On my way to Hoover. I wrote this for tomorrow’s print section, but you get to see it first! . . .
WHAT YOU’LL HEAR AT SEC FOOTBALL MEDIA DAYS
College football fans rejoice! As of this week, you can officially pronounce the 2011 season underway. No, the actual games don’t kickoff for another six weeks. But the intriguing ritual of preseason propaganda and prognostication begins in earnest today in Hoover, Ala., as SEC Football Media Days gets underway at the Wynfrey Hotel. The SEC will tell us why it’s the greatest conference on earth and provide statistical data to prove it and coaches will tell us why things aren’t as bad – or as good – as they seem, depending on their teams’ particular perspective this season. In anticipation of this exciting annual exchange between teams and the media, here are five things you’re likely to hear about after the event commences Wednesday afternoon.
1. ISSUES AND INVESTIGATIONS: The newly-discovered coaching skill set of “roster management” – aka over-signing — was the dominant topic at the SEC Meetings in Destin in May and there will surely be some residual discussion this week. But the most prominent topic in Hoover will be, or at least should be, the tarnished image of college football amid multiple scandals. We know now, thanks to some excellent reporting by Pete Thamel of the New York Times, that the NCAA’s investigation of BCS champion Auburn continues. On Tuesday, LSU got hit with a year’s probation and recruiting restrictions from the NCAA infractions committee on Tuesday; Tennessee is up next with that group in August; South Carolina received a letter of inquiry this time last year and we’ve heard little since; and Georgia is in the midst of an internal inquiry. Add in the nationally-covered scandals at Ohio State, Southern Cal and Oregon and it’s a good bet this will generate some substantial dialogue this week.
2. MARK RICHT’S WARM BACKSIDE. The Georgia Bulldogs are one of the first teams up on Thursday and the topic du jour most assuredly will be, “Is Mark Richt on the hotseat and, if so, how hot is it?” That question has been bandied about to varying degrees by fans and media alike hundreds of times since Georgia got off to a 1-4 start last season and finished 6-7. For the record, the powers to be at UGA have shown nothing but support for the Bulldogs’ 11th-year coach — “He’s not in my hot seat; he’s still in my lap,” longtime executive board member Bob Bishop said in May. But it’s unlikely Richt will encounter such compassion from the grizzled SEC press, who are doggedly determined to identify those those best suited for their “Coaches on Hotseat” lists in tomorrow’s column. Richt won’t be alone in this distinction. Houston Nutt of Ole Miss will be right there with him.
3. ROCK-STAR COACHES: Speaking of Richt and his supposed warm backside, it’s always about the coaches at SEC Media Days. The SEC is the indisputable powerhouse conference of college football and it produces star players and NFL draft picks galore. But it’s never clearer than when the media assembles in the cavernous ballrooms of the Wynfrey Hotel that coaches are the ruling party of this kingdom. Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino and Les Miles are ushered about like movies stars complete with trailing paparazzi, fawning fans and curious, clamoring reporters. We’ll also hear about the new additions to this exclusive fraternity, Florida’s Will Muschamp and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin. Well, at least one of those.
4. MIGHTY, MIGHTY GAMECOCKS. South Carolina is in the extremely rare position of being the prohibitive favorite to win the East (gonna be a close call between Alabama and LSU in the West). That’s a long-awaited and supremely-coveted place to be for Spurrier, who is in constant need of fuel for his thirsty ego. And the ever-thirsty media will be primed to lap up Spurrier’s quip bombs on hot topics such as over-signing, paying student-athletes out of his own pocket and how to suspend players without them actually having to miss games (see quarterback Stephen Garcia).
5. GREAT RUNNING BACKS: As usual, the league is loaded with elite running backs. Some of them you’ve heard a lot about, such as South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, Auburn’s Michael Dyer and Alabama’s Trent Richardson; others not so much, such as Arkansas’ Knile Davis, the league’s leading returning rusher with 1,322 yards; Vick Ballard, the bulldozer from Mississippi State; and Tennessee’s Tauren Poole, the senior from Toccoa who quietly busted 1,000 yards a year ago. Georgia’s Washaun Ealey and Caleb King would have been brought up in this conversation but, of course, they’re gone. Something tells me Richard Samuel might get shut out on the all-conference ballot.