The fourth and final day of SEC Media Days 2014 is stacked to say the least as it features many of the best coaches and players the power conference has to offer.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban will garner much of the interest during the afternoon session, but there is plenty to monitor throughout the day, which includes Georgia head coach Mark Richt, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops and a myriad of talented players.
SEC Media Days used to last for just three days, but Thursday's star power proves that expanding was probably the right move. With that said, here is a look at the most noteworthy comments from Day 4 of SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.
Day 4 Recap
Richt took the podium first and was immediately met with questions regarding his quarterback situation. That was to be expected since SEC great Aaron Murray has moved on to the NFL since last season.
He expressed confidence in senior Hutson Mason's ability to step in and be the leader of the Bulldogs' offense, but he didn't hide the fact that Murray's departure is a challenge that his team will have to overcome, according to ESPN's Brett McMurphy:
Richt on life after Aaron Murray: “When you lose a guy like that. It can be tough"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 17, 2014
Most consider Alabama and Auburn to be the odds-on favorites to win the SEC in 2014, but Georgia is a definite threat in the SEC East and Richt believes the SEC as a whole is very much up for grabs, per McMurphy:
Richt: “I think the league is wide open every year because there’s so many good teams"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 17, 2014
Richt believes that quarterback play will be a huge factor in the landscape of the SEC this season. There aren't particularly high expectations for many SEC signal-callers with stalwarts like Murray, Johnny Manziel, A.J. McCarron and others in the NFL.
Even so, Richt feels as though the level of quarterback play in the SEC this season can still be great, per Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel:
"I wouldn't count out the quarterbacks in this league to play great," Richt said following the Year of the Quarterback in the SEC.— Edgar Thompson (@osgators) July 17, 2014
The Bulldogs haven't always lived up to their fullest potential during Richt's 14-year tenure, but he has had a great deal of success at Georgia. With that in mind, Richt's intention is to coach in Athens for the remainder of his career:
Richt said when he took Georgia job “my goal was this would be the last stop for me. No greater place than Athens"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 17, 2014
Richt was also asked about the school's stringent anti-drug policy. He dismissed the notion that it puts them at a competitive disadvantage and made it clear that the policy is important in terms of keeping players clean, according to Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:
Mark Richt on #UGA's stricter than most other schools' drug program: "We don't want our guys to do drugs."— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 17, 2014
The new College Football Playoff has been a hot topic of discussion throughout SEC Media Days since several teams within the conference figure to be candidates to make the tournament.
Most coaches have expressed uncertainty regarding the selection process and Richt echoed that sentiment:
Richt on @CFBPlayoff selection committee: “I really don’t know for sure how they go about their business"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 17, 2014
Richt's Bulldogs will be top contenders in the SEC East this season, but they have some top competition to deal with. When asked about rival South Carolina being favored to win the division, Richt made an interesting prediction, per Josh Kendall of The State:
Mark Richt on being picked 2nd in East behing Gamecocks: "I think in the end it’s going to be Georgia."— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) July 17, 2014
Even though much of the hype within the SEC surrounds Alabama and Auburn, Richt has no interest in tempering expectations for his team, according to Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee:
Richt: "We want to win it. Obviously. That's the goal, to win the SEC." #FactsOnly— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) July 17, 2014
If Georgia is going to compete in that regard, then star running back Todd Gurley needs to have a monster season. That is precisely what Richt expects as he considers Gurley to be one of the best players in the nation, per Sallee:
Richt: "I don't know, I think Todd Gurley is a pretty good (Heisman candidate)"— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) July 17, 2014
In addition to Gurley, Georgia boasts an impressive stable of backs that includes Keith Marshall, who is coming off an injury like Gurley and so many of Georgia's other offensive weapons. Gurley is confident that he and Marshall will be ready to produce in a big way during the upcoming season:
Gurley: "(Marshall) is doing great. It's only been like seven months. You'll be seeing him. No worries."— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) July 17, 2014
Perhaps nobody was more impressive during the early session than Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley. He was incredibly personable and discussed everything from football to Star Wars. Jacques Doucet of WAFB is among those who really enjoyed listening to Conley:
This is the first time I've been around Georgia's Chris Conley. But I can tell you, this is one bright + intelligent guy. #SECMediaDays— Jacques Doucet (@JacquesDoucet) July 17, 2014
Feldman agreed as he suggested that Conley stole the show with his outgoing personality:
If a player could ever win Media Day #UGA Chris Conley has today.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 17, 2014
Georgia as a whole did a fantastic job and Richt led the way. Richt was as comfortable and well-spoken as any coach who has spoken at SEC Media Days this week. He has truly become the face of Georgia's football program and it is clear why the program is so well respected as he carries himself with a great deal of poise.
Richt faced a wide array of questions and some were difficult, but he answered all of them directly and offered some great material for the media.
The Bulldogs definitely have some question marks on defense this season and it remains to be seen how Mason will fare under center. Even so, Georgia should be a top team in the SEC East and vie for a spot in the SEC Championship Game.
After Richt and Georgia's top players met with the media, Freeze and Ole Miss took center stage. The stage is set for the Rebels to take a big leap forward this season after going 8-5 in 2013. Freeze addressed that as well as several other topics regarding his team and the conference.
Freeze started by saying that he and his team are "all in" when it comes to making strides in the SEC. At the same time, he admitted that more leaders need to step up in 2014, per Steven Godfrey of SB Nation:
Freeze: "We haven't developed leadership in a locker room as much as I'd want." #DENZELGHAZI— Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) July 17, 2014
Freeze also spoke about Denzel Nkemdiche who was suspended during the spring (via Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com):
"He's back with us now," said Freeze, who is entering his third season as Ole Miss' coach. Freeze suspended Nkemdiche in February after he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.
"He's doing everything right ... since the issue that we had," Freeze said of Nkemdiche. "The plan I put in place, he's done everything I've asked him to do. It includes a one-game suspension, and hopefully that's the extent of it and he's back with us ready to go."
Despite Mississippi's potential shortcomings, there is no denying the fact that improvements have been made under Freeze's watch. Even Freeze himself is surprised by the progress that has been made already, per McMurphy:
Freeze on expectations: “Journey is faster than I thought possible. I expected a bowl game in year 3"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 17, 2014
According to Robbie Neiswanger of ArkansasNews.com, Freeze has received a great deal of support from some of the SEC top coaches during his tenure at Ole Miss:
Ole Miss coach Huge Freeze said Steve Spurrier and Les MIles have been "tremendous to me" through first couple years.— Robbie Neiswanger (@NWARobbie) July 17, 2014
Freeze discussed his camaraderie with other SEC coaches by revealing that he played golf with South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. Per Kendall, Freeze even lost a golf bet to Spurrier:
Hugh Freeze lost golfing bet with Steve Spurrier in Destin and had to "buzz cut" hair for Media Days appearance, he says.— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) July 17, 2014
In order for the Rebels to make some noise in the competitive SEC West this season, there is no question that quarterback Bo Wallace needs to have a big year. Expectations are high for him as one of the most experienced returning quarterbacks in the conference.
According to Doucet, Wallace acknowledged that protecting the football will be a huge factor for him in 2014:
Ole Miss Bo Wallace - I was doing a good job with turnovers, until those two games when I had five or six. Need more consistency. #SECMD14— Jacques Doucet (@JacquesDoucet) July 17, 2014
If Wallace plays up to his potential, then Ole Miss has a chance to surprise. The Rebels get both Alabama and Auburn at home, which certainly increases the likelihood of an upset. Mississippi has also closed the gap on LSU and it will be interesting to see which team finishes higher in the standings.
Freeze and the Rebels could very well fly under the radar this year in the SEC, but sleeping on them may prove to be a big mistake.
As big as Richt's press conference was earlier in the day, the excitement reached a fever pitch when Saban took the podium during the second session. Bama has developed into the premier program in college football since Saban arrived and the media hung on his every word Thursday.
Saban immediately had some fun when told that the media picked Alabama to win the SEC in 2014. The media hasn't had a great deal of success in that regard over the past few years, but Saban is hopeful that they are accurate this time, per Feldman:
saban on media picked #Bama to win SEC:"You've been wrong 5 yrs in a row & every yr we've won it, U haven't picked us but I'm rooting for u"— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 17, 2014
After falling short in their bid to win the SEC and compete for a national title last season, Saban and the team are approaching the 2014 season differently, according to McMurphy:
Saban said losing last 2 games has created “a little bit different mindset w/our players"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 17, 2014
Alabama certainly lost some talent from last year's team with McCarron perhaps topping the list. Saban called his team "unproven" and a "work in progress" on a few different occasions. That may be truest at the quarterback position.
Most expect Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to win the starting job, but Saban stressed that there is still a competition, per Tommy Deas of TideSports.com:
Saban says Blake Sims will compete for starting QB job with Jake Coker, but doesn't mention Coker by name— Tommy Deas (@tommydeas) July 17, 2014
Saban also addressed the fact that Alabama's defense took a step back last season. Improvement is expected, but a lot of work needs to be done in that regard, according to Deas:
Saban: "We're in a little bit of a rebuilding situation" on defense— Tommy Deas (@tommydeas) July 17, 2014
Interestingly, Saban spent a lot of time discussing the maturity level of young student-athletes as well as disciplinary measures during his opening monologue. Per Mike Herndon of AL.com, Saban explained the rationale behind his record of discipline:
Saban: No player I ever kicked off a team has ever gone on to do anything. "That's not always the answer. Discipline is not punishment."— Mike Herndon (@TheMikeHerndon) July 17, 2014
When Saban started to take questions the conversation went in several different directions. When asked about the College Football Playoff, Saban actually took an opportunity to praise the old BCS system, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com:
Saban says he's "hopeful" when playoff teams are chosen committee uses the experience from BCS, "which usually got it right."— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) July 17, 2014
Saban also gave his opinion on potential expansion of the College Football Playoff. He didn't necessarily dismiss it, but it is clear that Saban isn't necessarily a proponent of making the players take part in a much heavier schedule, per Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com:
Saban says "we're sort of getting to the saturation point" on number games heaped upon athlete.— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) July 17, 2014
Following that, Saban addressed the future of suspended players Kenyan Drake and Jarran Reed, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com:
Saban: Kenyan Drake and Jarran Reed "suspended but not off the team" after recent arrests.— Andrew Gribble (@Andrew_Gribble) July 17, 2014
SEC head coaches have expressed different viewpoints regarding underclassmen making the jump to the NFL. According to Feldman, Saban believes the math often favors players staying in school and developing:
Saban makes case for underclassmen to stay. Says for all the talk abt guys making $ on 2nd contract, only 25% get a 2nd deal: Stay & develop— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 17, 2014
Saban has seemingly never shied away from playing against the best competition possible. He supported that notion by saying that he wouldn't be against playing only power conference teams if possible, per Braden Gall of Athlon Sports:
Saban only wants to play games against Big 5. Love it. L-O-V-E-I-T!— Braden Gall (@BradenGall) July 17, 2014
Rumors ran rampant regarding Saban potentially leaving Alabama for the University of Texas during the offseason, and that topic came up during Saban's press conference. Contrary to popular belief, though, Saban claims that he never spoke with Texas representatives, according to ESPN's Edward Aschoff:
Aside from Saban, the biggest Crimson Tide stars present were wide receivers Christion Jones and Amari Cooper. Despite the turnover at quarterback this season, Jones believes the offense has all the potential in the world, per Sallee:
C. Jones: "I think this offense could go to the sky with the way we are moving pieces around."— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) July 17, 2014
Running back T.J Yeldon wasn't present, but Cooper had a lot of good things to say about the possible Heisman Trophy candidate, according to Doucet:
Saban's time at the podium was as intriguing as expected and the media certainly didn't come away disappointed. The Crimson Tide are stacked with talent on both sides of the ball and are candidates to win the SEC and the national title.
While Saban knows that, he did an excellent job of keeping things in check. He had a few messages and talking points that he wanted to get across and that is precisely what he did.
Saban and Alabama have been models of consistency and there is every reason to believe that will continue in 2014.
Following Saban would have been difficult for anyone, but that was especially true for Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops. The Wildcats went 2-10 last year and have very low expectations in 2014, but Stoops still came across as optimistic.
Settling on a quarterback is the first step toward improvement with sophomore Patrick Towles and freshmen Reese Phillips and Drew Barker in the thick of things. According to McMurphy, Stoops has yet to choose a starter:
Mark Stoops: “We’re still unsettled on who starter at quarterback will be"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 17, 2014
Stoops made the jump to Kentucky last year after spending three seasons at Florida State as a defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Stoops missed out on winning a national title with the Seminoles, but he had no regrets about going to Kentucky, per McMurphy:
Mark Stoops: “I did not miss being at Florida State, but was very proud (of national title)"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 17, 2014
If nothing else, Kentucky has the benefit of playing in the SEC East, which is a bit more open than the SEC West. Teams like South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri won't be easy to overcome by any means, but the Wildcats have a chance to improve.
Simply winning one SEC contest would be a step in the right direction for Kentucky, so Stoops has to be excited about the opportunity to make some sizable gains.
Stoops was somewhat of an afterthought at the close of SEC Media Days, but he was an engaging speaker and seems ready to bring the program back to prominence.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter