Following a long offseason—too long for SEC fans—the college football season is nearly here. Before the season gets underway in late August, the SEC Media Days are always special for one of the biggest conferences in the country.
Multiple new faces will be in attendance on Monday, including first-year head coach Derek Mason of Vanderbilt. After taking over for James Franklin, Mason has a quarterback battle and expectations to address in his first appearance at the event.
As for some that won't be present, Nick Marshall will not attend after a recent marijuana citation. That leaves coach Gus Malzahn, who led the team to the National Championship Game last year, answering questions for his star quarterback.
With the opening day of the event in Hoover, Alabama getting underway on Monday morning, here's a look at all of the latest from the always entertaining occasion.
While last year's event was headlined by a polarizing figure in Johnny Manziel, the 2014 version already has controversy before it starts.
Marshall choosing not to attend the event leaves three of his teammates and Malzahn to respond to constant queries about his recent citation. Prior to the announcement, Barrett Sallee of Bleacher Report wrote what he believed Marshall should have done on Monday:
Being a leader and owning the moment will make those columns published Monday night and the radio fodder that follows seem silly and outlandish.
Marshall should take advantage of the cards he dealt himself, not fold when the stakes are high.
For some, the decision was hardly an attempt to hide but more of a chance for Malzahn to help the situation. Paul Finebaum of ESPN and Larry Williams of Rivals provide their thoughts on Marshall's absence:
Malzahn made the right call leaving Nick Marshall at home.— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) July 14, 2014
So Nick Marshall is arrested and then doesn't have to attend SEC Media Days silliness. Is this a punishment or a reward?— Larry Williams (@LarryWilliamsTI) July 14, 2014
After last season with a loaded quarterback crop that included Manziel, A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger, this year doesn't quite have the same list. Without Marshall, the other signal-callers on the program are Jeff Driskel, Bo Wallace, Dak Prescott, Maty Mauk and Dylan Thompson.
That's hardly comparable to the 2013 slate. In fact, Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports believes Marshall would have been at the top of the list:
#Auburn isn't bringing Nick Marshall to SEC Media Days after his marijuana citation..Would've been biggest name QB at SEC media days this wk— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 14, 2014
As the official opening of the event nears, Auburn will have plenty of buzz surrounding their team. While they should after a great season last year, much of the questioning will be about their absent quarterback.
Day 1 Recap
SEC commissioner Mike Slive was the first to speak and kickoff the event. The 73-year-old started his speech with a special shoutout to his wife on their anniversary, but got down to business shortly after.
Slive spoke astutely about the potential of SEC reform and helping the student-athletes at the conference schools. Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports and David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune passed along some of Slive's comments on reform:
Slive: "We are not deaf to the din of discontent" publicly about the NCAA.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) July 14, 2014
Slive: "It is essential reform be implemented in a way that benefits our student-athletes."— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) July 14, 2014
The commissioner made his thoughts clear and concise, letting the NCAA know that change must come.
As for what might come for the SEC if changes don't take place, Joe Schad of ESPN notes what Slive believes will happen:
Mike Slive says if a positive NCAA reform outcome does not occur a new group of conferences could form (repeated previous threat)— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) July 14, 2014
Following the commissioner, Malzahn took to the podium. Despite the fact that his team experienced a huge turnaround year that culminated in an SEC title, the Auburn coach had to address the Marshall situation.
Malzahn immediately noted why his quarterback wasn't in attendance, per Nick Carboni of WBIR in Knoxville:
Malzahn on Marshall "it's a privilege and a reward to represent your team at SEC Media Days and last Friday he lost that privilege."— Nick Carboni (@NickCarboniWBIR) July 14, 2014
While Malzahn made sure to clarify the situation, it might still be far from over for the signal-caller. The Auburn coach gave a glimpse at what might be coming in the future, via Schad:
Gus Malzahn says he won’t say if suspension is a possibility for Nick Marshall— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) July 14, 2014
As for the players in attendance for Auburn, all three had to field questions about their quarterback.
Reese Dismukes, a senior offensive lineman, has seen the full ups and downs of the program during his tenure with the Tigers. So when he was asked about Marshall, he answered with his thoughts on a possible replacement, via Alex Scarborough of ESPN:
Reese Dismukes: Jeremy Johnson would start (at QB) for a lot of other teams in this conference. We have full confidence in him.— Alex Scarborough (@AlexS_ESPN) July 14, 2014
Another huge revelation from Malzahn was confirming that Carl Lawson underwent ACL surgery and will miss the season. The news on Lawson was reported earlier in the offseason, but Malzahn made it official during the press conference.
Bo Mattingly of SportsTalk with Bo Mattingly offers his opinion on the announcement:
Biggest news from Malzahn-- DE Carl Lawson is out for season after ACL surgery. Had 4 sacks as an ALL SEC freshman.— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) July 14, 2014
Before he wrapped up the presser, Malzahn made sure to address another difficult situation for the program. Philip Lutzenkirchen, a former tight end for Auburn, died earlier this month in a car accident.
Malzahn passed along his condolences and thoughts on the former player, per Sallee:
Malzahn: "Auburn will never forget about Philip Lutzenkirchen. He will be with Auburn forever."— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) July 14, 2014
Next up was the contingent representing the Florida Gators, headlined by fiery head coach Will Muschamp, whose blunt, honest style often makes for a compelling media meeting. Coming off a 4-8 season, Muschamp doesn't seem to be overly concerned about his job security, per College GameDay:
"Control the things you can control." - Will Muschamp on hot seat talk— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) July 14, 2014
Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports recorded Muschamp's radiant optimism ahead of the 2014 season, which should give Gainesville considerable hope that a turnaround is imminent:
A confident Will Muschamp says "this is the most complete team we've had since I've been at Florida."— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) July 14, 2014
Muschamp also offered a vote of confidence for his prospective starting quarterback in Jeff Driskel:
Will Muschamp on QB Jeff Driskel: "I don't think it's fair to judge him off two games last year."— Cody Jones (@CJonesScout) July 14, 2014
Will Muschamp on the new up tempo shotgun spread O: "This is what (Driskel) was recruited to #Florida to do."— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 14, 2014
How big is it to have Jeff Driskel back? "It's a relief for me and our offensive coordinator," says Muschamp.— Alex Scarborough (@AlexS_ESPN) July 14, 2014
A broken fibula cut Driskel's 2013 campaign far short, and contributed to some of the offensive woes Florida suffered from. Driskel has enough arm talent to get by, but he's really dangerous with his legs. That's something that the Gators haven't taken advantage of in the past.
In the process of learning another new offense, Driskel expressed excitement at what's on the horizon:
Jeff Driskel on learning new offense for third time: "It's actually not as hard as you'd think. A football play is a football play."— Cody Jones (@CJonesScout) July 14, 2014
Jeff Driskel on Roper's new O at #UF: "it's a complete 180 of thought process" from last year's philosophy.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 14, 2014
Defensive playmaker Dexter Fowler mentioned potential breakout performers on Florida's offense to watch for:
Dante Fowler asked who will break out on offense, first name he mentions is WR Demarcus Robinson. Likes him a lot.— Cody Jones (@CJonesScout) July 14, 2014
Dante Fowler said to look for sophomore Chris Thompson to surprise in the #Gators new up-tempo offense.— Edgar Thompson (@osgators) July 14, 2014
But Fowler has big expectations of his own, per Sallee:
Fowler: "My expectation for Dante Fowler is to be a leader, put my team on my back and get this team to the SEC Championship."— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) July 14, 2014
Mike Herndon of AL.com reported one of the more peculiar revelations of the day, courtesy of Fowler:
Florida DE Dante Fowler said he didn't hear about the College Football Playoff until today.— Mike Herndon (@TheMikeHerndon) July 14, 2014
As a freshman last season, versatile defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III was all-SEC and an All-American. Hargreaves can line up just about anywhere in the secondary and make a big impact. Gaining another year of experience while taking on more of a leadership role should see Hargreaves blossom even more.
It helps that Muschamp is a defensive-minded head coach. Both Hargreaves and Fowler figure to thrive, particularly if the offense can offer more support and put more points on the board.
Hargreaves is on the same page with Fowler regarding Demarcus Robinson, per Feldman:
Asked to ID a breakthru #Gator player this yr UF CB Vernon Hargreaves raved DeMarcus Robinson. "You've heard here first. He is THAT good."— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 14, 2014
Fox Sports South's Knox Bardeen left impressed with how Hargreaves conducted himself:
Very impressed w/ how #Gators CB Vernon Hargreaves spoke, held himself & weathered SEC Media Days. He's going to be a force this season— Knox Bardeen (@KnoxonFox) July 14, 2014
Muschamp and Hargreaves are both on the same page, it seems, understanding that the Gators need to take a step forward this next season:
Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves cites less ego on 2014 Gators. Will Muschamp uses word humbled.— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) July 14, 2014
The last to face the media during the opening day in Hoover was new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason and several of his players.
Anticipation was high for Mason's arrival, and what he might say. Despite the fact that the Commodores aren't a traditional football power, the coach is eager to produce results right away, per ESPN's Brett McMurphy:
Vandy’s Derek Mason: “The time for us to compete for an SEC East title is now"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 14, 2014
Derek Mason said a lot of young players will see action: "We don’t believe in redshirting at Vanderbilt"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 14, 2014
The State's David Cloninger added more of Mason's convincing testimony on the direction of the Vanderbilt program:
Derek Mason at the podium. "Great thing is, I'm undefeated. I'm feeling real good about where we're at."— David Cloninger (@DCTheState) July 14, 2014
Mason on Vandy's success: "We won a lot of games over the last two, three years with two, three-star players."— David Cloninger (@DCTheState) July 14, 2014
Mason comes from a strong academic institution in Stanford that has seen its football improve drastically in recent years, and he's keen on emulating that success in Nashville, per 247Sports.com's Ryan Bartow:
Well-spoken and sharp, Mason stood and delivered on media day, hinting at the bright future ahead for the Commodores:
Derek Mason on #Vandy academics/success etc: "A lot of coaches sell. I don't have to sell. I just have to present."— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 14, 2014
The most important position is yet to be settled, yet it doesn't seem to be worrying Mason all that much. He gave some insight into the QB competition, per Patrick Brown of the Times Free Press:
Defensive lineman Adam Butler confirmed that Mason has indeed set the bar high in succeeding the admirable job James Franklin did to build the team:
Vandy's Adam Butler: "Coach Mason talks about winning the SEC title. He doesn't talk about anything less."— David Cloninger (@DCTheState) July 14, 2014
ESPN's Edward Aschoff highlighted the value Butler brings to the trenches:
#Vandy DL Adam Butler is in the room. He's an important part of the Dores' defensive line because of how versatile he is inside and out— Edward Aschoff (@AschoffESPN) July 14, 2014
Safety Andrew Williamson is looking forward to one rivalry game in particular:
Vandy DB Andrew Williamson said he's excited about playing Ole Miss: "I feel like they stole one from us last year."— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) July 14, 2014
Another SEC adversary in Tennessee is a team tight end Steven Scheu is seeking to continue success against moving forward, per Josh Ward of SportsAnimal99.com:
Vanderbilt TE Steven Scheu on consecutive wins over UT: "It's just nice to make the in-house rival an actual rival again."— Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward) July 14, 2014
Mason summed up his recruiting strategy, which bodes well for what Vanderbilt fans can expect in the coming years:
Derek Mason: "I don't care abt the (recruiting) stars. I care abt what they put on tape." #Vandy— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 14, 2014
It's amazing what having the right coach at the helm can do in college football—even in a conference as deep as the SEC. Look no further than the epic turnaround Malzahn orchestrated at Auburn. However, the Tigers are under a lot of pressure to maintain their high level of play, since their offense is rather one-dimensional and the status of their QB in Marshall is in doubt at the moment.
Which program will win the most SEC games in 2014?
Perhaps the Gators can draw inspiration from what Auburn did in 2013. Although Muschamp is still running the show, stability under center—or rather, in the shotgun—with Driskel may be the ticket to take Florida back near the top of the SEC hierarchy.
For Mason, he is in a unique situation where he's inherited a program on the rise. As long as he can get his players to buy in as much as they did for Franklin, Vanderbilt should continue its promising ascent. That is easier said than done in the SEC, though it does help that Mason was part of a Stanford program that built almost from the ground up, beginning with coach Jim Harbaugh as the catalyst.
Expecting something similar in a more competitive SEC may seem a bit unrealistic. Then again, it's a bit of a surprise that the Commodores competed as well as they did under Franklin. This could very well be the start of a new, unprecedented era of prominence for Vanderbilt football. Whether it's enough to indeed compete for SEC titles soon is another matter.
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter: