NCAA Football: SEC Media Days

SEC Media Days will take place in Nashville for the first time this week when all 14 teams will make the rounds at the Grand Hyatt just steps off of Broadway. "Talkin' Season,' as coined by the legendary 'Head Ball Coach' Steve Spurrier, will consist of several storylines that will dominate the college football landscape leading up to the 2023 season and throughout the fall.

All eyes will be on the two superpowers in the conference. Georgia coach Kirby Smart is on a quest to lead his team to a three-peat -- something that hasn't happened since Minnesota pulled off the feat from 1934-36. Who is the most likely coach to knock him off that perch? Alabama's Nick Saban, of course. Saban's Crimson Tide failed to reach the SEC Championship Game in 2022 for the first time since 2019 and have plenty of questions heading into the opener. 

Two new coaches will make their first appearance in Music City. First-year Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze -- who is no stranger to this event after spending five years at Ole Miss -- will hit the stages on Tuesday to discuss how he plans to rebuild a program that was devastated by the ill-fated two-year Bryan Harsin experiment. That afternoon, first-year Mississippi State coach Zach Arnett will discuss his vision of a Bulldogs program that suffered a devastating loss last winter when legendary coach Mike Leach passed away. 

What are the top storylines? Let's break them down.

Who will step up at QB at Georgia?

Two-year starter, two-time national champion, 2022 Heisman Trophy finalist and all-around legend Stetson Bennett IV won't be taking the snaps this year. Junior Carson Beck and sophomore Brock Vandagriff are the two primary options atop the depth chart for Smart. 

It appears that Beck has the upper hand -- at least for now -- to land atop the depth chart when toe meets leather on UT-Martin on September 2. Beck threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns as Bennett's primary backup last season and took most of the first-team snaps in the spring. However, Vandagriff was a four-star prospect and the No. 34 overall player in the Class of 2021, and has the talent to be a star. 

Neither quarterback will be in attendance in Nashville, so it'll be up to tight end Brock Bowers, defensive back Kamari Lassiter and offensive lineman Sedrick Van Prann to answer those questions. 

What's up with the West?

LSU came out of nowhere to win the division in Brian Kelly's first season at the helm, and that season included a thrilling overtime win over Alabama. Was that a one-year aberration, or is the power structure shifting in what has generally been regarded as the toughest division in the sport?

That answer likely hinges on the Alabama quarterback situation. Ty Simpson and Jalen Milroe squared off in spring camp, and Saban lured former Notre Dame signal-caller Tyler Buchner to Alabama in the second transfer portal window. Was the push for Buchner a sign that things aren't rosy for Saban? Maybe. What we do know is that Kelly has a stud in dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels, which should make the Tigers' offense tough to keep up with.

Does Tennessee have staying power?

The Volunteers became the nation's darling last season when they topped Alabama at the gun and ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the first edition of the College Football Playoff rankings. What can coach Josh Heupel's team do for an encore? That's a loaded question.

Gone are star quarterback Hendon Hooker and wide receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman, all three of whom were integral parts of last season's success. Joe Milton III -- who has an absolute cannon but has lost starting jobs at Michigan and Tennessee -- will step in. Milton will be in attendance when the Volunteers make the rounds on Thursday, so it'll be fascinating to hear what his vision of the offense is.

Defense doesn't win championships. "Just enough" defense does. That's going to put some pressure on the pass defense assuming the offense will take a small step back. The Volunteers finished 127th in the nation against the pass last season (289.5 yards per game), and it'll have to take a step forward to provide a little bit more balance.

Freeze's vision for the Tigers

Freeze will undoubtedly be asked about the personal issues that led to his dismissal by Ole Miss in 2017 even though he's answered all of them -- countless times -- even when he was the head coach at Liberty. Can we not go down this rabbit hole? After all, his plan to rebuild the Tigers is much more interesting. 

He lured long-time Michigan State starting quarterback Payton Thorne to the Plains to battle with returning dual-threat starter Robby Ashford. Thone is more of a passer while Ashford is an ultra-dynamic runner. Hopefully Freeze will go into great detail about his plan for the offense, because that will give us good insight on who has the upper hand going into fall camp. He hit the transfer portal hard on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and it's clear that he needs some of those players to step up during fall camp if the Tigers are going to compete. 

On the field, Auburn is one of the most fascinating teams in the country on the field. Hopefully the questions will stay there as well.

Jimbo's job security

Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher's buyout will be approximately $77 million if he is fired after this season, and the likelihood of influential members of the Texas A&M community can put together that chunk of change. However, with Fisher coming off of a 5-7 season and a transfer portal season that seemed like a turnstile (both coming and going), it's safe to say that it's a massive season for the future of the program.

The offense is also wildly intriguing. Fisher hired Bobby Petrino to run the offense and, even though the two have strong personalities that could present a problem, there is plenty of talent for Petrino to work with including stud receiver Ainias Smith. How will the Fisher-Petrino relationship work? That question will be asked over and over as the Aggies make the rounds on Monday. 

The administrative future

The month of December is flat-out awful for coaches. They have to fire assistants, hire assistants, prepare for the early signing period, recruit players in the transfer portal and, for some of them, prepare for CFP games and major bowl games. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. There is a proposal to reduce the 45-day portal window to 30 days, but it's still a chaotic time that is simply impossible to maintain. Commissioner Greg Sankey and the coaches will undoubtedly have opinions on the subject.

Another interesting topic will be the future schedule. The SEC kicked the scheduling can down the road when it was announced that it is going to use a 1-7 format -- one permanent opponent and seven rotating games -- when Texas and Oklahoma join the conference in 2024. What will the format be moving forward? 

The same 1-7 format and a 3-6 format -- three permanent opponents and six rotating foes -- are the two that have been discussed since what seems like the Clinton Administration. Both sides have their heels dug in, and Sankey will have to address the subject during the "State of the SEC" speech on Monday. After that, expect every single coach to state their preference throughout the four-day event.