5 stories ahead of SEC media days

Buzz builds for season at annual media days

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart talks to players during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Nicholls, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 26-24. (AP Photo/Brett Davis)

SEC Media Days, the Southeastern Conference's annual event showcasing the league's 14 football programs, starts Monday and runs through Thursday in Hoover, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.

The event was birthed in 1985, replacing the legendary Skywriter's Tour, and it has mushroomed from fewer than 100 attendees to more than 1,000. Voters there have correctly picked the league champion only six times in the 25 years since the conference split into divisions and unveiled a championship game, though Alabama has been tabbed accurately twice the past three years.

Here are five storylines expected to be discussed at this week's event:

Saban's stronghold

Had it not been for Auburn's "Kick Six" triumph in the 2013 Iron Bowl, the chief topic for the 2017 SEC season would be Alabama's bid for a record sixth consecutive league championship under coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide still are bidding for a fourth straight title, which would match Steve Spurrier's accomplishment with Florida from 1993 to '96 and get within one of Bear Bryant's five titles in a row with Alabama (1971-75).

Saban joined an SEC in the process of winning seven consecutive national championships, with Florida, LSU, Auburn and his Crimson Tide contributing to that total. The past few seasons, however, Saban's stranglehold on the league has strengthened, resulting in the dismissal of some of his proven challengers (LSU's Les Miles and Georgia's Mark Richt) and the placing of his current counterparts either on the hot seat or not far from it.

"I don't think we're an elite team yet," Saban said at the start of summer. "We're probably adequate, and we don't want to settle for that. We've got a lot of things to improve on and some big challenges early in the season playing against a team like Florida State, and we're looking forward to that challenge, but we've got a lot of development to do.

"I don't think we usually ever have an elite team coming out of spring practice. It's sort of a work in progress to get to where we want to be, and we've got some of the same challenges this year."

Alabama, which had a whopping 16 midyear enrollees after another No. 1 recruiting class, is expected to be the overwhelming favorite when this year's league picks are revealed Thursday.

Bulldogs breakthrough?

Saban's influence on the league becomes even more evident considering Florida coach Jim McElwain was once his offensive coordinator and that Georgia coach Kirby Smart was his longtime defensive coordinator. The Gators have won the past two SEC East titles, while the Bulldogs could be picked this week as that division's favorite.

Smart had an erratic 8-5 debut season in Athens last year, collecting victories over North Carolina, Auburn and TCU but becoming the first Bulldogs coach since Johnny Griffith in 1961 to lose to Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt in the same season. All signs point to Georgia being structurally sound this year with the return of quarterback Jacob Eason, senior tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, receiving threats Terry Godwin, Isaac Nauta and Riley Ridley, and 14 of last year's top 15 tacklers.

"There is never a chance to relax," Smart said. "We talk about sustaining focus and keeping the same intensity, and the more you get used to that, the more it becomes culture and custom, and that's what we're trying to achieve. They were more adept at handling that this spring compared to last spring, and with more depth and more kids coming in, we'll be able to practice with more intensity and have guys get after it, and that's the goal."

The Bulldogs have struggled with expectations in recent years, making just two trips to the SEC title game since winning their last league crown in 2005. Georgia's last appearance in the league title game took place in 2012, and this should be the third time the Bulldogs have been selected to win their division since.

"Georgia will be the trendy pick, but I like the Gators getting back to Atlanta," Spurrier recently told the SEC Network.

Sumlin's scalding seat

No league coach other than Saban is too safe from job insecurity, with most in the SEC West just one bad season away from unemployment.

Even a decent year may not be enough to salvage the Kevin Sumlin era at Texas A&M. Sumlin's Aggies made an 11-2 splash in the SEC back in 2012, when quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy, but they've gone 15-17 in league games since and are coming off three consecutive 8-5 finishes.

Last year was the most dramatic of the collapses under Sumlin, as the Aggies started out 6-0 and were among the top four teams in the first College Football Playoff projection. Their only wins down the stretch were against New Mexico State and UT-San Antonio, and they lost to Ole Miss and Mississippi State programs that were not compiling banner seasons.

"Coach knows he has to win," Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward told the SEC Network at the league's spring meetings in Destin, Fla. "He has to win this year. We have to do better than we've done in the past."

Woodward is not establishing a specific win total for Sumlin to achieve.

Vanishing Volunteers

This time last year, Tennessee was receiving its share of preseason hype as the pick to win the SEC East. The Vols gained national attention early last season with a resounding comeback over Florida and the memorable Hail Mary triumph at Georgia, reaching No. 9 in the country.

Injuries took their toll down the stretch, however, as the Vols had unexpected losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt on their way to a second consecutive 9-4 finish. Only Alabama may have been able to withstand such a drop in prominent personnel without faltering, but Tennessee's late-season slide and the loss of six players who were taken in the NFL draft have the Vols back below the radar this time around with Florida and Georgia at the East forefront.

In fact, the Vols could be pegged this week as a distant third in that race.

Super sophomores

South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley and Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson are among the players who will speak this week, while Alabama's Jalen Hurts and Georgia's Jacob Eason are not. All four are touted sophomores after showing plenty of potential as freshmen, with Hurts named the SEC's offensive player of the year last December.

Throw in Auburn redshirt sophomore and Baylor University transfer Jarrett Stidham, and the league appears to be well-stocked with youthful promise at that position to go along with league veterans such as Arkansas senior Austin Allen, Mississippi State junior Nick Fitzgerald and Missouri junior Drew Lock.

Improved play at quarterback could result in improved play across the board for an SEC that had every team except Saban's Tide lose at least four times last season.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.