Winners, Losers from 2016 SEC Media Days
HOOVER, Ala. — The 2016 edition of SEC media days is in the books, and it's time to analyze how some of the conference's biggest names handled the Super Bowl of "talkin' season."
Georgia's Kirby Smart, Missouri's Barry Odom and South Carolina's Will Muschamp made their first trips to the annual event in their new positions, while seasoned veterans such as Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles drew big crowds.
Who were the winners and losers of SEC media days?
Our picks are in this slideshow.
Winner: LSU Head Coach Les Miles
No coach in America has as much fun as LSU's Les Miles, and he's not afraid to tell you about it.
Miles kicked off his annual stump speech on Thursday and, as per usual, rattled off his offseason world-tour stops.
"Miles' summer update," he said. "I was shanghaied in Austin, Texas, and taken to Cleveland, Ohio, to watch a Game 6 in the NBA Finals and root for LeBron James. I'm so happy for him. I could not tell you. But it happened very unusually.
"I was meeting my eldest daughter in Austin, where she attends. And my son, North Carolina quarterback backup, decided to come. And I said, 'OK, this is going to be my vacation. I'm going to Austin. We're going to get sun. We're going to work out. We're going to eat big. I'm going to be with the two eldest.'"
He also had a little fun when asked what it's like being the "Dean" of SEC football coaches.
"I think really being called a dean, I should probably get like a robe, right, and maybe a hat that maybe sits to the side and maybe my hanging cloth could be, you know, kind of dressed up some," Miles said. "That would be nice."
Miles also got into his role as a policeman in a movie, reciting his line in the radio/internet room.
"Step back!" he shouted, while breaking out his most serious face. "You, sir, step back!"
While fun was had, Miles also addressed the issues facing Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the wake of the Alton Sterling shooting.
"What I'd like to do is have them, our guys, have a platform where they could affect change," Miles said. "I think they're wonderful men. I think they're constantly involved in roles—they're a student, they're a football player, they're role models.
"Society chases them. They want them at the party. They want them in front of the magazine. They want their autograph. And so then they're constantly barraged with what's the answer, what's the answer, what's the answer? And the reality of it is just hope to put them in the position to allow them to have the greatest possible impact, because they're our future."
Miles' time in Hoover covered all of the bases.
Winner: The Tennessee vs. Florida Rivalry
The Tennessee-Florida rivalry is back, baby! And it could be better than ever.
Narrow Florida wins over the Volunteers in each of the last two seasons—which extended the Gators' winning streak to 11 over their once-heated East rival—have given the Vols a glimmer of hope as head coach Butch Jones has rebuilt the program in the wake of the Derek Dooley debacle.
An offseason Twitter war between players has added fuel to the fire.
In Hoover, some players got some things off their chests.
"It's always one of the funnest games of the year," Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "Because we win."
He went on to play the disrespect card a little more in the radio/internet room.
"The way that they're talked about in the offseason, that just motivates us even more to go out and beat them," Davis said. "We don't go out in July and worry about these guys who are picked to win by this many points. When we're three or four games in, now it's time to step up and see who's going to be a man. It seems like we're able to do that each and every year."
The last time Tennessee beat the Gators, Twitter hadn't been invented yet. But the combination of Twitter wars and Vols hype—which resulted in their being picked to win the East—has restored this once-storied rivalry to national relevance again.
Loser: Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban
It took a while for Alabama head coach Nick Saban to field questions regarding the punishment for offensive tackle Cam Robinson and defensive back Hootie Jones, but his reaction was worth the wait.
Saban didn't get a question in the main room about the two players who were arrested but not charged in Louisiana for marijuana possession and Robinson's possession of a stolen firearm, dodged the question a bit in the radio/internet room and said in the TV room that the two have been doing everything right since the incident and could play in the opener against USC.
Then he went on ESPN, and things took a turn.
Saban and Paul Finebaum got into it on live TV about the head coach's handling of their discipline, as the SEC Network pointed out on Twitter.
Saban and Finebaum then exchanged words when the segment wrapped up and later near the restrooms as Saban was continuing to make the rounds, as both Seth Austin of ABC 33/40 and AL.com Sports tweeted.
It's a bad look for Saban.
If he's going to defend his players on national television, he should know that he can only do that successfully if we know all of the information. If the two arresting officers were LSU fans—something he suggested off the air, according to AL.com's Michael Casagrande—that needs to be part of his public defense.
Simply saying "you don't know all the facts" isn't good enough.
Saban took a big public-relations hit on Wednesday, when he didn't handle the pressure Finebaum put on him well.
It did make for good drama, though.
Winner: Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart
While Smart danced around some tough topics such as Sony Michel's injury and Jonathan Ledbetter's arrest, he did display a personality that is the polar opposite of his former boss, Alabama's Nick Saban.
The affable Smart seemed forthcoming and honest, and he even joked about what meetings were like for assistants under Saban.
"[Jim McElwain] and I sat side by side at staff meetings [at Alabama]," Smart said. "I know you guys haven't been privy to Nick Saban staff meetings, but when you are, you have to hold hands sometimes. [McElwain] was my 'Kumbaya guy' at times."
From telling funny stories, to being forthcoming and honest about the concern surrounding the availability of Michel and Nick Chubb, to some subtle self-deprecating humor about the depth of his defensive line, Smart served as the Steve Spurrier sequel in the first year of the post-Spurrier era.
SEC Network's Paul Finebaum (via Bleacher Report's Justin Ferguson) commented on Smart's performance.
"He may be a rookie head coach, but he sounded like a veteran," Finebaum said. "I've been coming to these things for a long time, and I've never heard a rookie head coach like that. He was brilliant."
Loser: Kirby Smart's Timing
Unfortunately for Smart, his first media-days experience was littered with some ill-timed mishaps on his roster that led to off-the-field questions dominating his time in Hoover.
First up was running back Sony Michel, who broke his arm over Independence Day weekend. That left the Georgia running back corps in a bind, with star Nick Chubb's status equally as questionable after he underwent offseason knee surgery to repair torn ligaments.
"I don't know the expectation for Sony, if he'll be back or not," Smart said. "We'll know a lot more when we get closer to the season. A lot of that injury is how does the muscle repair itself 'round that plated bone. That will be a big part of it."
To compound issues for Smart, defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter was arrested, according to ESPN.com, on DUI and underage possession charges two days before the start of media days. Smart confirmed while making the rounds that Ledbetter will be suspended, although the specific length of that suspension remains a mystery.
The issues leading up to media days put a damper on what should have been (and still was) Smart's welcome party to the college football world.
Winner: Players Handling Tough Issues
Shootings in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas during the week leading up to SEC media days shocked and saddened the country, and provided a more serious line of questioning for college athletes who aren't necessarily used to this kind of platform.
They handled it beautifully.
"We need to have a sense of honor and respect for human life," Vanderbilt defensive back Oren Burks said.
Players were even pressed on their responsibilities as public figures.
"Everyone has a role," said Auburn defensive tackle Montravius Adams. "Black people, white people, it doesn't matter. At the end of the day, God said that we are all brothers—not to get all religious. But day in and day out, for this to get better, everyone must come together."
Baton Rouge has become a focal point in community relations in the wake of the Alton Sterling shooting, and LSU running back Leonard Fournette feels that it's his responsibility to use his platform for change.
"That's just me. God creates people differently," said Fournette. "There can be certain adjectives, but that's just me."
It wasn't just the players who handled it well, either. Commissioner Greg Sankey put the recent events near the top of his opening statement on Monday.
"There's a speech I found from Nelson Mandela in 2000," Sankey said. "Actually has a quote about how sports unite people. 'Sport,' he said, 'has the power to change the world.' That's the quote. He went on to talk and illustrate how that's true."
Loser: Mississippi State Head Coach Dan Mullen
How bad did it get for Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen?
It went so badly for the Bulldogs coach that his Jimmy Buffett sock/Weezy's shoe combo was barely discussed in the wake of how Mullen handled the university's decision to admit incoming freshman Jeffery Simmons, who was caught on camera earlier in the offseason hitting a woman on the ground.
Simmons will undergo counseling at Mississippi State and serve a one-game suspension. But Mullen was pressed on if his feelings would be the same if it were his wife or daughter in that video.
"I don't deal in hypotheticals really," Mullen said. "I don't know if my family would be in that situation. I'm against violence toward women and really against violence toward anybody in that situation."
That's absolutely the wrong way to handle a question that, while certainly of the "gotcha" variety, serves a great purpose in offering perspective on how Mullen the man would handle something similar happening close to him rather than to one of his players.
He also tried to build in some plausible deniability in the decision to admit Simmons.
"I wasn't involved as much," he said. "It was a university decision, but I was just thrilled that we're having Jeffery as part of our family coming in. As I said, I take a lot of pride as a coach on developing young men to be champions, not just on the field, off the field, and every part of their life to be successful in whatever it is they do, and that's not an easy process."
A one-game suspension for a true freshman doesn't seem like how you develop young men to be champions off the field.
Loser: Ole Miss Football Being Overshadowed by the NCAA
NCAA matters dominated the program while Ole Miss made the rounds. That's unfortunate, because on the field, the Rebels should be discussed more as an SEC and national title contender.
So since the actual football team will be overshadowed by quotes and video of head coach Hugh Freeze addressing the NCAA investigation, let's devote the rest of this space to what the 2016 team actually looks like.
Quarterback Chad Kelly is back after 4,542 total yards a year ago and has some lofty goals in 2016: "15-0, SEC championship and national championship."
Freeze did his best to focus on the team at times, and he pointed out that there are still talented athletes in Oxford despite the departure of high-profile players such as wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.
"I am confident," Freeze said. "People forget that Laremy sat seven games last year, and we gave kids a ton of reps like Sean Rawlings, Javon Patterson, Rod Taylor and Jordan Sims. We get the return of Robert Conyers."
At wide receiver, Kelly seems pretty confident in his crew.
"We have an army full of people," he said. "They've been working hard and been in the offense for a couple of years."
That army includes Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore'ea Stringfellow, Markell Pack, Derrick Jones, Van Jefferson and Damarkus Lodge.
On the field, Ole Miss will be just fine—even though you didn't hear much about it on Thursday.
Winner: Texas A&M
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is confident in his Aggies, and he's not afraid to tell you about it.
In an offseason that has been headlined with negative news, including the transfer of former Aggies quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, and wide receiver coach Aaron Moorehead'a ill-advised tweets after a couple of decommitments, Sumlin focused on the positive while making the rounds at the Wynfrey Hotel.
"For us, it was a great match, and I think has led to really a drama-free offseason," Sumlin said. "I think people try to lump a lot of things into everything, a lot of things that happened during the year last year. December 31 of last year, we had to make some tough decisions, I did, in the direction of the program. Some of those were not easy, but those decisions were made."
Those decisions were the hiring of Noel Mazzone to replace Jake Spavital as the Aggies offensive coordinator, the arrival of Jim Turner as the new offensive line coach and the presence of Oklahoma graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight.
That's not just media-day lip service; that's reality.
Spavital and Turner are two guys who thrive in developing the rushing game using tempo. That's exactly what Texas A&M wants to do, and should do, more of with James White and Keith Ford being the two primary backs. Knight doesn't have to be the guy who topped the 300-yard mark against Alabama and Tennessee while with the Sooners. He just has to pose that threat. With the best wide receiver corps in the country, that shouldn't be too difficult.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee