Once the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, Wimbledon and the British Open were canceled last year due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Southeastern Conference's annual preseason media event for football never stood a chance.
SEC Media Days is returning next week at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama, after a one-year absence, but the continuing pandemic has resulted in limitations. Each of the 14 programs will bring two players instead of the usual three, and no fans will be allowed in the Wynfrey lobby, which should make for a strange and silent scene when Alabama coach Nick Saban enters on the heels of his sixth national championship with the Crimson Tide.
All 14 coaches might be 0-0 at this point of the calendar year, but they will take their turns at the podium from very different vantage points.
Saban's Tide and Kirby Smart's Georgia Bulldogs should be the decided picks to win their divisions, and the more interesting preseason poll might be how many media members select the Bulldogs as the overall league champion. Alabama is the solid favorite in the West despite losing six NFL first-round draft picks, while Georgia will be expected to regain its East crown after surrendering it to Florida a year ago.
Whether the Bulldogs will have to answer any questions about their four-decade national championship drought remains unknown, but let's hope there isn't the "now or never" narrative. Smart has assembled five consecutive top-three national signing classes and has taken Georgia to a Rose, Peach and two Sugar bowls in the past four seasons — hardly signs of a fleeting run.
Jimbo Fisher's Texas A&M Aggies and Dan Mullen's Florida Gators should be the runner-up choices in each division, though history doesn't bode well for Texas A&M. In odd-numbered years since joining the SEC, when the Aggies host Alabama and Auburn and travel to LSU, they are a combined 0-12 against that trio.
Florida overwhelmed Georgia in Jacksonville last year but has suffered significantly more personnel losses since that encounter. Of course, Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is still around, and he could use a productive autumn after Florida allowed 35 or more points six times last season.
The two player representatives in Hoover for the Gators — Zach Carter and Ventrell Miller — are defenders.
Last year's cancellation robbed SEC fans of the new and entertaining Magnolia State duo of Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach. These two rarely hold back on Twitter —"Being a trophy husband is exhausting," Leach recently posted — but don't set expectations too high on that front next week.
Kiffin, whose first Ole Miss team capped a 5-5 season with a win over Indiana in the Outback Bowl, can be reserved at times in front of cameras and microphones, and who knows where Leach will digress? Mississippi State's most recent game, a 28-26 topping of Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl, ended in a brawl.
Three SEC coaches not overseeing top-tier programs but with plenty of security right now are Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz, Kentucky's Mark Stoops and Sam Pittman of Arkansas.
Drinkwitz went 5-5 last year in his debut season with the Tigers, notching a 45-41 upset of LSU, and his first full recruiting cycle is yielding the nation's 16th-ranked class as of Saturday afternoon with six four-star commitments. Pittman went 3-7 in his first season in Fayetteville, with his three SEC wins surpassing all expectations at a program that went 1-23 within the league from 2017-19.
Then there is the steadying Stoops, who ranks second only to Saban in league longevity, has guided the Wildcats to five consecutive bowl games and ended the program's futility at Florida and at Tennessee.
Had SEC Media Days taken place last summer, LSU's Ed Orgeron could have basked in the glory of the 2019 national championship.
A lot of chaos has transpired since, with his Tigers backtracking to 5-5 last season, losing to Alabama and Auburn by a combined 75 points. LSU then self-imposed a postseason ban due to admitted NCAA rules violations, which resulted in the Tigers missing out on the postseason for the first time since 1999.
Just last month, Orgeron was added as a defendant to a Title IX lawsuit claiming he failed to report a rape allegation against former running back Derrius Guice, so of all the coaches in Hoover, Orgeron may face the toughest questions.
The SEC has four new coaches this year — Auburn's Bryan Harsin, Tennessee's Josh Heupel, South Carolina's Shane Beamer and Vanderbilt's Clark Lea.
Harsin and Heupel arrive having compiled sparkling records elsewhere — Harsin 69-19 at Boise State and Heupel 28-8 at Central Florida — and both have been challenged to close the gap against annual rivals Alabama and Georgia. Beamer and Lea have never been head coaches before and could be the most wide-eyed this year at an extravaganza that was birthed in 1985.
SEC MEDIA DAYS SCHEDULE
At Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala.
Monday: Florida, LSU, South Carolina
Tuesday: Georgia, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tennessee
Wednesday: Alabama, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
Thursday: Arkansas, Auburn, Missouri