COLUMBIA – The annual mid-July circus commonly known as SEC Media Days begins Tuesday afternoon at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., with South Carolina’s heralded defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Steve Spurrier and many of the conference’s other top stars and coaches ready to talk football and other topics virtually nonstop for three straight days.
In previous years, Spurrier was always the rock star of the USC contingent and the Head Ball Coach usually accommodated the hundreds of eager scribes hanging on his every word with witty quotes and belly shaking jokes.
This year, though, Clowney promises to steal the show.
Along with seemingly happy-go-lucky Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy recipient, Clowney is one of the marquee names headed to Hoover. While recognized as perhaps the best defensive player in college football last season, Clowney ascended to rock star status in the aftermath of his devastating tackle and forced fumble on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl.
Videos of the hit went viral on YouTube (the official ESPN clip has been viewed 3.7 million times), making Clowney an instant household name. Even the video of him scoring the touchdown on the “off the bench” play in the spring game has been viewed more than 70,000 times.
The most-asked questions of Clowney, of course, will center on his chances of becoming the first pure defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy and becoming the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Clowney’s presence at the Wynfrey Hotel promises to overshadow quarterback Connor Shaw and wide receiver Bruce Ellington, the top two players on USC’s offense in 2013, and maybe Spurrier himself.
Nonetheless, both offensive players will face questions about possibly sharing snaps with Dylan Thompson (Shaw) or replacing Ace Sanders as USC’s No. 1 receiver and his prominence place as perhaps the nation’s best two-sport star (Ellington).
Eyeing history in New York City in December, Clowney must outdo three SEC quarterbacks with ample name recognition – Manziel, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron. All three signal-callers will answer questions from the horde at Media Days.
When Spurrier starts talking, he’ll surely answer questions about this possibly being the year that the Gamecocks finally get over the hump and win their first SEC championship. Certainly, most of the pieces seem to be in place to get to Atlanta.
“We have a pretty decent team ready to go,” Spurrier said recently. “I’ve had more fun these past couple of years. The SEC championship years (at Florida) were certainly a lot of fun, but we’re doing things here that we’ve never done before. We still have some goals out there we’ve never achieved.”
Aside from the refreshing star power, the new targeting rule promises to be the subject of much scrutiny in Hoover. Harsher penalties include ejection if the officials rule a player intentionally struck a player in the head with his helmet.
Spurrier questioned the necessity of the rule at the SEC spring meetings, so he could face questions about the sanctions. Former USC free safety D.J. Swearinger was one of two SEC players suspended for a game last season because of helmet-to-helmet hits.
SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw is scheduled to make his annual rules presentation on Wednesday morning.
Expect Les Miles, a beloved quote machine, to say something headline-grabbing about permanent cross-divisional opponents besides a number of other topics. Miles, along with LSU AD Joe Alleva, has been the most vocal proponent for eliminating the 6-1-1 scheduling format, which will likely remain in effect through 2015.
“If you’re going to have the finest football conference in America, certainly the first call of duty is to be able to pick a champion in a straightforward, explainable, fair manner,” Miles said recently. “I went through the scheduling and it just seems like we’ve played a lot of quality teams, more than some other teams. It’s unbelievably skewed.”
A shot across the bow at divisional rival Alabama? Perhaps.
Four new head coaches will debut at SEC Media Days: Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Butch Jones (Tennessee), Mark Stoops (Kentucky) and Bret Bielema (Arkansas). Three of the four coaches have been head coaches elsewhere, but they’re about to discover the SEC is an entirely different universe.
As always, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive will officially open Media Days with his “State of the SEC” speech on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. ET. His contract, which expires next year, should be a hot topic along with the developing SEC Network, the conference’s seven straight national championships and the still-to-be-resolved dynamics of the upcoming four-team playoff mercifully going into effect in a year.
Speaking of the SEC Network, the league’s latest venture is set to debut in August 2014. Newly hired network boss Justin Connolly plans to speak about where the project stands just over one year from launch.
What would SEC Media Days be without a little controversy? Suspended LSU running back Jeremy Hill — yes, the same guy who broke free for a 50-yard TD run against USC last season – recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge.
But the biggest controversy arose, of all places, in Nashville, where normally placid Vanderbilt dismissed four players and banned them from campus on June 29 amid a police sex crimes investigation of an incident at a school dorm.
The specifics of the case, including the identities of the four players booted from the team, remains a mystery.
Vandy head coach James Franklin, who never met a microphone he didn’t like, is usually one of the most talkative coaches in the SEC. Will he remain tight-lipped about the case or will he spill the beans as far as pinpointing the culprits when he speaks during the final session on Thursday afternoon?
Good or bad, there is rarely a dull moment in the SEC, especially at Media Days. Just imagine, with everything else swirling around him, people might actually forget Nick Saban is still lurking in Tuscaloosa.