HOOVER – When it's time for Alabama to participate in Southeastern Conference Football Media Days, everyone takes notice.
Under coach Nick Saban, Alabama has returned to the elite of college football, and passionate fans waited in the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel when Saban and Crimson Tide players arrived for their session with local and national media Wednesday. An overflow crowd of the Crimson Nation waited and welcomed their hero, along with Calvin Ridley, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bradley Bozeman, to Media Days.
Alabama was in the lead-off position for day three, while Missouri, Kentucky and Texas A&M fell in line. Each school gets equal time during this event, but with the greatness Alabama shows year in, year out, the Tide is a team that captivates plenty of people who are not officially associated with the media.
Alabama is again ready to be challenged as the SEC's best
No one has to tell Alabama to work hard to once again control the SEC and put itself into the running for another national championship.
Saban and the team are dealing with the pain of a 35-31 loss to Clemson in last season's title bout, denying the Tide a second-straight crown. The mission to overturn that adversity began in the spring with workouts and continues in the summer with many doing what it takes to prepare themselves for another adventurous run through the conference.
Alabama returns six starters on both sides of the ball. Jalen Hurts is back at quarterback, with many expecting similar results to what he did as a freshman. Damien Harris keys the running game with Ridley the standout in the group of receivers.
The Tide features three back on the line with Bozeman at center, guard Ross Pierschbacher and tackle Jonah Williams. The right side of the offensive line and the tight end position will present new starters.
On defense, Bama is deep with Anthony Averett, Tony Brown, Ronnie Harrison and all-conference Fitzpatrick in the secondary. The Tide has Da'Ron Payne at nose guard and Shaun Dion Hamilton at linebacker, with the rest to be new starters.
"We are excited about the challenges the season presents to us," Saban said. "We are working very hard, staying organized. This is one of the youngest teams we have had here since 2012. We lost seven off our defense who were drafted in the first four rounds.
"This is the first time we have a returning starter at quarterback since 2013. Jalen is becoming a better passer in the offseason. Our team is developing an identity. They are taking ownership. We want to be a team difficult to play against. Everybody is buying in for everything in the house. We create a culture of accountability for our players."
Saban spoke on having three new coaches on the offensive side. Brian Daboll is the new OC, leaving the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots for the elite program in the SEC. Saban is pleased with what Daboll has emphasized in his passing philosophy.
"We are trying to do what we can to get better. When you lose, you don't want to waste a failure. Our players (have the) ability to execute for 60 minutes. We were not able to finish the last game we played. Hopefully, we will not waste that failure."
Sept. 2 – Florida State (Atlanta), Sept. 9 – Fresno State, Sept. 16 – Colorado State, Sept. 23 – at Vanderbilt, Sept. 30 – Ole Miss, Oct. 7 – at Texas A&M, Oct. 14 – Arkansas, Oct. 21 – Tennessee, Nov. 4 – LSU, Nov. 11 – at Mississippi State, Nov. 18 – Mercer, Nov. 25 – at Auburn.
Missouri trying to get out of the basement in the SEC East
Since coming into the SEC in 2012, Missouri has ranged from very good to very bad. The Tigers won back-to-back titles in the East Division from 2013 and 2014.
Then they plummeted to the bottom, going 5-7 in 2015, and had a 4-8 record last season with new coach Barry Odom.
The Tigers know they have nowhere to go but up and could do that, especially with 10 starters coming back on offense.
Quarterback Drew Lock is at the head of the controls, Ish Witter returns at running back, J'Mon Moore, Dimetrius Mason and Jonathan Johnson at wide receiver, with Samson Bailey, Paul Adams, Kevin Pendleton and Tyler Howell in the offensive line. The right guard is the lone position the Tigers must replace with a new starter.
The defense has plenty of holes to refill. Only three starters are back, with the strength being in the secondary in starters Thomas Wilson and Anthony Sherrils.
"I love our senior leadership," Odom said. "I am pleased with the pieces we have back on offense. We have a chip on our shoulder about making our team better. We have got a lot of work to do. We understand the expectations of how we need to play better football."
Lock has drawn a lot of praise from Odom. "Drew has grown structure-wise with his game. He lets his skills work for him. We need 10 guys around him to step up and play. He's got a chance to be a special player for us.
"The starters have to play better. If not, it will be a waste for us."
Sept. 2 – Missouri State, Sept. 9 – South Carolina, Sept. 16 – Purdue, Sept. 23 – Auburn, Oct. 7 – at Kentucky, Oct. 14 – at Georgia, Oct. 21 – Idaho, Oct. 28 – at Connecticut, Nov. 4 – Florida, Nov. 11 – Tennessee, Nov. 18 – at Vanderbilt, Nov. 25 – at Arkansas.
Kentucky looking to take the next step to success
Kentucky played a .500 schedule in the SEC last season with four wins against four losses. The highs were a 17-10 win against South Carolina and a 20-13 triumph over Vanderbilt. Kentucky did finish in a three-way tie for second with Georgia and Tennessee. But the trio were two games behind Florida's 6-2 conference record.
The pain was getting thumped by Eastern Division champion Florida 45-7 and losing 34-6 to the best in the west, Alabama. A seven-win regular season was punched when the Wildcats went to Louisville and stunned its in-state foe 41-38.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson comes back, looking to do more to keep the Wildcats on the winning side. He will have seven returning starters, featuring wide receivers Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson, with tight end C.J. Conrad. Four of five starters come back on the interior line with Bunchy Stallings taking responsibility at center.
Eight starters on defense present promise for coach Mark Stoops, with a talented group of linebackers including Denzil Ware, Courtney Love and Jordan Jones.
"We started slow last year, but built positive momentum winning seven of our last 10 regular season games," Stoops said. "We had a big victory against a Heisman Trophy winner on the road. That was an exciting time for us.
"We are ready to take it to the next level. We are building a culture here at Kentucky. Our players have worked extremely hard. This is a mature team. We are excited to get going for the new season."
Stoops talked about Johnson getting thrown into the fire at quarterback when Drew Baker was injured against Florida and the Gators crushed the Wildcats in the swamp, known as Steve Spurrier Field. "Stephen is never too high, never too low. He is looking to get better."
Johnson became the QB and a three-game winning streak followed the Wildcats' loss to Alabama. After close losses to Georgia and Tennessee, the Wildcats rode the shoulders of Johnson, and he carried them to wins against Austin Peay and the upset of then No. 11 Louisville on its home turf.
Stoops reported a percentage of recruiting has taken him into the state of Ohio. Stoops has a good association with the Buckeye State and central Ohio is only two-and-a-half hours from Lexington. "The SEC is an easy selling point for getting players from the state of Ohio."
Sept. 2 – at Southern Miss, Sept. 9 – Eastern Kentucky, Sept. 16 – at South Carolina, Sept. 23 – Florida, Sept. 30 – Eastern Michigan, Oct. 7 – Missouri, Oct. 21 – at Mississippi State, Oct. 28 – Tennessee, Nov. 4 – Ole Miss, Nov. 11 – at Vanderbilt, Nov. 18 – at Georgia, Nov. 25 – Louisville.
More wins needed and expected at Texas A&M
Kevin Sumlin arrived at Texas A&M in 2012 after developing a true winning formula coaching at the University of Houston. Having a talented weapon such as QB Johnny Manziel enabled the Aggies to be strong with 20 wins in Sumlin's first 26 games in College Station.
But since, the team has become average, going 8-5 for the last three years. Sumlin, his team, administration and fans are getting restless.
A&M is wanting to and needing to raise the victory total, or Sumlin could be on his way out.
Not having a returning starter at quarterback is concern. A&M has only five back for offense with the backfield being new. Christian Kirk is the lone starter returning at wide receiver. Positives for the Aggies come from center Colton Prater and guards Conner Lanfear and Erik McCoy in the line.
Defensive standout Myles Garrett has gone to the NFL. The Aggies get six back for 2017 with DT Kingsley Keke a mainstay, along with linebacker Otaro Alaka. Donovan Wilson, Priest Willis and Armani Watts patrol the secondary. The Aggies were 13th in the conference in pass defense, an era that has to get better due to A&M losing all five games, giving up better than 28 points a game.
"The expectations I have start with me," said Sumlin. "We understand what the challenges are. We have no excuses. It's how we handle the grind every day. The energy level in the building in the summer is due to the leadership we have."
Sumlin acknowledged a majority of the improvement for the Aggies will come from defense. "Our linebacker play has got to improve. The interior guys are not where they need to be. We have got to be a better run defense team. We have got to stop the run. We have to make that stride and get stronger on defense."
In the opener at UCLA, Sumlin reports the Aggies will face a superior quarterback in junior Josh Rosen. "He took a beating against us last year. He will be ready to play.
"To finish and be a tough football team is what we are looking at this year. It started in January. We had 15 good days of practice in the spring. Leadership feels good right now. Things could not be any better.
"Christian Kirk has been a leader for us in the summer. He is a great example for all of our players, especially our younger players.
"We've got a lot of games in the West. We have to win a lot of games in the West. The Alabama game has taken its toll on us the last two years. The mental part of that deal is the focus. Nick has had a product that everyone has been trying to follow."
Sept. 3 – at UCLA, Sept. 10 – Nichols State, Sept. 16 – UL Lafayette, Sept. 23 – Arkansas (Arlington), Sept. 30 – South Carolina, Oct. 7 – Alabama, Oct. 14 – at Florida, Oct. 28 – Mississippi State, Nov. 4 – Auburn, Nov. 11 – New Mexico, Nov. 18 – at Ole Miss, Nov. 25 – at LSU.
Image courtesy of WBRC.
Copyright 2017 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.