SEC Media Days primer

We’re now just days away from the unofficial start of college football season: Southeastern Conference football Media Days.

Here’s a primer on what to expect, who will say what and the questions nobody wants to hear starting Tuesday morning in Hoover, Ala.:

Five hot topics

1) Will the SEC’s BCS title streak end at eight?

This is the last go-round for the Bowl Championship Series before the curtain lifts next season on the long-coveted College Football Playoff. The SEC aspires to end the BCS era with an eighth consecutive title, and there’s a solid list of suitors. Alabama certainly is in the mix, having won three titles in four years. Georgia, which came up 5 yards short of an SEC title, brings back all but one starter on offense. New kid on the block Texas A&M has the Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel. South Carolina, Florida and LSU lurk as top-15 teams. So expect plenty of talk about trotting to the Rose Bowl this January.

2) After a rough debut, can Mizzou move up?

Last season, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s statement that the SEC’s style is “old man football” earned heaps of scorn. And the Tigers’ 5-7 debut didn’t back up Richardson’s bravado. MU is mired in a three-man quarterback controversy, and coach Gary Pinkel had to vehemently reject whispers he was on his way out after 13 seasons in Columbia. Another poor season would apply more pressure on Pinkel to right the program after a bold move to change conferences and sink $70 million-plus into stadium upgrades. A year ago, Mizzou huffed with indignation when asked whether it was SEC-worthy. How will it respond this time?

3) Can the East end the West’s dominant run?

Power ebbs and flows, and two years after the SEC put three Western Division teams in the BCS top six, its counterpart may produce a gnarly race. Georgia, Florida and South Carolina are all potential top-10 teams, and each figures to vie for a trip to Atlanta and a shot at ending the West’s hold on the key to the BCS title game. Georgia’s offense should be potent. Florida showed it could contend with middling quarterback play, and Jeff Driskel now has a full year and spring under his belt to master Brent Pease’s offense. South Carolina’s Connor Shaw goes unnoticed but handles Steve Spurrier’s signal-caller shuffling admirably while the defense clamps down. An early test arrives in Week 2, when South Carolina visits Georgia.

4) What can the four new coaches achieve?

Coaching positions turned over at Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, and all of those recent hires make their media day debuts Wednesday. The rhetoric will veer toward changing cultures and ramping up recruiting. Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s former offensive coordinator, is back on the Plains after only a year at Arkansas State; he likely will talk about his familiarity with the Tigers’ up-tempo system. Bret Bielema left Wisconsin to take on a challenge in the nation’s premier conference, but he found a cupboard largely bare for his power-oriented run offense. Instead, he’ll talk about transforming the culture to a more player-friendly environment. Butch Jones takes over at Tennessee, which has tradition in spades but needs to convey stability after bringing a third coach in five years to Knoxville. Finally, there’s Mark Stoops at Kentucky, whose recruiting class is ranked third nationally by Rivals — which should bolster that talking point.

5) Can the middle class keep climbing?

No longer is the designated rivalry tilt between Vanderbilt and Ole Miss a total snoozer. Not when you have a pair of quotable coaches devoted to recruiting and lifting their programs from doormat status. James Franklin, entering his third year at Vandy, said this offseason he’d have no problem offering a middle schooler a scholarship. “If I see a 6-foot-6 man walking in the mall with his wife, and she’s 6-2 and she’s pregnant, I’ll go up and offer their unborn child,” Franklin told The Tennesseean. Hugh Freeze, in his second season helming the Rebels, wrangled a top-10 recruiting class, seems poised for another and tweets quotes from Ayn Rand. It helps, too, that each program is coming off a bowl victory, which capped Vandy’s first nine-win season in nearly a century. No matter what they say, it’s sure to be interesting.

Three days of interviews, four players to watch

1) Aaron Murray, Georgia QB

2012: 3,893 yards and 36 touchdowns on 249-of-386 passing with 10 interceptions and a 174.8 quarterback rating.

IN HOOVER: Expect the senior to be peppered with questions about his legacy and struggles in big games. So far, he is 4-9 against ranked teams. In those games, he has thrown for 30 yards fewer than his career average, seen his completion percentage dip seven points and doubled his interception rate. In spite of his productivity, Murray’s place in history will be based on how he fares against Clemson, South Carolina, LSU and Florida this season.

2) Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M QB

2012: 3,706 yards and 26 touchdowns on 295-of-434 passing with nine interceptions. Led the SEC in rushing with 1,410 yards and 21 TDs.

IN HOOVER: So what does “Johnny Football” do for an encore? The fortunes of the Aggies, a prohibitive preseason top-10 team, will be more interesting. Manziel has his top target back in wideout Mike Evans (82 catches for 1,105 yards) and a backfield led by punishing Ben Malena (5.9 yards per carry). More intriguing: How does the nature of play calling change with new co-offensive coordinators Clarence McKinney and Jake Spavital?

3) AJ McCarron, Alabama QB

2012: 2,933 yards and 30 touchdowns on 211-of-314 passing, three interceptions and a 175.3 quarterback
rating.

IN HOOVER: He’s Aaron Murray’s foil. The senior is hunting the Crimson Tide’s fourth BCS title in five seasons. It’s hard to imagine McCarron operating more efficiently than he did last season. A reformed gunslinger who values the ball, he handles the controls put in his hands by offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. McCarron is the Tide’s spokesman, and leading a powerhouse on the cusp of history makes him intriguing.e_SClB4) Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina DE

2012: 54 tackles, including 23½ for loss, and 13 sacks. Also forced three fumbles.

IN HOOVER: Since knocking the helmet off Michigan running back Vincent Smith’s head in the Outback Bowl, Clowney carries the rep as the baddest man in college football. If he had been eligible, it’s likely Clowney would have been the first pick in the NFL draft. What’s most frightening: He put on 17 pounds to hit 274 on the scale but lowered his 40-yard dash time slightly to 4.54 seconds. It also has pundits floating an unbelievable theory: Could Clowney win the Heisman?

SEC West Division, team by team

Alabama

COACH: Nick Saban

PLAYER REPS: AJ McCarron, Sr., QB; C.J. Mosley, Sr., LB; Anthony Steen, Sr., OL

SESSION: 11:20 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday

TALKING POINT: Lofty expectations aren’t unusual, but it helps being stocked at the skill positions with McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper.

STICKING POINT: The Tide has to rebuild along the lines. Ed Stinson, Jeoffrey Pagan and Brandon Ivory must produce up front for the defense.

Arkansas

COACH: Bret Bielema

PLAYER REPS: Chris Smith, Sr., DE; Travis Swanson, Sr., C; Kiero Small, Sr., FB

SESSION: 2:20-5:20 p.m. Wednesday

TALKING POINTS: The Hogs have adopted an underdog persona, and there some valuable vets up front in Smith and Swanson. Running back Jonathan Williams is a nice piece.

STICKING POINT: Quarterback Brandon Allen is green. The linebackers are undersized. And is the line equipped to handle a power run game?

Auburn

COACH: Gus Malzahn

PLAYER REPS: Chris Davis, Sr., CB; Dee Ford, Sr., DE; Jay Prosch, Sr., FB

SESSION: 2:20-5:20 p.m. Wednesday

TALKING POINTS: Malzahn knows the program well. Despite his fast tempo, his run game is stable with Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne.

STICKING POINT: Who is the trigger man? And if the team finds one, will three reliable pass catchers emerge? Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme also needs to amp up the pressure.

LSU

COACH: Les Miles

PLAYER REPS: Jarvis Landry, Jr., WR; Craig Loston, Sr., S; Zach Mettenberger, Sr., QB

SESSION: 8:30-11:10 a.m. Thursday

TALKING POINT: Adding new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to tutor Mettenberger should make the passing game potent with surer hands from Landry and behind a stable offensive line.

STICKING POINT: John Chavis is a defensive maestro, but he needs ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco to wreak havoc and a secondary that isn’t nicked up.

Mississippi State

COACH: Dan Mullen

PLAYER REPS: Kaleb Eulls, Jr., DL; Benardrick McKinney, So., LB; Tyler Russell, Sr., QB

SESSION: 11:20 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday

TALKING POINTS: The Bulldogs want to jump from solid to elite with a veteran passer in Russell, a 1,000-yard back in LaDarius Perkins and legitimate depth on the defensive line.

PROBLEM POINTS: The secondary and wide receiver units, which lost three starters, need experience. The linebacker corps is hard-working but potentially undersized.

Ole Miss

Coach: Hugh Freeze

PLAYER REPS: Donte Moncrief, Jr., WR; Mike Marry, Sr., LB; Bo Wallace, Jr., QB

SESSION: 3:50-6:20 p.m. Tuesday

TALKING POINTS: A bowl victory and a top-10 recruiting class have fans revved up. Wallace, Moncrief and running back Jeff Scott give the offense known weapons.

PROBLEM POINTS: Injuries could leave the Rebs vulnerable along the lines. Plus, they’ll need ends Robert Nkemdiche and Channing Ward to generate pressure up front.

Texas A&M

COACH: Kevin Sumlin

PLAYER REPS: Toney Hurd, Jr., DB; Johnny Manziel, So., QB; Jake Matthews, Sr., OT

SESSION: 8:30-11:10 a.m. Wednesday

TALKING POINTS: The SEC’s best offense might be even better and more run-oriented with a talented backfield trio. If it hums normally, the Aggies could be in the BCS title hunt.

STICKING POINT: Six defensive starters are gone, and the suspensions of Deshazor Everett and Floyd Raven leave a bottom-tier secondary without a starter back.

SEC East Division capsules

Florida

COACH: Will Muschamp

PLAYER REPS: Jeff Driskel, Jr., QB; Dominique Easley, Sr., DL; Jon Halapio, Sr., OL

SESSION: 1-3:40 p.m. Tuesday

TALKING POINT: Florida is on the cusp, and the development of Driskel with a steady run game and stout defense could put the Gators in contention.

STICKING POINT: Even if Driskel is better, does he have receivers able to make plays? And can the middle of the defensive line be restocked adequately?

Georgia

COACH: Mark Richt

PLAYER REPS: Arthur Lynch, Sr., TE; Aaron Murray, Sr., QB; Garrison Smith, Sr., DE

SESSION: 8:30-11:10 a.m. Thursday

TALKING POINT: The offense is stacked with 10 starters back. And it has a nice blend with Murray’s arm and the power-speed combo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.

STICKING POINT: There’s a lack of experience, particularly at nose tackle. One outside linebacker spot is fluid. The secondary is young, talented and unproven.

Kentucky

COACH: Mark Stoops

PLAYER REPS: Donte Rumph, Sr., DT; Raymond Sanders, Sr., RB; Avery Williamson, Sr., LB

SESSION: 8:30-11:10 a.m. Wednesday

TALKING POINT: Stoops admits this is a tear-down job. But he’s building a foundation along the lines. Neal Brown’s variant of the Air Raid offense might be potent one day, and early recruiting efforts have been fruitful.

STICKING POINT: Stoops needs a quarterback, and Jalen Whitlow’s dual-threat abilities might win him the job.

Missouri

COACH: Gary Pinkel

PLAYER REPS: James Franklin, Sr., QB; L’Damian Washington, Sr., WR; Andrew Wilson, Sr., LB

SESSION: 1-3:40 p.m. Tuesday

TALKING POINT: Surely injuries won’t ravage the offensive line and quarterback, where a derby winner gets a solid cast of receivers and a ground game by committee.

STICKING POINT: What’s the identity? Does Mizzou hold fast to the spread offense, or does new OC Josh Henson tweak the scheme? Also, Missouri needs to finds playmakers defensively.

South Carolina

COACH: Steve Spurrier

PLAYER REPS: Jadeveon Clowney, Jr., DE; Bruce Ellington, Jr., WR; Connor Shaw, Sr., QB

SESSION: 3:50-6:20 p.m. Tuesday

TALKING POINT: The pieces are in place for Spurrier with two capable QBs, a vet in Ellington and a freak in Clowney. Both sets of linemen are stable.

STICKING POINT: The linebacker group is still holding auditions, and they’ll need running back Mike Davis to produce. Can they find a wideout to replace Ace Sanders?

Tennessee

COACH: Butch Jones

PLAYER REPS: Antonio Richardson, Jr., OL; Ja’Wuan James, Sr., OL; Jacques Smith, Sr., DL

SESSION: 11:20 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday

TALKING POINT: Jones brings needed enthusiasm to the program. His offensive line has four starters back. The defensive line has six seniors and could be better.

STICKING POINT: Last season, the defense was the worst in school history. Speed needs to be added in the secondary.

Vanderbilt

COACH: James Franklin

PLAYER REPS: Andre Hal, Sr., DB; Wesley Johnson, Sr., OT; Jordan Matthews, Sr., WR

SESSION: 11:20 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday

TALKING POINT: New QB Austyn Carta-Samuels is talented, and the wide receiver tandem of Matthews and Chris Boyd is stellar. Hal leads an experienced secondary.

STICKING POINT: Athleticism aside, it’s Carta-Samuels’ first year in the SEC. Wesley Tate has big shoes to fill at running back. Is there depth at wideout?