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SEC Media Days showed a conference with something to prove

Alabama NCAA college football coach Nick Saban speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/AP photo

If there was a common theme at SEC Media Days, it’s that most of the attendees think they have something to prove.

It’s an odd place for the conference to be, but the golden age of the late 2000s and early 2010s wasn’t going to last forever. A downswing never feels good, and the doubt that comes with one is bothering coaches and players around the league.

Bret Bielema, a few days after his wife had their first child, and Ed Orgeron, who still seems to be on a high just from having the LSU job, were fairly even in their comments. Will Muschamp — who began by playfully needling a sportswriter who covered him while he was at Florida and also Kirby Smart — is playing with so much house money after making a bowl last year that he was visibly loose and happy. The rest had a palpable edge to them.

  • Nick Saban said “I don’t want to waste a failure” in response a question about not winning a national title last year. If not winning it all counts as a failure, it should tell you something about his mindset for this year.
  • Gus Malzahn invoked his 2013 team that won the SEC and made the national championship game when describing this year’s squad. Making comparisons to past title-winning teams is something coaches never want to do unless they think they can match up to their heights.
  • Florida offensive tackle Martez Ivey said his team is motivated by not being the favorite in the division. Teammates Duke Dawson and Marcell Harris echoed the feelings of disrespect.
  • Kirby Smart, whose Georgia Bulldogs are the East favorite, closed his opening statement by saying, “the expectation is to win championships. That’s what we expect to do at the University of Georgia, and that’s the standard we’ll be held to.”
  • Coming off of his first bowl appearance, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops said his team has improved with consistency and attention to detail. Because of that fact, his Wildcats are “ready to take it to the next level.”
  • Hugh Freeze, who clearly didn’t want to be there, took up nearly half of his time with his opening statement and declined to talk about his NCAA woes or Houston Nutt’s lawsuit against Ole Miss. He did assert, however, that facing the Committee on Infractions could be his staff’s “finest hour” and spoke about how he is shaping what he wants his legacy to be 20 to 30 years down the road. He might have been the only person in the building expecting himself to be back the following year.
  • Dan Mullen repeated that he has goals at Mississippi State that he hasn’t accomplished yet, namely a conference and national championship. Merely winning the most games in an eight-year period in school history, as the questioner brought up, isn’t enough for him.
  • Barry Odom said “it hurts your soul” to win only four games in a season. He didn’t mince words in self-criticism either, saying, “I didn’t do a good enough job as the head coach getting us ready to go win games,” and “I am going to make a lot of wrong decisions.” This was not long after he too spoke about winning championships, showing that he has big plans for Missouri that weren’t fulfilled last year.
  • Butch Jones came out swinging, right at the start highlighting his team’s academic improvements, the fact that Tennessee is one of just three SEC teams to win at least nine games each of the last two years, and his three straight bowl wins. He also disagreed with calling 2016 a disappointment, even as he immediately said afterward that his team didn’t meet its goals.
  • Kevin Sumlin didn’t blink when asked about his athletic director’s comments about him needing to win more games. He did bristle a bit when someone asked about how Texas A&M would be better after losing so many good players from a year ago: “I know that we’re doing the things that we need to do to be better, and I would not be surprised if the results don’t bear that out.”
  • Derek Mason declared that “Vanderbilt football is on the rise.” He also sprinkled his opening statement with phrases like, “definitely not satisfied,” “we’re pushing the needle,” and “the future is bright, but the future is now.”

The conference does have things to prove. There have been seasons in the last decade when the Big 12 or Pac-12 have had arguments to make about being better than the SEC. However, none of them were stronger than the ACC’s case from last year. Jimbo Fisher even kicked off his time at the ACC’s media event by saying without hedging that the ACC is the premier conference in college football. No amount of saying Florida State is built like an SEC team will dampen the ACC’s momentum, either.

There are reasons why the SEC has scuffled some of late. Georgia, LSU, Missouri and South Carolina experienced the waning of long-tenured coaching regimes in recent years. A few seasons before those declines, Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky cratered and needed long rebuilding periods. Tennessee experienced both a long-tenured coaching decline and a cratering over a longer window. A recent run of rookie head coaches like Muschamp at Florida, Mason at Vandy and Odom at Missouri led programs into rough patches due in no small part to their coaches’ dearth of experience. The lack of a clear answer for who is the second-best coach in the league past Saban is emblematic of the issues in the coaching ranks within the league.

By now, most of the rebuilding campaigns are nearing their ends if they’re not already over. There is a wealth of young talent at quarterback like nothing the conference has seen in many seasons. Now is the time for the conference to see most of its programs step forward. Otherwise, a culling of the coaching ranks won’t be far off, and the league’s decline in perception will continue as several programs start over again.

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