The 2014 Southeastern Conference Media Days in Hoover, Ala., were a four-day whirlwind of information that featured coaches and players from all 14 member schools.
Clichés and canned quotes abounded as more than 1,200 media members forgot the meaning of “elbow room” in search of a sound bite or quirky comment. News outlets, big and small, reported around the clock to make sure the public didn’t miss a single word.
Though the overwhelming event became repetitive and watered down by the time it ended, some relevant storylines emerged from the chaos. Here are some compelling SEC narratives worth following this season.
The Wild West
The SEC West has never seemed so wide open.
Auburn usurped the traditional western powers of Alabama and LSU to win the conference title last season, prompting every coach in the division to firmly believe it was his team’s turn. Though that may sound like usual coach speak, conditions are perfect for another worst-to-first scenario in 2014.
Alabama will field a new quarterback and only five returning starters on defense. LSU is riddled with inexperience at the quarterback and receiver positions to go along with an undersized defensive front. Auburn faces a grueling schedule with trips to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
This opens the door for the rest of the division, especially upstarts Mississippi State and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs return 18 starters, including their top four receivers and dual-threat junior quarterback Dak Prescott. Likewise, the Rebels bring back 16 starters, and coach Hugh Freeze said his players’ “buy-in percentage” is at an all-time high.
Though former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel left Texas A&M for the NFL, coach Kevin Sumlin expressed confidence in his recruiting class’s talent. The only unrealistic contender is Arkansas, but that didn’t seem to faze Auburn in 2013.
Alabama’s internal turmoil
Alabama has been at the top of the SEC for the last five years, winning two conference championships and three national titles during that span.
But the Crimson Tide’s 2013 campaign ended in disaster with their iconic Iron Bowl defeat and upset loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, and senior wide receiver Christion Jones revealed what he believed led to the team’s downfall.
“The difference with the 2011 and 2012 teams was that even though we lost games, the leadership didn’t let the team die down,” Jones said. “That was kind of different with the team last year. There were a lot of small things the leadership let get by.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban mentioned egos and complacency as the biggest challenges heading into this season. A lack of leadership and discipline is uncharacteristic for a Saban-coached team, and the Crimson Tide will need them more than ever after losing 12 starters and three-year quarterback A.J. McCarron.
Can Georgia AND South Carolina break through?
Both Georgia and South Carolina have snagged SEC East titles during the last four years, but the conference championship has continually eluded both schools.
Georgia coach Mark Richt guided his club to two SEC championships in the early 2000s before finishing on the fringes of the division for the next five years. Richt suffered through critics claiming he should be fired following his only losing season in 2010 before leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back championship game losses the next two years.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier brought the Gamecocks to their first and only division crown in 2010, only to get blown out by Auburn in the title game. Since then, South Carolina went on three straight 11-win seasons in which it failed to win the East despite beating the eventual division champion.
The media picked South Carolina and Georgia to finish first and second in the SEC East, respectively. The two teams will square off Sept. 13 in Columbia, S.C., and the winner will more than likely run the table in the East and get another shot at the SEC crown.
Auburn AND Missouri out to prove staying power
Auburn and Missouri shocked the nation by winning their divisions for a chance at the SEC championship last season, but their prospects of repeating look dim.
The media selected Auburn to finish second in the West and Missouri to come in fourth in the East, but the clubs didn’t seem to mind. Coaches and players representing both schools held no-nonsense, business-like press conferences, knowing full-well the daunting challenge of repeating as division champions.
Though Auburn received the second-most points for preseason SEC champion voting, it still earned less than half of Alabama’s total. Missouri has a much steeper hill to climb after losing 15 starters, but coach Gary Pinkel expects his team to be back in top form.
“I don’t get into what’s said or what’s predicted,” Pinkel said. “Someone apologized to me a little while ago about the way they voted after this thing. I said, ‘I don’t know how you voted for us, and I really don’t care.’”