Life begins anew in the SEC
HOOVER, Ala. -- For the coaches and players who subject themselves to 13 interview sessions spread over three hours, SEC media days require the endurance of a marathoner and the patience of a kindergarten teacher. Those being interviewed can't lose their energy. They repeat themselves -- a lot.
Repeating is a skill in which the Southeastern Conference takes pride. The members bask in the glow radiating from six consecutive national titles won by four different programs. Missouri and Texas A&M hit the on-ramp into that very fast lane this week, amazed by the spectacle around them.
"It's been different," said Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin, who led off the event Tuesday afternoon. "A lot of people everywhere. It's a little different from Conference USA."
Sumlin is embarking on his first season in College Station after coaching Houston to the C-USA championship game a year ago. In past seasons, SEC media days have made news in which there wasn't any. In 2004, when Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer no-showed, choosing to incur a $10,000 league fine rather than make himself subject to being served a subpoena. In 2009, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had to explain why his All-SEC ballot didn't include Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
And this year? Nothing. Spurrier stuck a needle in the futility that is Ole Miss, but Spurrier's needle isn't news. Alabama coach Nick Saban suggested that perhaps Penn State should add a surcharge to its tickets and donate the proceeds to combat child abuse. Saban's heart might have been in the right place, but the fans already have paid a price in the sordid affairs of University Park, Pa
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley riffed on the late college football fan Richard Nixon. "There's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore," said Dooley, echoing the former president. Dooley, who answered questions referencing his job status a couple of hundred times, later pointed out that unlike Nixon's 1962 statement, he didn't mean that he was quitting the game.
The rest of the three days stuck with the game plan. On Thursday, the league released the results of the media preseason poll. The media picked LSU to win the league and picked Texas A&M to finish fifth in the SEC West. That couldn't have surprised Sumlin, who summed up the opinion of his inquisitors as he made his way toward the exit.
"We can't run our offense in this league," he said. "We don't have a quarterback. We can't stop anybody."
What Sumlin read between the lines of the questions didn't surprise him. It didn't intimidate him, either.
SEC media day coverage
The pecking order will be settled on the field in the fall, but everyone is undefeated in July. There was confidence and optimism abound at the annual frenzy that is SEC media days.
"You got to remember where I grew up," Sumlin said. "I played a little Indiana high school basketball."
The reference is to the film "Hoosiers," when the Hickory High coach played by Gene Hackman took his small-town team to Butler Fieldhouse, where the state championship game would be played, to measure the height of the baskets. He wanted to show his players that the game would be no different from what they had learned in Hickory.
Sumlin won't take the Aggies to their first SEC road game, at Ole Miss on Oct. 6, with a 100-yard measuring tape. At least one SEC coach felt compelled to rise to the defense of the league's newest members.
"Missouri and Texas A&M aren't coming into the SEC with their hat in their hand saying, 'Thank you for letting me be here,'" said Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who coached in the Big 12 for four seasons. "There's probably some missed notions with people that they're going to come in here and struggle."
Chizik's gallantry aside, Sumlin does see a gap between his Aggies and their -- this still sounds strange -- SEC West opponents.
"The biggest difference I see is the combination of size and speed," Sumlin said. "Speed, we're OK."
Size and speed, not so much. Big, fast guys and a lot of them -- those are the keys to SEC success. That returns us to where we began, the teams that have taken residence at the top of the division, and the top of the league, and the top of the sport. LSU and Alabama, which finished 2011 in the BCS National Championship Game, will start 2012 in the top five.
Both teams look as though they will pick up where they left off in January. LSU hopes that junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger will provide an offense that will match the achievements of the Tigers' defense, which is deep up front and in the secondary. Alabama has one of the best offensive lines in the nation and a quarterback, AJ McCarron, who played his best game in the Crimson Tide's biggest game in January. Saban called that combination "very encouraging."
"When you have a good offensive line, they can make all the skill guys better," Saban said. "You can take advantage of the opportunities those guys [the linemen] create."
The power in the SEC appears to reside on the same campuses. At least until the games start.
TEXAS A&M: THE TRANSFORMATION
It's a whole new world for Texas A&M. From a new coaching staff to a new conference, life has changed for the Aggies.