In year of transition, the SEC badly needs boost in starpower

HOOVER, Ala. — SEC commissioner Mike Slive devoted much of his annual Media Days address Monday to what even he admitted was a “commercial” for the new SEC Network. It hits the airwaves next month. Slive rattled off some of the high-profile names that will serve as the debut channel’s analysts, most notably former Florida Heisman winner Tim Tebow, former LSU All-American defensive end Marcus Spears and former Alabama national championship quarterback Greg McElroy.

As for the list of athletes slated to star in the actual games this fall, one might best categorize that list as “TBD.”

Had the SEC Network been able to launch a year earlier, it would have enjoyed a proverbial bump from the likes of Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray. With those and so many other 2013 stars off to the NFL, viewers may need to brush up on their rosters before tuning in.

We assume the SEC will be as entertaining and competitive as always in 2014 because … well, “S-E-C, S-E-C.” But it’s also unquestionably a league in transition.

Five quarterbacks – Florida’s Jeff Driskel, Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, Missouri’s Maty Mauk and South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson – are here representing their teams this week. Only one, Ole Miss’ Wallace, was a full-season starter last season. (Auburn’s Nick Marshall would have been the other but got left home following his citation for marijuana possession last week.)

Asked who were the toughest receivers he faced as a freshman starter last season, Florida cornerback Veron Hargreaves III mentioned LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham. Gone and gone.

Asked to name the best returning player in the SEC, thoughtful, engaging and eloquent Gators defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. briefly went speechless.

SEC QB RANKINGS

“The best player in the SEC coming back? … I don’t know,” he said. “I know we have some good talented players we’re playing against.”

Indeed, Georgia’s Todd Gurley is arguably the best running back in the country, and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon is not far behind. Yeldon’s teammate Amari Cooper is on the short list of best receivers, and Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell may soon join him. Hargreaves, just a sophomore, is already showing up on preseason first team All-America lists, alongside Alabama safety Landon Collins.

And there’s a whole lot of other former four- and five-star recruits across the league just waiting for their moment.

But this season’s SEC will likely take on a much different flavor than it did in 2013, when the traditionally defense-dominated league briefly morphed into the second coming off the old WAC, leaving an exasperated Gary Danielson calling a 49-42 or 44-41 shootout nearly every week. Just two years after Alabama and LSU’s infamous 9-6 overtime game, last year’s Auburn-Missouri conference title game ended in a 59-42 Auburn victory.

A rare crop of talented veteran quarterbacks coupled with a mass NFL talent drain on defense produced the league’s most frenetic season in recent memory.

This year the script could be flipped.

“As far as the new quarterbacks in the league, people are going to do what they do schematically,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp. “They may dress some things down to make sure they can execute more, be a little bit more simple.”

TOP 20 PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Then again, it’s not like quarterback is the only position in transition. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, already faced with replacing All-American defensive end Dee Ford, disclosed Monday that Ford’s heir apparent, Carl Lawson, may miss most of the season with a torn ACL. South Carolina is replacing nearly its entire star-studded defensive line, Tennessee nearly it entire offensive line.

Get ready for the SEC Network’s much-anticipated new show, “False Starts, Interceptions and Blown Assignments.”

Of course, personnel turnover is not unique to the SEC; it’s intrinsic to college football. And as much as the rest of the country hates to hear it, the guys replacing the guys who left are usually more talented on the whole than any other conference’s. Just check Scout.com.

But the rest of the country will be on high alert for signs of slippage.

In this, the first year of the College Football Playoff era, there’s an expectation in this part of the country that the nation’s premier conference will place multiple entrants in the first tournament.

“I think it’s safe to say the SEC champion will be in the Final Four,” said Malzahn. “If you look at the last few years, numerous times there would be two teams from the SEC in the Final Four.”

Malzahn’s team, which returns Marshall, a stacked offensive line and deep receiving corps, figures to be one of the prime contenders again this season, as well as customary power Alabama. Georgia, South Carolina and LSU fans likely believe their teams will be factors, too. And the beauty of this time of year is that even a team like Florida, coming off a nightmarish 4-8 season, has reason to be optimistic. After all, Auburn leapt from 3-9 to 12-2 a year ago.

“This is the most complete team I’ve had since I’ve been at Florida,” said Muschamp.

IMPACT FRESHMEN FOR 2014

But what if the SEC simply doesn’t produce two elite teams? What if – gasp – there isn’t even one? I may be escorted out of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham for daring to even utter that thought, but it’s a distinct possibility.

And that’s not necessarily because of the dearth of veteran quarterbacks. LSU reached the national title game a few years ago with the illustrious Jordan Jefferson under center. Ten years before the debut of Missouri’s Maty Mauk, LSU won a trophy with Matt Mauck. It’s great, but not essential to have a Jameis Winston on your roster.

But rarely does a team win a championship with inexperience across the board. Auburn and Alabama don’t necessarily have that problem, but pretty much everyone else in the conference is relying heavily either on first-time starters (LSU, Missouri) or a bunch of guys coming off major injuries (Florida, Georgia).

Despite Florida State ending the league’s streak of seven straight national championships last January, few believe the SEC is in any danger of losing its status as the nation’s universally anointed top conference. Certainly the hype machine did not diminish. Another 1,100 credentialed media have descended on suburban Birmingham this week for the privilege of listening to press conferences. ESPN is broadcasting live from multiple sets, and radio row is overflowing with tables of talking heads beaming back to their various locales.

But while the various coaches – Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt and the like — are household names, reporters will spend this week shoving microphones in the faces of unfamiliar players like South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt, LSU linebacker D.J. Welter and Texas A&M punter Drew Kaser.

Where have you gone, Johnny Football?

“I’ll be rooting for him in the NFL,” said Auburn defensive lineman Gabe Wright. “I’m glad he’s out of college.”

SEC Network executives likely disagree.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” will be released in August. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails to MandelMailbag@gmail.com.