Why Alabama is unlikely to repeat as SEC champions in 2015 & more
HOOVER, Ala. — This week marks the first of all the conference preseason media days. It draws by far the biggest media crowd. The SEC show in Hoover, Ala., is always quite the circus, but it’s a lot of fun — especially since it means the unofficial start to the 2015 college football season.
Here are 10 things I’m most intrigued to hear more about this week down here:
1) The Drought
OK, so two years is hardly a drought, but for the SEC, where the bar is always ridiculously high, it feels like it. After winning an unprecedented seven national titles in a row, the SEC now has come up empty in the past two seasons and doesn’t seem to have a clear favorite ready to make a title run in 2015. Some of that is due to the uncertainty at QB for the top teams in the league. Last year, with a bunch of SEC West teams among the top 15, it was being touted by some as the toughest division in the history of the sport. That proved to be hollow talk. Most competitive division in the history of college football? Maybe. Best division in the history of the sport? Hardly. In the initial BCS ranking last year, there were four SEC teams ranked among the top six (1. MSU; 3. Auburn; 4. Ole Miss; 6. Bama. All four lost their bowl games.) The reality was the league was sorely lacking in good QB play and that hamstrung most of the elite programs. Will it again in 2015?
2) QB battles
As mentioned above, it’s murky identifying star quarterbacks in this league right now after Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott. The most compelling battles are Alabama (Jake Coker and David Cornwell are the frontrunners); LSU (Can strong-armed sophomore Brandon Harris overtake Anthony Jennings, who is also in some legal hot water?); Texas A&M (Kyle Allen’s getting pushed by uber freshman Kyler Murray); Florida (Will Grier is trying to beat out Treon Harris); UGA (Brice Ramsey is the favorite); Ole Miss (Chad Kelly has a huge arm but comes with baggage and maturity questions and will compete with Devante Kincaid and Ryan Buchanan); South Carolina (Connor Mitch or Lorenzo Nunez seem like the favorites).
3) Sankey takes over
A program that had won national titles under two of its previous three head coaches before Will Muschamp arrived fizzled over the last few years. The Florida offense has been a dud for awhile now, dating back to the end of the Urban Meyer era, and UF is just 21-19 in SEC play the past five seasons. The Gators are a long way from those "Fun n Gun" days of Steve Spurrier. In the past five seasons, they’ve thrown just 67 TD passes. According to the SEC Network, only Georgia Tech and Kansas have thrown fewer TD passes in that stretch among Power 5 teams. Enter new head man Jim McElwain from Colorado State, where he led one of the more potent attacks in college football. The Rams were No. 4 in the nation in yards per play (7.09) last year.
5) Crime and punishment
One of Nick Saban’s big recruits from the winter, Jonathan Taylor, became a lightning rod for controversy. The huge JC DT, who had gotten booted at Georgia for allegedly punching and choking his girlfriend in a case that still was being sorted out, got arrested on a domestic violence charge at Bama. (He was dismissed from the Tide program. His accuser later recanted her story.) Weeks later the SEC passed a new rule, banning schools from accepting transfers who were subject to official disciplinary action for sexual assault, domestic violence or other forms of sexual violence at their previous school. Saban spoke out against the new league rule. Will many other SEC coaches do similar?
6) Assistant shuffle
Last year, the arrival of Lane Kiffin as Bama’s new OC became a compelling little subplot in the SEC. This year, a bunch of familiar faces are showing up in new places and are being counted on to make huge impacts right away. These include: Will Muschamp, the new DC at Auburn; John Chavis, who takes over the D at Texas A&M; and former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron, who becomes LSU’s new D-line coach and recruiting whirlwind. Manny Diaz is back running the D at Miss. State. In addition, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Vandy all have new OCs in the SEC East. The roles of Chavis and Muschamp in particular will get a lot of mileage since their respected defenses that they’re taking over ranked No. 13 and No. 11, respectively, in the SEC last season.
7) Loose lips
Hoover always produces a few "Did he really say — or ask — that?" moments. And with Steve Spurrier, Les Miles, Bret Bielema and Nick Saban, it’s a good bet there’ll be some more headline-generating quotes coming. One vintage double-taker that came right to mind was from former LSU QB Zach Mettenberger, who found a way to spice up a rather ordinary topic:
8) Sophomore studs
Mettenberger on tweaks Cam Cameron has made w him.. Ends w "it's not like I'm Tim Tebow and have terrible mechanics."
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 18, 2013
There may seem like a lower wattage of star power in the conference these days, but a new batch of studs are poised for stardom after breakthrough freshmen seasons in 2014. Three are tailbacks (LSU’s Leonard Fournette; UGA’s Nick Chubb; Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd) to go with an impressive array of linemen (Bama LT Cam Robinson; Tennessee DL Derek Barnett; Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett) plus LSU’s next great DB, safety Jamal Adams. Unfortunately, only Fournette will be speaking in Hoover this week or else this one would’ve been higher on the list.
9) The Laremy Project
Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss’ 20-year-old star OT, is embroiled in quite a mess. Last month Tunsil was arrested on a domestic violence charge for an alleged assault on his stepfather. His coach, Hugh Freeze, said in a statement that his player was just protecting his mother. Meanwhile, the stepdad has proceeded to allege NCAA violations of Tunsil accepting improper benefits from sports agents, not only recently but also as part of his 2012 recruitment by the Rebels. Last Friday, Tunsil and his stepfather, Lindsey Miller, gave very different accounts at a court hearing. No doubt this aspect of his star lineman — and his program — is something Freeze will be asked about a lot this week.
10) So who is the favorite?
Five of the past six SEC champs have been from the Alabama schools. Last year it was Bama. Then again, it’s been 16 years since a team repeated in the SEC. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the conference’s sports information directors predicted Auburn would win the West with Georgia coming out on top in the East. No SEC team has fewer returning offensive starters than Auburn, but that shows you just how much respect folks have for Gus Malzahn’s offensive acumen — and for new QB Jeremy Johnson. The only teams with fewer returning starters than the Tigers (12) are Bama, Florida and Miss. State.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and get all of his content on Facebook.