SEC media days preview: Could Vols be second-place pick in East?

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Due to the return of quarterback Hendon Hooker, who threw for 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions last season, and the stability coach Josh Heupel has provided, Tennessee could be picked second in the Eastern Division behind Georgia at next week's SEC media days in Atlanta.

The Southeastern Conference's annual media days event takes place Monday through Thursday, with the Omni Atlanta Hotel and the College Football Hall of Fame hosting the four-day spectacle for a second time.

This has been referred to as "talking season," though the week's discussion points could be very different from the topics of a more typical year. League coaches are more likely preparing answers regarding conference realignment or how name, image and likeness compensation is affecting the sport than they are about their depth at edge rusher.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz and new LSU coach Brian Kelly will get the 14-team press parade started Monday, but not before conference commissioner Greg Sankey gives an opening address that is certain to be critiqued both inside and outside of the league given the sport's changing landscapes.

Alabama is scheduled for Tuesday and reigning national champion Georgia on Wednesday, and Thursday's finishing stretch offers intrigue as well with Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M.

Here are five items worth following during the week as preseason stories start emerging from Columbia to Columbia and from Lexington to College Station.

1. TABBING TENNESSEE

The Volunteers had the buzz of a new head coach this time last year, but little was expected following the 3-7 debacle of 2020 that contained seven losses in the last eight games before the coronavirus-related bailout of a listless Liberty Bowl trip.

Tennessee was picked fifth in last season's Eastern Division race but wound up third - an impressive third, really, considering the 62-24 and 45-20 humblings of Missouri and South Carolina, respectively, and the 45-42 triumph at division runner-up Kentucky. The Vols return quarterback Hendon Hooker, receiver Cedric Tillman and running back Jabari Small, and pass-rushing menace Byron Young heads what has the potential to be an improved defense.

A 7-5 regular season was considered a dream scenario 12 months ago, but that's viewed as a baseline in Josh Heupel's second year, which could result in the Vols getting pegged second in the East behind Georgia, with Kentucky third and a retooling Florida fourth.

"The difference in year one and year two is light years different," Heupel said in the spring. "There is so much familiarity and understanding in what we're doing - coaches and players alike."

Of course, being second to Georgia right now means being a distant second. Kirby Smart's Bulldogs won the East by a whopping three games last year, topping their two-game margins of 2017 and 2018.

The Vols, incidentally, were picked to win the conference four times in the 10-year stretch from 1996 to 2005 but haven't been picked since. They haven't been East favorites since 2016.

photo Ole Miss Athletics photo by Joshua McCoy / Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin may be one to express his opinions on the name, image and likeness landscape next week at SEC media days.

2. BEHAVING COACHES

After the widely publicized mid-May NIL exchange between Alabama coach Nick Saban and Texas A&M counterpart Jimbo Fisher, when Saban said the Aggies "bought" their entire 2022 signing class and Fisher called Saban a narcissist, folks were on their best behavior at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida.

Odds are Sankey will make sure that everything is still fine and dandy in Atlanta, if he hasn't already, but don't rule out Kiffin as a wild card. In February, Kiffin said the Aggies would "incur a luxury tax in how much they paid for their signing class."

If anyone gets in an NIL dig, don't be surprised if it's someone from Oxford coming off a 10-win season.

3. CONFERENCE CHAOS

Last year's SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama, had reached the third day when the Houston Chronicle bombshell dropped that Oklahoma and Texas were bolting the Big 12. Sankey was giving interviews on radio row when the news broke, and when surrounded by reporters, he said, "We're talking the 2021 season."

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork responded to the news by telling the SEC Network that the Aggies left for the SEC following the 2011-12 academic year "to have a stand-alone identity in the state of Texas."

That obviously won't be the case come 2025, and the recent announcement that USC and UCLA are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten has further established the SEC and the Big Ten as the two power conferences moving forward. Where does this all end?

Maybe Sankey doesn't know, but he's certain to be asked.

4. MEDIA INACCURACIES

Over the past 30 seasons, which encompasses the era of the SEC championship game, league media members have picked the correct conference winner an embarrassing nine times.

The accuracy has been much better as of late, with the media selecting the correct champ before five of the last eight seasons. Yet considering Alabama represents all five, perhaps Saban has made the guessing game too easy.

Alabama has been picked to win the SEC 10 times in the past 12 years, with the lone exceptions LSU in 2012 and Auburn in 2015. In both 2012 and 2015, the Crimson Tide won the league.

5. STAYING SILENT

It's been a headline-free offseason for Mississippi State third-year coach Mike Leach, who always has the potential to entertain.

While still impressive when posting random street-sign messages on Twitter, such as, "Respect your parents. They passed school without Google," Leach has been remarkably quiet for months. He's overdue for a memorable line or an amusing story or both.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.