Football season might still be six weeks away, but Talkin’ Season is back.
The SEC’s annual football media days begin Monday in Hoover, Ala., and kick off what former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier affectionately (we think) called “talkin’ season.” The head coach and three players from each school will appear during the four-day event, with South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, Marquavius Lewis, Deebo Samuel and Mason Zandi appearing on Thursday.
Here’s a quick primer on the question each coach is likely to be asked most often, and how they’re most likely to answer.
Nick Saban, Alabama
“Who’s your quarterback?”
One of the most remarkable things about the Crimson Tide’s run of four national championships in the last seven seasons is they’ve used so many unremarkable quarterbacks along the way. Alabama beat Clemson in the national title game last year with Jake Coker under center. Coker wasn’t selected in the NFL Draft and signed a free agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Now, Saban has to choose between Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman, Jalen Hurts and David Cornwell. It’s doubtful Saban will shed much light on the competition this week.
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
“How was Ciara’s wedding?”
There isn’t anything obviously compelling about Bielema’s team this year, but that won’t matter when he takes the stage. Bielema has inherited the title of “SEC’s Most Interesting Head Coach” following Spurrier’s resignation, as highlighted by the photo he tweeted last week of himself at the wedding of his former quarterback Russell Wilson and pop icon Ciara. Bielema won’t let the spotlight pass without saying something that will make headlines.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
“Are you on the hot seat?”
Malzahn was the offensive coordinator on the 2010 national title team at Auburn. He led the Tigers to the 2013 national title game in his first year as coach, but his last two seasons (6-10 in conference play) have been letdowns. Things have gotten so sticky in Auburn that Tigers athletics director Jay Jacobs had to give Malzahn a vote of confidence at the SEC’s spring meetings in June. That’s never a good sign for a coach, especially one whose vaunted offense finished 10th in the SEC last year.
Jim McElwain, Florida
“Are you really the defending East champs?”
The Gators are quietly coming into the season as the reigning division champion. That’s a pretty impressive feat considering Treon Harris was Florida’s leading passer last year. Although McElwain has an offensive background, his first year with the Gators was paced by the defense, which finished fourth in the league in points allowed (18.3 per game). McElwain could name Luke Del Rio his new starting quarterback this week, but smart money says he’ll put off that decision until camp.
Kirby Smart, Georgia
“When are you going to win a national title?”
Mark Richt did almost everything other than that in his 15 seasons at Georgia, but Richt was fired after the 2015 season because being really good for a long time was not good enough for the Bulldogs’ fans and administration. Smart, a former Georgia player and longtime Alabama assistant coach, came to town talking about putting the Bulldogs back on the map. That’s tough talk, and now he has to back it up with two dinged up running backs – Nick Chubb, coming from knee surgery, and Sony Michel, who will miss time with a broken arm.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
“Can Drew Barker save the day?”
The Wildcats recruited Barker, the top in-state quarterback prospect at the time, away from a strong push by South Carolina in part by selling him on the fact he could be the hero for the hometown team. Now’s his time, and the hometown team needs some help. Barker takes over the starting job this season as the pressure starts to rise on Stoops, who is 12-24 in three seasons at Kentucky.
Les Miles, LSU
“So you’re back, huh?”
Miles has a national championship and has won at least eight games in each of his 11 seasons in Baton Rouge, but the Tigers have taken a definite back seat to Alabama in the SEC West. When they lost three straight games last year, it looked like Miles might be ousted. Instead, he survived the coup attempt and now appears to be on solid ground again. That still leaves the question of when LSU will challenge the Tide again.
Barry Odom, Missouri
Odom is the only one of the 14 coaches who could walk through the hotel halls this year and go unnoticed by many media members. He’s a former Tigers player who has served as an assistant at the school for 12 seasons that were wrapped around a stint as Memphis defensive coordinator. He takes over for Gary Pinkel, who resigned last year because of health concerns. Odom has a big sales job, and a big coaching job, ahead of him this year.
Hugh Freeze, Mississippi
“When will the next shoe drop?”
Freeze and the Rebels are up to their collective necks in NCAA trouble, and that’s before the investigation into Laremy Tunsil’s NFL Draft night claims that he was paid by members of the Ole Miss staff. Freeze is one of the most likable coaches in the conference in person, and he’s done a fabulous job on the field (19 wins in the last two years, including two over Alabama), but it’s starting to feel like there won’t be a happy ending for him and the Rebels.
Dan Mullen, Miss. State
“Can you replace Dak Prescott?”
Mullen was 19-7 in the two full seasons Dak Prescott was his starting quarterback. He was 36-28 in his other five seasons in Starkville. Prescott is gone for good now after setting basically all the school’s career passing records. Now, MSU fans want to know if Mullen can have success without a player of Prescott’s stature. Mississippi State is expected to start either Nick Fitzgerald or Nick Tiano, but most of the questions will be about the guy that’s already gone.
Will Muschamp, South Carolina
“What happened at Florida?”
A lot of the questions for Muschamp will sound familiar to South Carolina fans, who have heard the local media members go over them again and again the last six months. Muschamp likely will stick to the same stock answer – “Got to score more points.” – and then move on to all the questions about who is quarterback is going to be. Muschamp went through a warmup version of this kind of welcome back to the club moment this spring at the league’s executive meetings, so he’s had some practice.
Butch Jones, Tennessee
“Can you handle the pressure?”
The Volunteers are expected to be big favorites to win the SEC East, and there’s a lot to like about Tennessee’s team. It starts with the running back duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and senior quarterback Josh Dobbs. Jones has tracked in the right direction since arriving in Knoxville three seasons ago, going from five wins in 2013 to seven in 2014 to nine last year. Now it’s time to get over the hump, and there are some who wonder if Jones and company can do it.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
“Can you get this Ferrari out of the ditch?”
There was a time when the Aggies were the hottest thing in the SEC. Those days seem a long way off, though, after two five-star quarterbacks (Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray) transferred out this offseason and another five-star quarterback commitment changed his mind. After that, folks started noticing that Texas A&M’s win totals are going in the wrong direction. He won 11 games in 2012, nine in 2013 and eight in each of the last two years. If he keeps going in that direction, it might be time to switch drivers.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
“What happened to all that momentum?”
Former Commodores coach James Franklin hasn’t exactly lit up the world at Penn State yet (14-12 in two seasons), but the longer he’s gone from Nashville, the better he looks as a coach. Franklin won nine games in each of his last two seasons at Vanderbilt. Mason followed that up with a three-win season in 2014, and a four-win season in 2015. Normally, that kind of pace would be enough to stick around Vanderbilt for a while, but given the enthusiasm that Franklin fostered during his tenure, Mason now is on a seat that’s at least warm.
SEC Football Media Days
When: Monday through Thursday
Where: Hoover, Ala.
TV: Continuous coverage on SEC Network
12:35 to 3:25 p.m.: SEC commissioner Greg Sankey
2:45 p.m.: Bill Hancock, executive director, College Football Playoff
3:30 to 6:30 p.m.: Florida, Vanderbilt coaches and players
9:35 a.m.: Steve Shaw, SEC coordinator of football officials
10:05 a.m. to 1:25 p.m.: Georgia, Mississippi State coaches and players
1:45 p.m.: SEC Network
2 to 5 p.m. Tennessee, Texas A&M coaches and players
9:30 a.m.: Football Writers Association of America
10:05 a.m. to 1:05 p.m.: Alabama, Arkansas coaches and players
2 to 5 p.m.: Kentucky, Missouri coaches and players
9:30 a.m.: National Football Foundation
10:05 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.: South Carolina, Ole Miss and LSU coaches and players