In no particular order, here are the 10 biggest or most interesting storylines as we exit SEC Media Days...
1. SEC West Predictions
The West Division should be a fun race to follow in 2014. Alabama and Auburn are the clear favorites -- their battle to win the division last season literally came down to the last second of the regular season -- but plenty of other teams could surprise. And as Nick Saban is fond of pointing out, the media typically flubs its preseason predictions. That would be bad news for Bama as his Crimson Tide was picked by the Hoover media to unseat Auburn this season. LSU got the nod for third place despite youth all over the field (including at the quarterback spot). Ole Miss was picked ahead of a more veteran Mississippi State team in the four-five slots. We could see Ole Miss as high as third. We could also see Dak Prescott toppling the Rebels in the Egg Bowl again. Way down in sixth position -- after a pair of great recruiting classes -- is Texas A&M. Life after Johnny Manziel will be rough if the SEC media has it right. After what we've all seen from the Aggies the past two years, doesn't sixth place seem a little low? Finally, Arkansas brings up the rear. No real surprise there considering their 0-8 record in SEC play last season (though Auburn went from 0-8 to 7-1 in a 12-month span). Alabama nipping Auburn and then the slots from third through sixth are all debatable.
2. Shiny, Happy People
The media tried to lure a coach or two into digging at a rival, but no one took the bait. Steve Spurrier backtracked from his earlier statement that Saban might not be maxing out all the talent he recruits (due to the fact he's not winning the SEC every year). Spurrier said he was simply complimenting Saban's recruiting might, even saying he could be the greatest recruiter in the history of college football. Hugh Freeze was asked about Spurrier's dig at Ole Miss from a couple of years ago after he joked about it in his opening session. No dirt there; he and Spurrier are now golfing buddies. Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Auburn's Gus Malzahn were both asked about their man to man conversations. Both painted a picture of a cordial relationship. Bielema also refused to blow his top when told that Missouri's Gary Pinkel thinks that player safety concerns about hurry-up offenses are a fiction. Vanderbilt's Derek Mason and Tennessee's Butch Jones? They respect each other from their years coaching in the Buckeye State.
3. SEC Network
Multiple reports from Hoover suggest that Comcast and DirecTV are thisclose to signing on with the SEC Network. Expect Comcast to get done first with DirecTV possibly going right down to the wire. We suspect that no later than one week into the regular season, the SEC Network will be available to just about every cable/satellite-subscriber in the SEC footprint. That doesn't mean you can't still do your part by going to GetSECNetwork.com. Once that channel launches, we suspect it will feature a lot more promotion than news. ESPN and the SEC also announced the channel's announcing teams.
Mike Slive reiterated the comments he made at the SEC meeting this spring when he stated that a failure by the NCAA to grant autonomy to "the Five Conferences" would force those leagues "to consider the establishment of a venue with similar conferences and institutions where we can enact changes in the best interest of our student-athletes." Many, if not all, of the league's coaches were asked about the autonomy issue and all were clear in their support of full-cost-of-tuition scholarships for their players.
5. Nick Saban, Nick Saban, Nick Saban
ESPNU ran a countdown clock leading up to his Thursday media session. Once in, he poked fun at the media, opened up -- ever so briefly smiling -- about his new granddaughter, and stated bluntly that he never had discussions with Texas or received an offer from Texas. He said nothing of whether or not his agent, Jimmy Sexton, had had discussions with Texas representatives. Saban was the star of the week. It will be interesting to see how fans react to the SEC Network if its as Saban-centric as ESPNU was yesterday.
6. Kevin Sumlin Bites Back
The Aggies coach spiked quite a few questions back into the faces of the media during his session in the television room. He did it with a smile and, yes, a couple of the Johnny Manziel questions were better suited for the coach of the Cleveland Browns, but it was interesting to see Sumlin display so much edge. First time in three Media Days events we've seen that side of him. Might he be the next Spurrier?
7. Vandy's New Guy
Maybe the loss of James Franklin won't hurt the Commodores too much after all. New coach Derek Mason showed confidence without the hint of smugness of VU's previous coach occasionally displayed. Quite simply: We liked what we saw of the new Vandy coach in Hoover. A good start.
8. Missouri Treated Like An Honest-To-God SEC Member
Aside from one question about the SEC's divisional split and Mizzou's spot in the East Division, Gary Pinkel was treated like an actual SEC football coach this week. The man said he simply wants his program to be respected and last year's surprising East title and 12-2 finish seem to have gained the Tigers just that from a media pool once full of doubters.
9. No-Name Quarterbacks
A media session didn't go by without some reference being made to the SEC's dearth of proven starting quarterbacks this year. And as if pre-programmed, just about every coach made it clear that new guys come out of nowhere to surprise us every single season. Auburn's Nick Marshall and former Texas A&M's Manziel were most often tossed out as examples.
10. New Rules To Protect Those No-Names
The NCAA will do a bit more to protect it's QBs this season. SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw explained this year's big rule changes on Wednesday. They include a "no hitting the quarterback below the knees" rule that applies when he's in a passing position. According to show, defenders now have what amounts to a "strike zone" on quarterbacks -- above the knees and below the neck.