The Southeastern Conference might have lost a bit of its edge from last season, but even that doesn’t keep it from being the most exciting conference in college football.
Johnny Manziel has taken his talents from Texas A&M to the NFL. Vanderbilt is without James Franklin, who left for the coaching job at Penn State, likely also signaling that the Commodores will no longer be a threat to win eight games again anytime soon.
A bumper crop of star players like Jadeveon Clowney, A.J. McCarron and Aaron Murray are also all part of the NFL’s ranks, no longer representing the most talent-rich league in college football.
That doesn’t mean that SEC Media Days this week in Hoover, Ala., are without intrigue. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.
With the league not represented by the national champion for the first time since the 2005 season, the SEC is looking to reclaim the title as college football goes to a four-team playoff format in 2014.
Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and LSU will all be programs to contend with for one of those coveted four spots to either the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl in January.
The case for Alabama to get back to the national championship game, and try to win its fourth since 2009, is simple: the Crimson Tide have a ridiculously loaded running game, one of the top wide receivers in Amari Cooper and a yearly top-five recruiting class nationally to keep the depth strong on both sides of the ball, despite players being plucked away every year by the NFL.
Alabama is so talent-rich that it could probably win eight games with this sports scribe as coach. With Nick Saban in charge in Tuscaloosa, the Tide will undoubtedly be in both the thick of the league and national title hunt.
Georgia coach Mark Richt takes to the SEC Media podium Thursday, and should — at least on paper — have the most legitimate contender he has fielded in Athens since entering the 2008 season No. 1 in the nation.
The Bulldogs, most importantly, are balanced on both sides of the football. Georgia has a wealth of options at running back and wide receiver, helping alleviate any concerns of fifth-year senior Hutson Mason stepping into the starting role.
Also important, Georgia has a favorable schedule with Clemson, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech all coming to Sanford Stadium. Not having to butt heads against LSU and Alabama in league play makes the schedule even more desirable.
Auburn is a national contender simply because it played for the title last season, losing a squeaker against Florida State.
When the Tigers took their turn at SEC Media Days on Monday, starting quarterback Nick Marshall was scratched from appearing since his recent arrest for possession of marijuana. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has not clarified whether his returning starting quarterback will miss any of the regular season for his off-the-field transgression.
As for Louisiana State, it could be a bit of a wildcard with so much unknown heading into 2014. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger is gone and now suiting up for the Tennessee Titans.
Also in the West Division, Missouri and Mississippi State can’t be discounted from the list of contenders — yet.
It appears that the SEC’s main mouthpiece now, or elder statesman, is South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, who goes before SEC media this morning.
The Gamecocks’ coach will be asked questions all over the board, knowing he will give an honest-and-upfront assessment of where he stands on the most pressing issues in college football, including player compensation, the new playoff format and filling the shoes of the hybrid defensive end-linebacker Clowney, who went No. 1 in April’s NFL Draft.
The biggest consistency with regard to the SEC is the coaching ranks, where Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason is the lone new coach. In 2013, four new coaches took to the SEC: Bret Bielema (Arkansas), Mark Stoops (Kentucky), Butch Jones (Tennessee) and Malzahn at Auburn.
Local fans, particularly those of Gainesville High, will see two of its biggest stars wrap up college careers in the SEC. Tennessee middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is ranked one of the best at his position nationally, while quarterback Blake Sims is in a battle for the starting job at Alabama.
The league may be a little more toned down this season, but exciting still.
SEC Media Days are here for four days just to whet the appetite of fans. The official kickoff on Aug. 28 can’t get here fast enough.
Bill Murphy is a sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.