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SEC Media Days Preview: Five headlines that you should be paying attention to

From the return of Hugh Freeze to the coaches on the hot seat, here are five storylines to keep your eyes on.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JUL 18 SEC Football Kickoff Media Days

Although there are still seven more Saturdays until the college football season officially starts, a lot of college football fans in the South consider SEC Media Days as the start of the college football season.

SEC Media Days will take place from Monday, July 17 to Thursday, July 20. at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Nashville, Tenn. This will be the first time for the event to be held in Nashville and the third time for the event to travel outside of the Birmingham metro area. Atlanta has previously hosted the event in both 2018 and 2022.

There will be a lot of storylines heading into this year’s SEC Media Days as this is the first time in a while that anyone could win the SEC. Here are six headlines that you should be interested in.

Is the Alabama Dynasty Over?

For the first time since Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa, Alabama are the underdogs. Yes, I said that. The Crimson Tide will not only have two new coordinators in offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and veteran defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, there is uncertainty at the quarterback position for the first time in a long time.

Although Jalen Milroe got some much-needed experience coming in for Bryce Young when he got injured last year, he is more of a running quarterback than the previous Alabama quarterbacks. It also doesn’t help that no quarterback separated themselves from the pack during the spring game and looked downright dreadful at times. The Crimson Tide brought in experienced QB Tyler Buchner from Notre Dame, he had a tough year last year and was benched for Drew Pine three games into the season.

The wide receivers aren’t nearly as talented as they have been in recent years and although they have a dynamic running back in Jase McClellan, they lost an elite running back in Jahmyr Gibbs.

However, what’s killing Saban and his Alabama squad is that the rest of the conference has caught up to Alabama.

His protege, Kirby Smart, has built an absolute monster at Georgia and are the two-time defending national champions and have seemingly taken the reins from Alabama. LSU has reached the same playing field as Alabama for the first time since 2011 as they have finally had the roster to the point where there will not be a dropoff. It also doesn’t helps that the Tigers are led by head coach Brian Kelly, who is the first truly elite coach that LSU has had since Saban led the Purple and Gold.

It also doesn’t help that Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee are on the schedule as well.

Will LSU be picked as the SEC West favorites?

LSU enters the 2023 season as the defending SEC West champions and looks to keep the momentum going.

This is a great chance for head coach Brian Kelly and LSU to take the next step. They return most of their starters from last season, hauled in the No.6 recruiting class in the country, and resolved some of their depth issues from last season using the transfer portal. LSU was also to retain most of its coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and defensive coordinator Matt House.

On offense, the Tigers return eight starters, including QB Jayden Daniels, RB Josh Williams, WR Malik Nabers as well as four of its five starters on the offensive line. LSU also brought in talented Notre Dame RB Logan Diggs and speedy Alabama WR Aaron Anderson from the transfer portal.

On defense, LSU returns seven of its starters from last year including All-American LB Harold Perkins and DT Mekhi Wingo. Talented DT Maason Taylor returns after he was out for the year last season with an ACL tear he suffered in the first game of the year. The Tigers also brought in a haul of transfers on the defensive side of the ball, including CB Denver Harris and LB Omar Speights from Texas A&M and Oregon State respectively

I think that most of the SEC media members will pick Alabama by default because of the brand and past success. However, with Alabama going through its first true rebuild in years and a relatively weaker SEC West division compared to most years, LSU should and will be the favorite to win the West.

The Return of Hugh Freeze

One of the most, if not the most, intriguing story of SEC Media Days will be the return of Hugh Freeze as he enters his first season as the head coach of Auburn.

Freeze was previously the head coach at Ole Miss from 2012-2016. He led the Rebels to a 39-25 overall record, two New Year Six bowl appearances and back-to-back wins over Alabama in 2015 and 2016. Freeze also brought in two Top 10 recruiting classes in 2013 and 2016. However, he was fired before the 2017 season after recruiting violations and had contacted an escort service using a university-issued cell phone.

Freeze got a second chance at Liberty and was extremely successful, going 34-15 overall from 2019-2022 with three bowl victories and a 10-win season in 2020 where the Flames finished in the Top 25.

Although Auburn will experience some growing pains early on, Freeze is a great coach and an even better recruiter and he will get the program back to where it once was.

Good Ole Rocky Top

Who has been a bigger cultural phenomenon from the state of Tennessee as of late, country singer Morgan Wallen or Tennessee football? It depends on who you ask. If it’s a sorority girl from Alpha Phi, she might say Wallen. However, the winner has to be the Volunteers because of the number of country songs written about Tennessee football, including Wallen’s “Tennessee Fan” and Megan Moroney’s “Tennessee Orange”.

Tennessee’s 2022 campaign was a massive success. In its second year under head coach Josh Heupel, the Volunteers finished with an 11-2 record, its first 10-plus winning season since 2007. Tennessee thumped LSU 40-17 in Baton Rouge, defeated Alabama for the first time since 2006 last-second game-winning field goal in a thrilling 52-49 victory and defeated Clemson 31-10 in the Orange Bowl.

Tennessee will have QB Joe Milton under center, who not only has one of the strongest arms in all of college football but also has the experience and maturity the Volunteers need. Although the Volunteers lost the Biletnikoff Award winner, Jalin Hyatt, they still have Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White. The Volunteers will also have a trio of talented running backs Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson.

Although the defense will still be somewhat of a concern because of its secondary, Tennessee’s defense should be better than it was last year. However, they weren’t as bad as everyone says there were. The Volunteers had the second-best rush defense (115.8 yards per game) and the fifth-best third-down defense in the SEC (34.2 percent). If you take out the disastrous 63 points they allowed to South Carolina, the Vols only allowed 19.4 points per game. If they can fix its pass defense that allowed 289.5 yards a game, the Volunteers will be dangerous.

Like LSU, Tennessee is a dark horse candidate to win the SEC. If Milton can hit his targets and the pass defense holds its ground, the Volunteers will start partying like it’s 1998. However, the road isn’t easy as they still have to get past Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M.

Billy, Eli and Jimbo: The Three Musketeers of the Burning Rocking Chair

Although there are differing degrees among how hot each coaching seat is, there’s no arguing that Florida head coach Billy Napier, Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz and Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher are all on the hot seat.

Of the three coaches lusted, Fisher is under the most pressure. After being lured away from Florida State with a 10-year, $75 million deal to come to Texas A&M, Fisher has not lived up to his expectations in College Station. After having one of the most talented rosters in college football, including the No.1 signing class of 2022, the Aggies sputtered to a 5-7 due to its putrid offense. After losing his reputation of being an offensive genius, he gave up play-calling duties and hired Bobby Petrino as its new offensive coordinator. Petrino should fix the offense with the amount of talent that the Aggies have on that side of the ball. However, if Texas A&M doesn’t win nine games, Fisher’s contract will be brought out and he will be sent packing.

Although he had a lot of hype coming into Gainesville due to his success at Louisiana, Napier struggled mightily as the Gators sputtered on both offense and defense. The Gators had ugly losses to LSU, Georgia and Oregon State in its bowl game. Even worse, Florida lost against Vanderbilt. Yes, the Gators lost to Vanderbilt. If it wasn’t for Anthony Richardson, the Gators might have been even worse than its 6-7. Although Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin will give Napier time, how much time will Napier have if the Gators take a step back?

Although Missouri has been to back-to-back bowl games, the Tigers have never had a winning season under Drinkwitz. Although the defense improved under new defensive coordinator Blake Baker, the offense has been downright dreadful as it averaged 369.9 yards a game which was second to last in the SEC. To fix its offense, Drinkwitz brought in Kirby Moore from Fresno State to fix the offense. With Texas and Oklahoma coming into the conference and the high expectations that are involved in being a head coach in the SEC, Drinkwitz will get the ax if he can’t turn things around in CoMo.