Thursday, August 11, 2022

SEC Media Days 2022: What to expect from Alabama, Georgia and status of conference realignment

ATLANTA — SEC Media Days will return to the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta for just the second time in history, and there will be plenty to talk about during “talkin’ season.” The conference boasts defending national champion Georgia, national runner-up/defending SEC champion Alabama and coaching intrigue that spans from new blood to coaches on the hot seat. 

Commissioner Greg Sankey will get things kicked off on Monday at 11:30 a.m. ET with his annual “State of the SEC” address, with LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri in tow during Day 1. Defending conference champion Alabama will hit the stage on Tuesday, while reigning national champion Georgia will make the rounds on Wednesday. The event will close with Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M taking their laps on Thursday morning.

What should you expect during the four-day extravaganza? Below are some of the top talking points that should highlight the festivities ahead of the 2022 season.

Can Georgia sustain success?

The Bulldogs won the national title last season, ending a 41-year drought in Athens, but a mass exodus ensued once the plane from Indianapolis landed in the Peach State. A record 15 Bulldogs heard their names called in the 2022 NFL Draft, five of which were defensive players selected in the first round — also a draft record. Coach Kirby Smart also lost wide receiver George Pickens and running backs Zamir White and James Cook, and wide receiver Jermaine Burton transferred to Alabama shortly after the end of the season.

Winning a title is incredibly difficult, but sustaining championship-level success is the biggest challenge any coach and program can face. Quarterback Stetson Bennett IV is back, along with a deep and versatile running back corps, star tight end Brock Bowers, elite defensive lineman Jalen Carter and stud linebacker Nolan Smith.

Ed Orgeron couldn’t sustain success at LSU and Gene Chizik failed to do the same at Auburn. Will Smart meet the same fate? We’ll find out this year. 

What can Bryce Young do for an encore?

The junior signal-caller for the Crimson Tide won the Heisman Trophy last season despite playing behind a porous offensive line that failed to protect him on a consistent basis. Can he repeat the feat? How good can he be if the offensive line can take even the slightest step forward?

Young is one of the three Crimson Tide players who will join coach Nick Saban on Tuesday, so we’ll get a chance to find out just what he expects from himself, and what is expected of him, now that he’s in his second season as the Tide’s starting quarterback. Archie Griffin is the only player to win the Heisman Trophy twice. Young, however, is set up for an even better encore performance as long as he can get a tad more help.

Out with the old, in with the new

LSU lured Brian Kelly away from Notre Dame to replace Ed Orgeron in one of the most surprising moves of the coaching silly season. Kelly is charged with bringing the Tigers back into national prominence after Orgeron struggled mightily in the two years after claiming the College Football Playoff title following the 2019 season. He inherits a roster that is high on talent but lacks the quality depth needed to compete on a consistent basis. 

Florida sent Dan Mullen packing and replaced him with up-and-coming star Billy Napier after a successful four-year stint at Louisiana. Napier’s primary concern is rebuilding a roster that was neglected from a development standpoint during the end of the Mullen era. That’s easier said than done, but Napier hit the transfer portal market hard and has a budding star in Anthony Richardson under center. 

The two new coaches in the SEC couldn’t be more different when it comes to coaching experience, but they are with programs that have top-level potential.

Quarterback intrigue across the board

Quarterbacks are going to be hot topics throughout the four days in Atlanta. Multiple teams have wildly intriguing quarterback battles that feature veterans, transfers and hot-shot prospects. 

LSU’s three-way battle features ex-Arizona State signal-caller Jayden Daniels, former starter Myles Brennan and youngster Garrett Nussmeier. Auburn will have a three-way contest as well between second-year former transfer T.J. Finley, Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada and Oregon transfer Robby Ashford. Speaking of the Aggies, ex-LSU starter Max Johnson, 2021 opening day starter Haynes King and five-star freshman Conner Weigman will vie for the top spot on the depth chart. 

Bennett will take the snaps for the defending champs, but the jury is out — according to some — on his ability to be a difference-maker that can pick up the slack for a defense that might take a small step back. Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff are waiting in the wings if Bennett can’t handle the title defense. 

Heisman dark horse contenders litter the conference like mosquitos by a pond. Hendon Hooker is Tennessee’s unquestioned starter after he threw 31 touchdowns and just three interceptions last season. Kentucky’s Will Levis has received an insane amount of NFL Draft hype after tossing 24 touchdowns last season. South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler, the Heisman front-runner this time last year, will look to recapture the magic with Shane Beamer’s squad in Columbia. 

It’s going to be a fun year for quarterbacks in the SEC, and we’ll get to talk all about it next week.

Harsin on the hot seat

Bryan Harsin was nearly canned last February after a 6-7 season, a mass exodus of players and a disconnect with boosters and decision-makers on the direction and management of the program. Local media has had the chance to speak with Harsin on the matter, but media days will mark the first time regional and national folks get a chance to dig into what was one of the most bizarre weeks of the offseason. So how will Harsin handle it?

He didn’t shy away from addressing it during spring practice, and he surely will have rehearsed answers ready to go. That will, however, lead to a wild amount of speculation and reading between the lines on where he stands. Outside of Harsin, there really aren’t any coaches on the hot seat in the conference. That is, of course, as of now. A 3-9 debacle from other coaches around the conference can change things in a hurry.

Status of Texas, Oklahoma and realignment

USC and UCLA shocked the college football world last month when they announced that they will join the Big Ten for the 2024-25 season. The ripple effect of that news hit far and wide, including in the SEC. The conference got this current round of realignment kicked off last summer when it announced that Texas and Oklahoma will join no later than 2025-26, but the landscape has changed since then. Two massive powers headed to the Big Ten suggests that other conferences — including the SEC — could target west coast programs in order to create a nationwide footprint. 

What’s more, the weak knees of the Pac-12 have the Big 12 “open for business” after it announced BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF as new members beginning next season. Could that expedite the or decelerate the impending moves of the Longhorns and Sooners? Sankey will be asked about it early and often.

Saban-Fisher drama

The Jimbo Fisher-Nick Saban spat from earlier in the offseason, in which Saban accused Texas A&M of buying its recruiting class, made for a wild week in college football and put a spotlight on the fact that there are no guardrails on this new era of college athletics. It’s highly unlikely that the two coaches will get into another war of words in Atlanta, but the issues that were brought up during the previous instance will be addressed.

Saban and Fisher know that their voices matter, especially after what happened during the offseason. Expect both to put the spat in the rearview mirror but use it to further a conversation that needs to be addressed in order to maintain some semblance of competitive balance.

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