This year's SEC Media Days wrapped up on Thursday with Auburn, Vanderbilt and South Carolina getting their chance to speak with reporters about what to expect from the 2018 season.
After reaching the SEC title game last year, Auburn's biggest concern will be finding a new star running back. Kerryon Johnson, who was named 2017 SEC Player of the Year after recording 1,391 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns, was a second-round draft pick for the Detroit Lions.
Head coach Gus Malzahn didn't go so far as to name a starter when the season begins, though he did lay out a plan for the team's backfield, via AL.com's James Crepea:
"Running back-wise, if we played today, Kam Martin would be the first guy out there. But we do have four or five other guys that we feel very good about that's competing for time. Like you said, we've had nine straight 1,000-yard rushers at Auburn. That's all-time SEC record. And I really feel strongly that that streak will continue.
"As far as Austin Troxell, we're very excited about him. He may have been one of the MVPs of our spring from offensive standpoint. He's got a chance to be a really good player. I know Coach Grimes and Coach Lindsey are extremely excited about him."
Despite the loss of Johnson, Malzahn has high hopes for his offense thanks to the return of breakout quarterback Jarrett Stidham for his second season with the program.
"I said this before, but from a quarterback standpoint, in this league, experience, there's nothing like it," Malzahn said. "Because the defenses are different than other leagues, and I just really like the way he handled himself. He's a very tough young man, mentally and physically. And I think our offense is in very good hands going into this second year."
One thing Malzahn and Stidham highlighted heading into this season is the difficulty posed by Auburn's schedule:
The Tigers' 34-27 loss to Central Florida in the Peach Bowl, which led to the Knights claiming a national title to cap off their 13-0 season, was also a topic of discussion:
Wes Blankenship @Wes_nship
Jarrett Stidham on #UCF claiming national championship after beating #Auburn (my tongue-in-cheek take - he didn’t deny it 😆): “It is what it is... they’re a great football team... we laid an egg and we’re looking forward to this season and using that as motivation.” #SECMD18 https://t.co/4Kc9s7mABw
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp emphasized star wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who was limited to three games last season after suffering a broken right fibula against Kentucky, will play a role on special teams:
The NCAA approved a rule change starting this season that will allow players to call for a fair catch on kickoffs inside the 25-yard line, resulting in a touchback and the ball placed at the 25-yard line. It's a move designed to increase touchbacks and reduce the amount of injuries that occur during kickoffs.
Samuel supported his coach's sentiment about not needing to call fair catches:
Even though the Gamecocks finished 25th in the nation in scoring defense last season, Muschamp noted he wanted to see an improved effort from his defensive line in 2018:
They averaged just two sacks per game in 2017, tied for 65th in the nation with teams like Hawaii, Ball State, Georgia State, Memphis and Boston College.
The front four wasn't the only target for Muschamp to offer criticism of his team:
Things weren't all serious for the Gamecocks head coach, who showed off his sense of humor when talking about Georgia's Kirby Smart and a boat incident involving Alabama head coach Nick Saban earlier this summer:
Now heading into his fifth season as head coach at Vanderbilt, Derek Mason isn't modest about his expectations for 2018:
One big reason for Mason's optimistic outlook is quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who threw for a career-high 2,823 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior in 2017.
The Commodores head coach didn't hold back in praise of his quarterback, via Saturday Down South's Michael Wayne Bratton:
"I truly believe Kyle Shurmur is one of the most improved quarterbacks and one of the most dynamic passers in this conference that people are not talking about. That’s okay. I don’t need people to talk about Kyle Shurmur. I know and I understand his pedigree, and I have seen his development of when he was a freshman and where he is now."
Justin Skule, who will be protecting Shurmur as part of Vanderbilt's offensive line, was also complimentary of the 21-year-old:
Mason also had kinds words—and a bold player comparison—for junior Joejuan Williams:
Mason was the defensive backs coach at Stanford during Richard Sherman's senior year in 2010. Williams has yet to record an interception in two seasons, though he did record 10 passes defensed in 2017.
It's been a struggle for Mason to make a dent in the SEC thus far. He's gone 18-31 with just one bowl appearance in the past four seasons.
If Shurmur continues to evolve after his breakout 2017, the Commodores will at least be able to compete against a schedule that includes powerhouse programs like Notre Dame, Georgia and Florida.
With SEC Media Days in the books, all eyes will now be focused on the start of the 2018 season on Aug. 30 when Texas A&M hosts Northwestern State. The remaining 13 teams will kickoff their seasons on Sept. 1 and 2.