HOOVER, Ala. — The 2021 SEC Football Kickoff Media Days is in the books. After a year's hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the coaches and athletes from each of the conference's 14 programs had a moment in the spotlight on center stage at the Wynfrey Hotel just south of Birmingham.
The wait was absolutely worth it.
Over the course of four days, each program's coach highlighted its strengths and weaknesses heading into next season as well as reflected on the adversity and challenges presented by last year's pandemic football season. There were moments of high energy from coaches like South Carolina's Shane Beamer, moments of humor from the likes of Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin as well as moments of heart from coaches like Kentucky's Mark Stoops.
Regardless of which team of the SEC you might pull for, it was an exciting and action-packed week in Hoover. With the 14 programs scheduled to begin fall camp on August 5, we are just a couple of weeks away from beginning what is sure to be one of the most highly-anticipated seasons in recent memory as things return to normal.
Here are the highlights of each program from the 2021 SEC Football Kickoff Media Days, listed in alphabetical order by team:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama reportedly leads the SEC in vaccination percentage.
Over the summer, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey announced that teams of the conference that posted a vaccination percentage of 80 percent or higher would no longer have to undergo regular COVID-19 testing, nor would masks be required for players and personnel at team facilities.
To no one's surprise, the Crimson Tide lead the conference once again, this time in vaccination percentage.
During his press conference on Wednesday, coach Nick Saban revealed that his team was very close to surpassing the 90-percent range regarding the number of players vaccinated.
"Every player has a personal decision to make to evaluate the risk of COVID relative to vaccine, and then they have a competitive decision to make on how it impacts their ability to play in games, because with the vaccine you probably have a better chance," Saban said. "Without it, you have a lesser chance that something could happen, a bigger chance that something could happen that may keep you from being on the field, which doesn't enhance your personal development.
"Then how does it affect the team if you bring it to the team? So these are choices and decisions that every player has to make. Our approach has been I think we've had three medical doctors sort of give lectures to our team about the pros and cons of the whole COVID circumstance, the vaccine circumstance, so that they can make intelligent decisions about what they do."
Arkansas' schedule doesn't get any easier in Sam Pittman's second season as head coach.
With the schedule restructured last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Razorbacks didn't receive any favors from the conference. This season, while things have returned to normal and non-conference games are back in the fold, Arkansas once again has a tough schedule. The Razorbacks head to Georgia, LSU and Alabama and will face Texas and Texas A&M in neutral-site meetings.
"We are the defending national champions of the hardest football schedule in college," Pittman said. "I look towards next year, and I think we're going to three-peat in that area next year. However, we're the University of Arkansas, in the [SEC] West, exactly where we belong, and we're excited about those challenges."
Pittman was able to outperform expectations last year with an incredibly difficult 10-game, conference-only schedule. It will be interesting to see what else he has up his sleeve in 2021.
Auburn isn't scared of Alabama.
Former head coach Gus Malzahn beat Saban and the Crimson Tide on three occasions, with the last time taking place in 2019 when then-true freshman quarterback Bo Nix led the Tigers to a 48-45 victory inside Jordan-Hare Stadium due in part to interesting clock usage just before the half and a doinked field goal by the Crimson Tide near the game's end.
Graduate transfer defensive lineman Tony Fair — who joins Auburn from UAB — posted on social media that he and the Tigers were going to "Take the head off the elephant" on social media.
At SEC Media Days, Nix concurred.
"Tony, he transferred into us, and that quote, obviously it's a confident quote, but I hope he's coming to take the head off the elephant," Nix said. "I hope he's not coming to get the head taken off the Tiger. So that's really important. I think that actually I like the quote. I think it's important because we're not scared of Alabama. I know that a lot of people want us to be scared, but we're really not."
Dan Mullen is confident in quarterback Emory Jones.
Between Alabama and Florida, it's a toss-up regarding who lost the most offensive talent from last season. While the Crimson Tide lost Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith among other key players, the Gators lost Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney to the NFL.
According to Mullen, though, Florida will be just fine without Trask. In fact, if Mullen's energy around Jones is correct, it should be more than fine.
“He has continued to develop throughout his career," Mullen said of Jones. "He has got a strong arm and he is a dynamic playmaker with his feet and he has experience. If you look at his progression, I mean, he came in as a very celebrated high school player, highly ranked. I think for a couple years now, he's learned, he's grown, he's developed.
“He's a completely different player than he was when he walked in, in his understanding of the game and in his maturity. […] I think Emory has shown maturity from early on. It wasn't, ‘I have to play from day one.’ It was, ‘I have to continue to be developed from day one to prepare for my moment and my time.’ And that's what he's been able to do.”
In 24 career games, Jones has totaled 11 touchdowns compared to one interception. His arm strength gives him the ability to target receivers deep down field — a skill set the sets him apart from Trask.
Is Georgia the SEC team to beat in 2021?
There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the Bulldogs this offseason, and with good reason. Georgia returns 16 starters from last season and picked up some solid transfers highlighted by former LSU tight end Arik Gilbert, who is now listed as a wide receiver on the official UGA roster.
Combine that will a full offseason to prepare and the dynamic play of quarterback J.T. Daniels, and it's no surprise that there's so much talk about Georgia heading into 2021.
"We need to be better everywhere," Smart said regarding what issues from last season need to be fixed. "It starts with what we do. But the introspection was for us to find maybe a different way to do things and hear a different voice, and we've done that. The weekly meetings that we've had, that we've drawn time away from football, have been incredible. The gains we received in players being able to confront each other. It's easy to say the guy's not doing his job, to demand him to do it right, but it's hard when you have a unified group pulling the same direction to be the outlier."
Georgia finished 8-2 in SEC play last season, with its two losses coming from Alabama and SEC runner-up Florida. However, Georgia has now been hoisted up to the Crimson Tide's level as one of the heavy favorites to take home the SEC title this season.
Mark Stoops is not the biggest fan of expanding the SEC schedule to nine or more games.
For years, a debate across the conference has been whether or not the league should expand from its typical eight-game conference slate to nine games. With teams playing a 10-game, conference-only schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the debate has geared up once again.
Kentucky finished 4-6 last season. Overall, nine of the SEC's 14 programs finished at or below a .500 record. With so many teams who were eliminated from the national title conversation thanks to tough SEC schedules, Stoops made the point that it wasn't exactly must-watch television.
"I wonder if people watched last year," Stoops said. "There were quite a few people that struggled. That's how I feel."
When you factor in that Stoops' contract extensions are specifically tied to leading the Wildcats to seven wins each season, it's easy to see why the SEC's second-longest tenured coach has no interest in trading a non-conference cupcake in for an SEC powerhouse.
Ed Orgeron has a lot of regrets in hiring Bo Pelini as the Tigers' defensive coordinator last season.
While Orgeron is given a lot of credit for hiring Joe Brady as LSU's passing game coordinator in 2019 — deservedly so — he is equally responsible for the decision to hire former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini as the team's defensive coordinator in 2020.
With the arrival and departure of Pelini behind him after one short season, Orgeron said that he will never hire a coach without a formal interview ever again.
"When I hired Bo, it was not a formal interview," Orgeron said. "I believed in him and it just didn't work. I said I would never do that again. Every one of these [new hires], I interviewed them in person. I had a long interview with them, specific questions that I asked, things that I maybe should have asked or shouldn't have.
"If I'd have interviewed Bo Pelini face to face, I would have still hired him. There would have been no question about that because of his reputation and because of the guy I knew. There's no question about that."
This year, NFL defensive backs coach Daronte Jones has been named as the team's new defensive coordinator. While Jones does not have a lot of experience as a college defensive coordinator, it's up for debate on whether there is even a possibility that he could do a worse job than Pelini did last year.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mike Leach is a big fan of the expansion of the College Football Playoff.
With the news of the CFP expanding to 12 teams, Leach believes it's a solid start. Known for his unconventional rants and tangents that have earned him a place on college football list of most wacky coaches — in a good, wholesome sort of way — Leach doubled down on his previous comments that the playoff field should be expanded to 64 teams.
"It's never enough," Leach said. I'll tell you, Dr. [Mark] Keenum, our president, is on that committee, so I know they're in good hands. I think that part is outstanding. I think 12 teams is a huge step in the right direction. I personally would like to see 64, and you could format it out pretty easily. But I think it's a huge step in the right direction, and I look forward to it."
As usual, it's hard to tell whether or not Leach is legitimately serious about 64 teams. Regardless, the second-year head coach of the Bulldogs is a big fan of the playoff expansion Considering that Mississippi State has never participated in a CFP and expansion gives his team a greater shot at making the cut, it's not too difficult to imagine why.
Ole Miss Rebels
Matt Corral could possibly be the SEC's top quarterback this season.
Last season, Corral thrived in coach Lane Kiffin's offense, throwing for 3,337 yards and 29 touchdowns in the 10-game schedule. Turnovers were an issue, however, with the young quarterback throwing 14 interceptions on the season. After playing very well against Alabama, the very next week Corral tossed six interceptions in a loss to Arkansas.
While Corral is unquestionably the man for the job in Oxford, Kiffin will need to develop more consistency in the young signal caller in order to take his team to the next level.
"He's never had a second year of a system, I think that has been good for him," Kiffin said of Corral. "I think that we were still trying to figure out ourselves, too, without having a spring — not just him, but our offense. We didn't even know if he was going to be the starting quarterback when we went into camp.
"So he's done a great job from a leadership standpoint. He's a very confident kid. So we've got to get him to play more consistent because, like we said, he played great at times, and then he played really poorly at times."
Quarterback Connor Bazelak has the capabilities of bringing Missouri back to relevancy.
Head coach Eli Drinkwitz threw Bazelak straight into the fire last season, naming him as the program's starter as a true freshman. Overall, it worked out relatively well for the Tigers, as Bazelak threw for 2,366 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games — including back-to-back 300-yard games against Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
This year, Bazelak looks to improve on his game from last year in a schedule with eight SEC games opposed to last year's 10.
"He's a maverick," Drinkwitz said. "He went out there and went into really difficult situations and gave him an opportunity to play the game. Obviously, there's areas he needs to improve on, deep ball accuracy, red zone completion percentage, and touchdowns. Those are a direct coordination with me as the play caller and quarterbacks coach.
"I've got to give him more opportunities in the red zone to make plays. I've got to put more trust into him. He's got to put more trust into his players, into his teammates, and I think you'll see that growth. He spent a lot of time in the film room, at the Manning Passing Academy this past week. He's anxious to continue to improve. I think one of his strengths is his quest for a constant learner."
Drinkwitz proved in 2020 during his first season as Missouri's head coach that he has the offensive skills to improve the Tigers' scoring capabilities. With a full spring football season in addition to an unhindered fall camp, Missouri will look to improve on a disappointing 2020 campaign.
South Carolina Gamecocks
When it comes to winners and losers of the 2021 SEC Media Days, first-year South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer was no doubt one of the week's biggest winners.
On Day 1, Beamer took the week by storm with his opening remarks — riddled with high energy and an enthusiasm that spread to the entire group of media present inside the ballroom at the Wynfrey Hotel.
While the Gamecocks' 2021 signing class ranked as the conference's worst, this offseason Beamer hit the NCAA Transfer Portal and added a plethora of names to make up for some of that slip in talent. Couple that with a 2022 class that is currently ranked in top 25 nation-wide, and Beamer's energy is clearly making an impact in Columbia.
“I’m not conceding anything right now as far as wins and losses,” Beamer said. “Let’s be the very best team that we can be. I know talking about the process is very cliche, but it’s true.”
Last season, South Carolina finished 2-8 at season's end with its only two victories being over Vanderbilt and Auburn. While it's tough to say just exactly how the Gamecocks will stack up in 2021, it won't be surprising when Beamer is able to pull off a better record at the end of his first 12 games as head coach.
Joe Milton has entered the quarterback conversation in Knoxville.
It's become somewhat normal across college football that when a program hires a new head coach, that head coach quickly turns around and states something along the lines of 'Every position on the team is now available.'
There's no doubt that first-year head coaches love competition for positions, but Tennessee truly does have an interesting battle on its hands at quarterback.
Sophomore Harrison Bailey was looking like the team's starter this past spring, but transfers Hendon Hooker from Virginia Tech and Joe Milton of Michigan have seemingly gained ground.
At SEC Media Days, first-year head coach Josh Heupel spoke of the talent of Milton.
"Joe's got a unique skill set, a strong arm, accurate passer," Heupel said. "I think he's a very bright young man that's picked up on what we've done so far really well. He's talented. He can spread the football field from sideline to sideline and vertically, and has a unique skill set with his size and mobility to use his feet as a weapon as well."
Milton didn't join the team until after spring, so the odds of him starting in Tennessee's season opener are stacked against him. That being said, there's no doubt that he has made an impression on Heupel and it would not be a surprise if Milton picked up a start or two at the position by season's end.
Texas A&M Aggies
Jimbo Fisher has zero regrets regarding his May comments against Alabama.
Fisher made the news this summer after making a remark that he and his Aggies were going to beat Nick Saban's rear end this season. While the statement was made at the Touchdown Club in Houston and were said in a playful manner, the words were no doubt eye-catching to not only the Texas A&M and Alabama fanbases but also the entire SEC.
At SEC Media Days, Fisher did everything but retract those comments.
"I don't have any regrets," Fisher said. "That's what we're here for, isn't it? Isn't that why everybody's here? That's what makes this league this league. That's what we expect to do at Texas A&M. In saying all that — Nick and I are friends. We've known each other a long time. We coached together. We're from the same world, if that makes any sense. I have the utmost respect for what he's done and what he's accomplished. He's the standard, and the standard is what you have to play to."
Texas A&M enters the 2021 season as one of the conference favorites. Last season, the team's loss to Alabama cost them a spot in the College Football Playoff — a loss that still haunts Fisher and his Aggies.
Clark Lea is bringing a new sort of energy to Vanderbilt.
Last season under former head coach Derek Mason, the Commodores finished the season 0-9 in its conference-only schedule. Though Mason had led Vanderbilt to two bowl game appearances, it was no doubt time for a change in Nashville.
It's been eight seasons since Vanderbilt last held a winning record. Since former coach James Franklin's back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2012 and 2013, the Commodores have improved their facilities as a result of the growth of the program but have failed to those improvements in the win column.
Lea intends to change that.
"I jump in with an accelerated perspective," Lea said. "I know the intricacies of what the program is about, how it fits in our university, what the recruiting profile should look like and where the resources are. So for me, it's seizing the opportunity we have to build something different to give this program chance to be at its potential."
As a former Vanderbilt player who is uniquely qualified to understand the rigorous academic standards that his program holds on its athletes, no one is more adequately fitted for the job with the Commodores.