Mark Richt is among the most consistent head coaches in college football, and has been for more than a decade. That’s both a blessing a curse, because while the Bulldogs typically avoid the valleys of losing, the peaks of championships elude them.

New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brings national championship credentials from his time at Alabama and Florida State. An Athlon feature dubs Pruitt “the anointed savoir” of Georgia’s own title hopes. If he can help Richt and the Bulldogs win their first SEC title since 2005, and play for the program’s first national title in more than three decades, Pruitt will have lived up to that billing.

An outstanding front seven, including one of the nation’s best linebacker corps, offers a strong foundation. The secondary, however, is littered with question marks.

LSU Tigers

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On paper, the 2014 LSU Tigers look like dynamite national championship contenders for 2015. The last LSU team that opened the year with a look of a squad one year away ran the table in the regular and claimed Miles’ second SEC championship.

However, the 2011 Tigers were a veritable retirement home in comparison to this kiddie corps. Freshman running back Leonard Fournette is hyped to the moon before ever playing a down, but the ground game is rarely an issue at LSU. Uncertainty at quarterback and a revamped defense make this an all-new LSU team.

Ole Miss Rebels

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Ole Miss’ roster is rife with young talent, including 2013 No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche and arguably the most talented wide receiver in the SEC, Laquon Treadwell. There’s no question Hugh Freeze changed the culture at Ole Miss in short order, and the Rebels are getting closer to challenging the conference’s elite.

Ole Miss should crack the preseason Top 25, but faces an immediate test against Boise State. A win against the Broncos in Atlanta positions the Rebels for an unbeaten start heading into the Oct. 4 home date with Alabama. A perfect mark with the Crimson Tide coming to town would almost assuredly bring College Gameday to The Grove for the first time, but are the Rebels capable of making another bit of history?

Mississippi State Bulldogs

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Mississippi State preserved its bowl streak under head coach Dan Mullen and extended it to four years, an impressive run given the history of Bulldogs. And yet, Mullen enters his fifth season with some of the more vocal critics in the SEC.

The only way to silence the detractors is to beat a few of the SEC West heavyweights, something Mullen’s been unable to accomplish in his first four seasons. Mississippi State had Auburn dead-to-rights in Week 3, only to see it slip away in the waning moments.

The Bulldogs get Auburn at home this year, as well as Texas A&M. Pull off those wins, check off the games on the schedule that should be victories, and the Egg Bowl could realistically be for 10 wins. That would be a remarkable accomplishment both for Mullen, and the perennially downtrodden Mississippi State program.

With a talented defense and intriguing quarterback Dak Prescott, the uncertainty for Mississippi State at SEC media days is of a much more positive variety.

Missouri Tigers

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A Cinderella run in the NCAA tournament typically lasts a weekend, sometimes two. Missouri’s 2013 Cinderella season extended through 14 games, culminating in a rollicking Cotton Bowl win.

The surprise SEC East champions boasted the conference Defensive Player of the Year in Michael Sam, marking a significant departure from the season before when the Tigers were mocked for their inability to play the conference’s “old man football.”

Sam is gone, and quarterback James Franklin officially hands the reins to Maty Mauk. Despite his performance in place of an injured Franklin, the opinion on Mauk seems to be luke-warm. Gary Pinkel-coached teams have produced a number of standout quarterbacks, from Chase Daniel to Blaine Gabbert to Franklin. Mauk is capable of becoming the next.

Replacing Sam is another story. He’s one of seven starters gone from last year’s defense.

South Carolina Gamecocks

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Steve Spurrier is headed to the College Football Hall of Fame upon his retirement. Before he walks away from an illustrious career, Spurrier would undoubtedly love to add another SEC championship to his trophy case.

This season might be his best shot based solely on the returning talent.

The Gamecocks have teetered on the edge of SEC championship contention, winning 11 games for three straight seasons. Every year, something trips them up. An opening stretch that includes Texas A&M and Georgia will test South Carolina’s championship mettle early, but last year’s loss at Tennessee proves the Gamecocks cannot take any game for granted.

Is this the year Spurrier writes another historic chapter in his legacy?

Texas A&M Aggies

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All eyes at SEC media days 2013 were firmly fixed on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. The Aggies won’t be the center of attention at this week’s edition of the preseason event, but their quarterback situation is no less fascinating.

Kevin Sumlin’s a proven quarterback guru with Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Manziel as pupils. The next Sumlin student has a high bar to meet, but will be put in position to thrive.

Unless that quarterback is also a ball-hawking defensive back or run-stuffing defensive tackle, however, he’ll be hard pressed to have the Aggies in the SEC West hunt.