BIRMINGHAM, Ala – SEC Media Days 2014 was the biggest gathering ever of journalists to hear from the coaches and players from each of the teams in the SEC.
The coaches had plenty to say on player turnover, College Football Playoff, and bad player behavior off the field.
Here’s our breakdown of the coaches’ press conferences:
Alabama head coach Nick Saban has had a busy summer. His family has had a few new additions–he has a new grandchild and his daughter got engaged. “I’ve always been behind the two dogs, but the line is getting deeper and deeper when it comes to Miss Terry,” Saban joked.
The summer wasn’t all fun and games for the Crimson Tide, however. Police arrested Alabama defensive lineman Jarran Reed and charged him with a DUI on Sunday and police arrested Kenyan Drake for obstructing government operations earlier this summer.
Saban addressed what he called “the culture of young people that we all have to deal with” in his opening remarks.
“But sometimes these adolescents disappoint us. How do we react to that?…When you have a family and you have someone in your family who disappoints you, we certainly can’t kick them out of our family. I think we have to try to support them, teach them, get them to do the right things because we love them, we care about them.”
Saban said that no one that he has ever kicked off the team has ever been successful, either academically or professionally, adding, “discipline is not punishment. Punishment is only effective when it can help change somebody’s behavior.”
On the field, Saban said, “Our situation as a team is a lot different this year than it’s been the last couple years whe we were coming off of successful seasons, championship seasons.”
“We have to reestablish our identity as a team at Alabama.” That will involve the checking of egos at the door for everyone in the Alabama football program, according to Saban.
Saban was the first to admit that the 2014 Crimson Tide is untested in many areas, saying, “There’s a lot of question marks because of the players that we lost and the players that we have coming in.”
The Tide also had three changes in coaching staff, including Bo Davis, Kevin Steele, and the much debated Lane Kiffin.
“But lots of interest in Lane Kiffin, who has done a really, realy good job for us. The players have responded to him very well. New energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas to do some things offensively that would enhance our chances of being successful,” Saban said.
Pleasant as ever, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema open by saying, “I think all the time about the SEC, especially coming here. I love to coach the game. I know that you report it, you love it. Our players love being a part of it. Our fans love being a part of it. That’s what makes it so cool.”
When a journalist asked Bielema what kept the Razorbacks from breaking through in some close games last year, Bielema esoterically said, “Every game is won or lost, but a lot of teams lose the game before the win it.”
He added, “There’s a lot of times you do things that prevent you from winning more so that the team that executed it…But as a coach, you have to be mindful of what you did to prevent it.”
Bielema also addressed his ongoing public disagreement with coach Gus Malzhan about Auburn’s no-huddle offense.
“Gus runs an offensive style and philosophy that is completely opposite of what I believe in, but who can argue with his success,” Bielema said.
When communicating with Malzhan, Bielema said, “I think he doesn’t hold anything back. I don’t hold anything back.” But Bielema said there is always a tremendous amount of respect between the two coaches.
Bielema welcomed any and all challenges to his program, calling his team’s tough schedule “awesome.” Arkansas will face arguably one of the toughest schedules in the country in 2014, with its 12 opponents combining to post a 103-54 record (.656) in 2013, including nine with at least eight wins, and three opponents ranked in the top seven of the final 2013 AP poll.
According to the NCAA’s strength of schedule formula, Arkansas enters 2014 with the toughest schedule in the nation.
Gus Malzhan called last year’s season “one of the most enjoyable, rewarding seasons that I have been able to be a part of in my whole career.”
Malzhan said it was a disappointment “coming up 13 seconds short of winning the national championship,” calling it a tough pill to swallow. But that defeat has provided more than enough motivation to the Tigers’ players and coaches.
The Tigers will look different this season, with the team losing Dee Ford, Chris Davis, Tre Mason, Greg Robinson, just to name a few. But Malzhan said there is plenty of experience on both sides of the ball, specifically, big-game experience.
“Overall I really like where this team is going into the fall season.”
Malzhan also updated the media on quarterback Nick Marshall’s status. Marshall was cited in Reynolds, Ga. almost a week ago for possession of marijuana of less than one ounce, but was not arrested.
“Nick made a mistake and he’ll have to deal with the consequences. I’m not ready to say what those consequences are at this time, but he will deal with it. I know he’s regretful and he feels very bad about it,” Malzhan said. Marshall was absent from SEC Media Days, having lost the privilege, according to Malzhan.
Malzhan wouldn’t comment on the possibility of suspending Marshall from the season opener game against Arkansas.
That game against Arkansas will be a challenging enough, according to Malzhan. He said, “That’s definitely a challenge, anytime you open up your season against a conference team.”
Malzhan recalled the 2012 win against Texas A&M, saying it was a turning point in the perception of his team.
“There was still a lot of question marks…about our team. At the time, Texas A&M was in the top 10. We were going on the road. Obviously Johnny Manziel was playing extremely well.”
Malzhan also spoke about the loss of Phillip Lutzenkirchen, saying “There will be definitely something to honor Phillip. Phillip, that was an extremely tough thing. He was a great person…One of the better players to every put on the Auburn uniform.”
Will Muschamp in the hot seat? That’s certainly a possibility in the 2014 season.
Florida Gators coach Will Muschamp opened his press conference talking about last year’s season, calling it “a very disappointing, frustrating season.” Muschamp took all the blame upon himself, saying that “There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business. That’s part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we’re going to do.”
Muschamp said his confidence in this season comes from his team and staff. “This is probably the most complete team we’ve had since I’ve been at the University of Florida in all three phases.”
Most exciting to Muschamp is graduated-quarterback Jeff Driskel. But Muschamp didn’t have any answers as to who will replace Driskel next year.
One theme on both offense and defense that Muschamp stresses was what his team lacks in experience, they make up for in talent.
“You take a combination of Trenton Brown, Trip Thurman, Tyler Moore are all guys that played, certainly capable of playing championship football for us. After that, we don’t have as much experience, but I really like our talent level.”
“I take talent over experience any day,” Muschamp said.
Not to say that the Gators completely lack experience, though. Veteran quarterback Jeff Driskel is returning this season.
“I think having a quarterback back that’s played well and is an experienced guy, understands some of the venues we’re going to walk into is a little more relieving for me personally and certainly for our offensive coordinator,” Muschamp said.
During a short opening statement, Georgia head coach Mark Richt said that he’s excited about his football team. Richt said that the off-season conditioning has set the tone, tempo, and expectations for his team.
Georgia is another team that lost its quarterback, Aaron Murray, this season. Richt said losing a player like Murray is tough, but having a backup like Hutson Mason is “a blessing.”
Richt said Mason is “a guy that got to watch Aaron’s work ething, to see how he ran the off-season program, how he would organize pass skeleton and those types of things,” adding that he thought the team would transition well.
Richt said he likes his chances in this season, saying, “Well, I think the league’s wide open every year, obviously. Auburn two seasons ago doesn’t win a conference game. Auburn plays for the national championship. Auburn wins the league.”
Last up to the podium in SEC Media Days 2014, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops thanked the SEC for saving the best for last.
Stoops said it’s a great time to be at Kentucky and the SEC. The University of Kentucky is undergoing a $120 million stadium renovation shortly. They are currently in the design-phase of building a state-of-the-art almost 100,000 square-foot stadium.
“I’m excited about this team. This team has worked extremely hard. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to,” Stoops said. He said that the team has had leaders emerge and is more physically developed than last season.
“Our players have put in the time. Our training staff has done a great job getting them prepared. We’re physically better. Hopefully that will translate to more wins.”
Stoops did allow that the team was young, saying, “We have roughly 60% of our team that has been a part of our program since January 2013 when I arrived.”
Another unknown and untested portion of the Kentucky team is who its quarterback will be.
“We’re still unsettled on who the starter will be. But I’m very confident that we’re going to improve at that position. It starts with the players around him,” Stoops said.
One potential quarterback particularly impressed Stoops. “I’ve been very pleased with Reese [Phillips.] He was a guy throughout spring that may have been the most consistent. He was a guy that just did a nice job of managing the offense and staying away from negative plays. Very impressed with Reese. He’s got a good chance to win the battle.”
The Kentucky Wildcats were 2-10 overall last season and 0-8 in conference play.
“We don’t dwell on anything that’s gone on in the past, anything certainly before I arrived at Kentucky we really don’t talk about much. We all take accountability in wins and losses. We all accept that,” Stoops said.
Though, Kentucky has managed a top-25 recruiting class, despite that record.
“I think most of our prospects we were recruiting knew we were in for a rebuild, had a little bit of work to do. There was no mystery there,” Stoops said.
LSU coach Les Miles is entering his tenth year as the Tigers’ coach. Last season was his fourth straight 10-victory season. He is returning 16 starters with six on offense, seven on defense, and three on special teams.
“We’re a team that’ really on the cusp of an opportunity to win championships,” Miles said.
LSU is yet another program currently without a starting quarterback, though. “Offensively, quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris. It will be a very competitive event from the start to the finish.”
The recent expansion of the Tigers’ home stadium to a capacity of 102,000 has made the home-filed advantage for Miles that much stronger.
“We like to play at home, there isn’t any question. We enjoy walking down the hill to that stadium. We enjoy the style of people that com in there that are intimately attached to to our football team, and that the opponent has a very difficult time getting the ball snapped. We understand the advantages,” Miles said.
“Year three of our journey, we’re all about being all in, relentless effort,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said.
Freeze is happy with the way his team is progressing, saying, “I think Bo Wallace has matured quite nicely. I love the frame of mind hi is in right now leading us.”
One of Freeze’s goals for this season is to get better offensively in the red-zone, saying that contributed to a not-stellar finish to the 2013 season.
Another factor that contributed to some losses last season according to Freeze: mental fatigue.
“We depended on so many of those young kids. The way we opened up the season with so many road games in a row…I do believe it took somewhat of a toll on them,” Freeze said.
Freeze’s record at Ole Miss has improved by one game every season he has been coach. He said that he’s a little surprised at the speed with which the team has improved.
“When I first arrived there, I really thought we would be going to hopefully a bowl game in year three. We were able to do that in year one and two, and win both of them,” Freeze said.
Freeze gave out a little information that he had lost a golfing bet against Steve Spurrier, resulting in Freeze having a very short haircut for SEC Media Days 2014.
Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen is anxious to get back onto the field, saying, “We finished last year with three straight wins, which is the first time that’s happened in a long time at Mississippi State. Gave us a lot of momentum going into this off-season.”
The Bulldogs were able to do that despite suffering numerous injuries.
“Due to all the injuries we suffered throughout last season, which I’ve never been on a team that had more injuries than we had last year, our guys overcame that adversity, found a way to win.”
Mississippi State is in much better shape than some other teams in the conference when it comes to returning players.
“We have 30 guys that started games last year returning this year,” Mullen said.
That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, who went into last season as backup quarterback but was soon promoted due to an injury.
“Dak is a guy who because of his skill set, he can beat you with his arm, with his legs, he can run between the tackles and he can run in the open field He has a lot going for him. But most importantly he has that will to win,” Mullen said.
Tigers’ head coach Gary Pinkel is still excited and honored to be a member of the SEC, saying, “I tell people all the time, it’s like being in the NFL. Every time you play a game, you’re playing a great team. Anybody can beat you.”
Missouri is another team in flux, with final lineups in the fall still unclear.
“Our challenge I think is going to be into August, which personnel sets are we going to settle on going in,” Pinkel said. “We lost quite a few receivers, good ones.”
After a rough first year in the SEC in 2012, the Missouri Tigers won the SEC East in 2013. But according to Pinkel, there is no stat he cares about, save one.
“Our goal is to be in the top 10 in the nation in turnover margin every year. We don’t do national goals at all, but that’s the one we have. There’ sno stat that will have an impact on winning or losing more than that stat.”
South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier came to SEC Media Days 2014 “ready for talking season.”
“We’ve got a pretty good team we think. Most of the magazines got us about 9, 10, 11 in the country, something like that. Hopefully we can live up to that prediction,” Spurrier said.
South Carolina is one of the teams in the conference with a somewhat experienced starter quarterback, Dylan Thompson. Thompson is 3-0 as a starter and played out the game against Central Florida when then starter-quarterback Connor Shaw was injured in the first quarter of that game.
Thompson has to pack a college career into one season, according to Spurrier. “It is unusual. Dylan has been very patient,” Spurrier said.
However, the Gamecocks lost some big names on the defense, including number one NFL Draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.
Spurrier, famous for controversial statements, had a few words for Alabama and coach Nick Saban.
“Arguably, they’ve got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team…I guess fortunately something the team that plays the best is the team that wins instead of maybe who has the best players,” Spurrier said.
Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones was upbeat during his opening remarks, saying, “Obviously it’s an exciting time of year right now. Everyone is extremely optimistic. Everyone starts at 0-0.”
The Volunteers are in a unique position this year, having to replace almost half of its football team.
Jones said, “We’re the only school in the country that has to replace both starting interior lines, both offensively and defensively. We have to replace our entire kicking game.” He added that the veteran players on the team have stepped up to mentor the younger players.
“But we have great team chemistry…Quite simply, it’s going to be how fast can we jump the learning curve. We’ll find out in a hurry with a great opponent in Utah State,” Jones said.
Tennessee is yet another program without a starting quarterback named for the fall.
“I’m excited about our overall quarterback competition. I think all three individuals have really, really elevated their game,” Jones said. Justin Worley, Nate Peterman, and Josh Dobbs are in the running, according to Jones.
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin opened his press conference talking about the excitement from players and fans over the redesign of Kyle Field, which includes the demolition and reconstruction of the first deck of the east side of the stadium and construction on the south endzone, which will include seating, media interview areas, gameday support, a commissary and a recruiting area.
Texas A&M also does not have a starting quarterback. Sumlin said, “I didn’t come here today to tell you who the quarterback was going to be…That will play itself out. I think we’re looking at a couple weeks before we play South Carolina that we’ll name a starter.”
“We’ve got pieces in place to work with. We’ve go a lot of young guys we’re going to have to integrate and figure out where they fit right away,” Sumlin said about his young players replacing veterans who left at the end of last season.
“In college football every two, three years you’re going to have turnover, and you have to have a plan for that. Whether it’s quarterback, whether it’s a great defender, whatever it is. To me that’s what’s exiting about college football,” he added.
Sumlin said the tough line to walk as a coach is knowing how much a quarterback can handle, and that’s not something you can know until you get a player in the game.
“You don’t know. Some guys handle that, some guys thrive off of that, some guys don’t,” Sumlin said.
When asked if the 2014 season was a transitional season, Sumlin said, “I don’t know. We have our own expectations, I’ll put it that way…I have to have a reasonable expectation for what we try to do.”
First year head coach Derek Mason opened his remarks saying, “Great thin is I’m undefeated, so I’m feeling real good about where we’re at.”
“Our team is a team of probably no-name young men who have a chance to do something great. It’s talent across the board,” Mason said.
Mason made a bold prediction for the 2014 season, saying, “I think our opportunity to compete for an SEC East title is now.”
With a new coach, defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, and special teams coordinator, Vanderbilt’s football team is in flux.
“We’re actually changing over in the scheme right now, both offensively and defensively…We’re about 70% there in terms of what it looks like. This summer was used to try to get us the rest of the way. We’ll do it again when we come back to fall camp,” Mason said.
Vanderbilt is a member of the no-starting-quarterback club. Mason said it would be something that would be talked about down the road.
Mason said he likes the experience Patton Robinette brings to the table, but said, “what I wanted was a quarterback competition….Robinette is tremendous. I love the way he competes. I love his swagger in terms of how he talks to our guys. But for us to be successful, we need a guy who can do it game in, game out, okay, with very little hitches, very few flaws.”
Mason said there are six players in competition for the quarterback slot. He said that he wouldn’t name a starter until the first game.
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