The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

SEC Football Media Days Blog: Tuesday

34 days ago
By Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: AP Photo/Butch Dill

Welcome to the SEC Football Media Days Blog, your online home for the big news, behind-the-scenes notes and quotes and special moments that make this annual event, held this year in Hoover, Ala., the unofficial start of college football season. Check back for updates each day throughout the week.

Our legends can beat your legends

How do you celebrate the 150th anniversary of college football? In the SEC, you bring together Hall of Famers Herschel Walker, Archie Manning and Steve Spurrier to share stories at SEC Media Days.

A few nuggets from Tuesday's star-studded panel:

Walker, who's still the SEC's all-time leading rusher at 5,259 yards despite playing just three seasons and finishing his college career in 1982, said he flipped a coin to decide whether to sign with Georgia or join the Marines.

"Sometimes when you're naive and stupid," Walker said, "God will take care of you."

Somewhere former Georgia coach Vince Dooley just said a silent prayer of thanks. Walker was a freshman tailback in 1980 the last time the Bulldogs won the national championship. The field at Sanford Stadium will be named in Dooley's honor this season.

Manning put the passage of time in perspective. He was a phenomenal dual-threat junior quarterback at Ole Miss in 1969 when college football celebrated its 100th anniversary. He remembered that, to mark the milestone, the Ole Miss helmets included a "100" decal.

That same year, Manning played in the first nationally televised network prime-time college football game, a 33-32 loss to Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham. In that game, Manning passed for 436 yards and ran for 104 more. His 540 yards of total offense remained unsurpassed as the SEC record until Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel broke it in 2012.

Manning also fathered and mentored two more memorable SEC quarterbacks: Peyton, who went his own way to play at Tennessee and stands fourth in SEC career passing yards, and Eli, who followed in his dad's path at Ole Miss and ranks eighth in that category.

Peyton choosing UT wasn't a popular decision with the Ole Miss faithful, Manning said. "Eli bailed me out."

Spurrier remains one of the SEC's unique giants as a player and coach. He won the 1966 Heisman Trophy as the Florida quarterback, and he coached the 1996 Heisman winner, Danny Wuerffel, with the Gators. Spurrier stands second behind Alabama legend Paul "Bear" Bryant in all-time coaching victories at SEC schools with 208 and in career conference wins with 131.

The Head Ball Coach captured what makes college football special, especially in the South: "Fans really believe, now, when the game's over, if they win, I am smarter than those fans from that other team and I'm tougher than them and I know how to do it better than they do. That's just how strong the feeling is."

It doesn't get much stronger than Walker, Manning and Spurrier in the same room.

Spoiler alert: Jimbo Fisher doesn't want to be anyone's spoiler

What do Alabama, Georgia and Clemson have in common? They've filled all the spots in the last four National Championship Games. In some order, they're likely to be the top three teams in the preseason polls.

Oh, and they all appear on this season's Texas A&M schedule. The Aggies welcome Alabama on Oct. 12. They play at Clemson on Sept. 7 and at Georgia on Nov. 23.

Just don't mention to Jimbo Fisher that his second A&M team has the chance to be a spoiler. If you do, and you ask if he considers that observation encouraging or condescending, he won't hesitate.

"Condescending," he said. "We don't want to spoil anything. We're looking to win something. They're great programs, but Texas A&M can be the same thing."

There were signs last season. A&M lost to eventual national champion Clemson by only two points 28-26. The Aggies played eventual SEC champion Alabama closer than anyone else in the regular season in a 45-23 loss in Tuscaloosa.

Fisher and company may not break through against any of those elite programs this season, but no one should be surprised if they do.

Meet the bigger, better, XXL-size Tennessee Vols

Jeremy Pruitt provided one of the more jaw-dropping moments Tuesday when he cited one big example of the difference between his first Tennessee football team in 2018 and his second edition of the Vols heading into the 2019 season.

And we do mean big.

Pruitt said a year ago, the Vol roster included just two offensive linemen who weighed 300 pounds or more. This year, he noted, that number has grown to 15 big 'uns.

Wow. Is there a bigger indictment of how far the UT program had fallen under former coach Butch Jones? Is it any wonder the Vols went 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the SEC in Pruitt's first year? Imagine trying to block the mammoth defensive linemen of Alabama and Georgia with a bunch of undersized tackles, guards and centers.

One UT player in particular appreciated Pruitt's update on those beefed-up blockers: quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.

"That made me smile very hard," Guarantano said. "We've definitely added a lot of strength on our offensive line. The offensive line attacked the offseason with the weight room, the eating, with even the mental part of the game. I'm very excited for them."

My God a freshman ... at SEC Media Days

It's not unusual for a redshirt freshman to start at quarterback in the SEC. What makes Matt Corral stand out is seeing him as one of the three Ole Miss player representatives at SEC Media Days. A growing number of college football coaches believe freshmen should be seen and not heard. Matt Luke is not one of those coaches.

What is it about the young man from Ventura, Calif., that impresses the Ole Miss coach? "His competitive fire. His competitive spirit. The players gravitated toward him. He's done a great job of competing and carrying himself the right way."

Corral, who said he prepared for his visit to Hoover by going out and buying a suit, didn't seem at all uncomfortable with the bright lights Tuesday. He offered compliments all around.

On new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez: "He wants us to play with that hard edge, with that savage mentality."

On SEC West opponents such as Alabama and LSU: "I believe the SEC West is the closest step to the NFL. Those (defensive) linemen are just as fast as me but they're twice as big as me."

Corral gained valuable on-field experience in 2018, playing four games under the NCAA's new redshirt rule. He went through an upper-level off-field education Tuesday with no visible scars.

More than a few reasons to believe for Ole Miss

They're back to a full complement of 85 scholarships for the first time since 2014. They're eligible for the postseason for the first time since 2016. They've added not one but two former national head coaches of the year as coordinators.

No wonder Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke brought this message to Hoover: "There's a lot of excitement in our building right now for a lot of reasons."

Those big-name coordinators: former West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez on offense and former San Jose State and Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre on defense. Luke made an interesting observation on the practical and philosophical meanings of those hires.

"It brings a wealth of knowledge," he said, "but it also makes a statement about our commitment to winning."

In installing his 3-4 defense, MacIntyre "does a great job of simplifying everything to get that basic understanding," linebacker MoMo Sanogo said.

The Ole Miss defenders have been receptive to the change, Luke said, because "they're tired of hearing about how bad they are."

What has Rodriguez, an innovator of the spread, brought to the offense? "That edge, that toughness, that swagger," Luke said. "You'll have to defend the whole field and all 11 players."

Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Corral saw that edge up close and personal during spring practice.

"He's a perfectionist," Corral said. "He won't stop until it's done right. Rich Rod, every little thing bothers him."

If all goes as planned, the Rebels will bother other teams more than they have in years.

Welcome to Adversity Thursdays in Athens

The Georgia Bulldogs might be in the weight room, doing power cleans, going through their routines, trying to bring life to this season's motto and Do More. All of a sudden, director of strength and conditioning Scott Sinclair will break the routine and throw them a curveball.

"He'll give us something random to do," offensive tackle Andrew Thomas said.

Such as?

"He'll make us go outside and do sandbag runs up the stadium steps," Thomas said. "It takes mental strength to go back and finish your lift."

Georgia has a name for those challenging about-face moments: Adversity Thursday. Thomas said they're part of a larger plan to expect the unexpected on game day - like, say, your opponent's backup quarterback entering a championship game at a critical time - and handle it.

Georgia didn't handle the relief appearances of Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts in championship situations the last two seasons. Alabama's backup quarterbacks made the difference in those narrow Crimson Tide victories.

Thomas said it's not necessarily an Alabama thing, but Adversity Thursdays are designed to better equip the Bulldogs for that kind of situation down the road.

"Our goal is to win a national championship," he said, "and whoever's in our way, that's our motivation."

Georgia can't avoid the Alabama question

Do More. That's it. That's Georgia's slogan for the 2019 season. Nothing more. After two years of close but no victory cigar, after losing the 2017 National Championship Game to Alabama in overtime and the 2018 SEC Championship Game to the Crimson Tide late in the fourth quarter, everyone connected with the Bulldogs has spent plenty of time pondering how to take that last step up the mountain.

The answer: Do More. In everything they do.

"We like it because it's simple," Kirby Smart said Tuesday.

The Georgia coach filled his opening remarks at SEC Media Days with a blitz of motivational catch phrases, psychological touch points and philosophical insights, an indication of his program's mindset as he approaches his fourth season in Athens.

"I read a great quote this morning," Smart said. "Life has no remote. You've got to get up and change it yourself."

"Pressure is a reflection of ambition. The stress and pressure we feel emanates from our building."

"We're looking for the aggregate of marginal gains."

Or, put in more practical terms, how to beat Alabama. Smart heaped plenty of praise on the Crimson Tide and his old boss, Nick Saban, but sent a message he's no doubt imparted to his players: "We don't have Alabama on our schedule."

Not technically, but Alabama and Georgia are likely to be the overwhelming Media Days picks to meet again in Atlanta on the first Saturday in December. Can the Bulldogs get there for the third straight year?

"The biggest thing is concerning ourselves with us," Smart said, "and not concerning ourselves with someone else."

Good plan, but for all the good things the Dawgs have done the last two seasons, the Alabama question isn't going away until Georgia answers it on the field.