SEC Football Media Days Blog: Wednesday
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.
South Carolina keeps investing in Will Muschamp
There are different ways to measure the improvement of a football program, on and off the field. Heading into its fourth year under Will Muschamp, South Carolina has made tangible strides in both areas.
The Gamecocks have been to three straight bowl games, and now, as senior quarterback Jake Bentley said, "every class is a Muschamp-recruited class. Every guy is fully invested in the program."
Muschamp sounded just as excited about the infrastructure improvements in Columbia. In January, the Gamecocks moved their program into the Cyndi and Kenneth Long Family Football Operations Center, a $50-million, 110,000-square-foot investment.
"It has the wow factor and what every recruit looks for," Muschamp said. "And what I've also seen is how it changes the culture on campus with our players. This facility and this investment has made a huge difference."
Muschamp said he would walk into the weight room in January during official visits and there would be 25-30 current players working out on their own.
After this season, South Carolina will make another investment by starting a $22-million enhancement to Williams-Brice Stadium. Muschamp thanked Athletics Director Ray Tanner and the board of trustees "and the forward thinking that we have in continuing to press the needle to improve our situation."
After finishing 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the conference in 2018, the Gamecocks have added Alabama to a stiff schedule that already included Georgia and Clemson. Don't cry for the Gamecocks, though. Muschamp said he has his best team returning.
"Hell, schedule's hard every year," he said. "That's the way I look at it. We have a great opportunity for ourselves to take a step forward as a program to be in the limelight on most Saturdays in the Southeastern Conference."
One last time with feeling from South Carolina QB Jake Bentley
Hard to believe Jake Bentley made his third and final visit to SEC Media Days, but time flies when you finish high school early to become the starting quarterback at South Carolina.
"Looking back on it," he said, "I wouldn't change a thing."
Because of his longevity and productivity, the senior has an opportunity to set a number of school records and to etch his name into South Carolina lore. On Sept. 14, the Gamecocks will play host to Alabama for the first time since 2010. That day, a 35-21 Carolina victory was the first in program history over a No. 1 team.
One of the enduring memories from that game was the out-of-body experience enjoyed by quarterback Stephen Garcia, who went 17 for 20 for 201 yards and three touchdowns.
"Best day of his life," then-coach Steve Spurrier said.
Bentley sounded only vaguely familiar with the details.
"I was, what, 13?" he said. "I was probably outside trying to hit a tree with a football. That was a special time in our program, but that was then. This is now."
Bentley threw a career-high 27 touchdown passes last year, but he sounded more focused on reducing his 14 interceptions.
"That's unacceptable," he said. "To be a quarterback in this league, that can't happen. Whether it was tipped passes or bad throws, I sign the check on every throw."
This is the fourth year at South Carolina for both Bentley and Will Muschamp. The quarterback and the head coach share a bond as a result.
"I believe in Muschamp wholeheartedly," Bentley said. "I wouldn't have come here if I didn't. I was proud I was one of the quarterbacks he brought in to be his guy."
Arkansas star McTelvin Agim makes an inspiring impression
Yes, Arkansas defensive lineman McTelvin Agim brought a "Chucky" doll, a likeness of the horror-movie star of the same name, to SEC Media Days and carried it everywhere he went Wednesday. No, he wasn't trying to be cute or colorful. He said he was paying tribute to his 19-year-old cousin John Neal, who was murdered in March of 2018.
"It's an unsolved homicide," Agim said. "Basically, I'm just shedding light on his name and keeping his memory alive."
Why Chucky? No special reason. Agim said he just likes that character. He wrote "Long Live John Neal" on the bottom of the doll's shoes and said he plans to continue taking Chucky with him everywhere he goes. His cousin was never able to see him play, "but now he'll be able to make it to every game this year."
It's a touching gesture by one of the leaders of an Arkansas team that expects to take a leap forward in its second year under coach Chad Morris. Agim, who'll slide back inside on the defensive line, which he's done before, considered turning pro after the 2018 season. After a heart-to-heart with his coach, he chose to come back.
"It was basically straightforward," Agim said. "He basically said, 'If you're not going to buy in, you should go ahead and go, and if you're not going to be a leader on this team, you should just go ahead and go to the NFL and cash in.' I felt like I could be a leader on this team, buy into the position (change), buy into the weight gain, so I came back."
The SEC Academic Honor Roll member made quite an impression Wednesday. Expect him to do the same during the season.
Joe Moorhead and a lesson learned at Mississippi State
Joe Moorhead is nothing if not confident. He has to be the first coach in SEC history to open his Media Days visit by appealing to a boyhood NFL idol - in his case, fellow Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School quarterback Dan Marino - for a Twitter follow.
"So if Dan's out there and he's an SEC fan, if he's listening, I sure would appreciate a follow back @BallCoachJoeMo," Moorhead said. "If I do get that follow back, I would like to invite you to a game in Starkville. And as Pittsburgh people will know, I'll have a cold case of Iron City on ice waiting for him. So there's that."
Last year after arriving at Mississippi State, Moorhead's confidence led him to ask State players to learn their ring sizes - for championship rings, of course - and suggest to senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to clear space on his mantle for a Heisman Trophy.
Over the course of his first season in Starkville, which ended with an 8-5 record and a No. 25 finish in the USA Today poll, Moorhead learned that his brash approach - "coming off the plane with guns blazing, talking about ring sizes and Heisman Trophies" - wasn't the way to go.
"I think what I did was bad without the history and the context of how difficult it is to win in this league and specifically at Mississippi State," Moorhead said.
The Bulldogs won one SEC title in 1941 and made a single SEC Championship Game appearance in 1998. So it may have been unrealistic to expect a ring last year and, Moorhead admitted, unfair to his players to say it out loud.
"I think what I may have done was elevated the expectation level to a point where nothing we would've done short of a championship would've made people happy," Moorhead said. "I wouldn't have changed the goals, but I would've kept it a little more in-house. That's on me."
Junior linebacker Erroll Thompson said the players themselves had high expectations last year and will again this year.
"If you don't win a championship, I feel like you underachieved a little bit in some sense," Thompson said. "A championship was our goal, and we didn't get that so we underachieved."
What's the goal this year without the record-setting Fitzgerald and a fall-camp quarterback battle ahead?
"Our floor for success is bowl eligibility," Moorhead said. "Our ceiling for success is winning the SEC and competing for the national championship."
The ring-sizing itself can wait.
Chad Morris draws an ambitious Clemson parallel at Arkansas
A lot of coaches would like to unlock the Clemson secret since the Tigers have reached four straight College Football Playoffs and won two of the last three national titles. Arkansas coach Chad Morris understands the work it took to get there better than most.
Before becoming a head coach at SMU, he was an integral part of the Clemson rebuild as Dabo Swinney's offensive coordinator. After going 2-10 in his first year at Arkansas, the ambitious Morris sees a parallel in his current rehabilitation project.
"I've been in this position before of building a program," Morris said. "Year 1 at Arkansas was similar to when we got to Clemson, the challenges you had to go through in changing a culture."
To help change the Hog culture, Morris took away everyone's gear this offseason, players and coaches alike, and they had to earn it back. Defensive lineman McTelvin Agim said that experience was "humbling" but necessary after the Razorbacks failed to win a conference game in 2018.
"Some people were opposed to it, but they started understanding it was needed," Agim said. "When you're stripped of something you're used to, it brings something else out of you."
There's still plenty of work to do. Morris has to preside over a quarterback battle in fall camp, and his hurry-up no-huddle offense has yet to get up to the speed he wants. But he expects to see the same kind of gradual progression at Arkansas he witnessed as a Clemson assistant and as the SMU head coach.
Morris said success shows up "inside the walls" of the football building before it translates to the scoreboard. He said those internal victories have begun to happen in Fayetteville.
"We know this," he said. "The successes happening inside the walls will begin to show up on Saturdays."
No more scoreboard watching for Tua Tagovailoa and Alabama
Tua Tagovailoa said he doesn't consider himself a celebrity. The Alabama fans who crowded the Wynfrey Hotel lobby in pursuit of his autograph or picture Wednesday would beg to differ. The junior quarterback enjoyed a Heisman runner-up season last year that ended on a down note, with injuries, surgery and a dispiriting National Championship Game loss to Clemson.
So first things first. How's his health?
"I would say I'm 100 percent," he said. "I would say I'm better than I was when I came (to Alabama)."
How much does he weigh?
"315. 215. I should've said 415."
Good to see he hasn't lost his sense of humor - or his perspective.
"I can become a much better quarterback," Tagovailoa said, a statement designed to create more sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators. That improvement has begun with his conditioning, a plan for a modified in-season workout approach and his determination to heed Nick Saban's advice in two areas: Don't always go for the hero throw, and play to a standard, not the scoreboard.
Saban noted that his quarterback's hunger "to make a play" worked out well on most occasions but at times "led to some disasters," most notably with an early pick-six against Clemson.
"If the shot is there, I'm going to take it," Tagovailoa said. "Don't expect me to come and throw a checkdown. But it's whatever the defense gives me that I need to take. That was the biggest thing in the second half of the year, especially against Clemson. Looking at the scoreboard, I felt we needed to score. I just didn't take what they gave me."
His first defeat as a starter, Alabama's only blemish on a 14-1 SEC championship season, got everyone in crimson's attention.
"Our mantra now for the guys we have as a leadership group is to never be satisfied," Tagovailoa said. "Early in the season, we'd been beating teams by a lot, and of course you're going to get satisfied because we feel invincible as a team. But never being satisfied is the way to go for us. Just gotta keep going until we get what we want."
New staff, new hip, same Nick Saban in pursuit of perfection
The first time Alabama lost the National Championship Game to Clemson, to end the 2016 season, Nick Saban's response was captured in a simple, powerful motto: "Don't waste a failure."
The Crimson Tide didn't, rebounding to win the 2017 national title.
If you came to hear a new Saban mantra Wednesday, after he suffered the worst loss of his Alabama tenure in the latest National Championship encounter with Clemson, you were disappointed. He left the slogans to Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
Saban instead returned to familiar themes in describing how Alabama intends to respond.
"The most important thing for us in this offseason and going into this season is to re-establish a standard that we'd like to play to ... and put the team first," Saban said. "That doesn't mean you can't have individual goals and aspirations ... but it has to be about the team."
Saban told the SEC Network that, after the 29-0 win at LSU, "it just seemed like people's own agendas started to become more important." He said he was referring to his assistant coaches, a number of whom were struggling with the challenge of focusing on their players while trying to become head coaches.
The most visible difference at Alabama this year is the staff, which has seven new assistant coaches, although offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri are returnees.
"The one thing this staff has been able to do is establish great relationships with our players," Saban said.
Will that translate into another bounceback national title? Saban's still in charge and even healthier after hip-replacement surgery. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said the serious-golfer Saban shot a post-op 77 in May using only a 5-iron off the forward tees on doctor's orders. So expect Alabama to be in contention, which has become an annual tradition. Eleven of the last 12 national champions, or every one since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, have either been Alabama or beaten Alabama.
As Saban said, in what sounded a lot like a mantra, "We're always looking to close the gap on perfect."
Lights, Camera, Herschel (and Archie and the Head Ball Coach, too)
Back in the day when Steve Spurrier was changing the way SEC football was played, the script was painfully familiar - if you weren't a Gator. Florida would defeat you, maybe hang half-a-hundred on you, and before the wounds had healed, Spurrier would deflate you with a perfectly pointed insult.
FSU? You mean Free Shoes University?
How 'bout them Vols? You can't spell Citrus without UT.
Spurrier's wife, Jerri, would try to soften the blows. "I would say, 'He didn't mean it that way.' After a while, I realized - he did mean it that way."
The audience at Birmingham's historic Lyric Theater laughed out loud at that line Tuesday night during a sneak preview of "Saturdays in the South: A History of SEC Football." Scene after scene, the preview tugged at the authentic, unapologetic emotions that make this sport in this conference the personal and cultural phenomenon it is.
In honor of college football's 150th anniversary, director Fritz Mitchell traveled the SEC footprint by car to compile current-day recollections, archival video and audio footage and evocative music to put together an eight-part, 12-hour documentary that'll run for eight straight Tuesday nights starting Sept. 3 on the SEC Network.
Tuesday's audience saw portions of Part 4: The Best Times of Our Lives, featuring iconic Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning; Part 5: Star Power, focusing on Georgia force of nature Herschel Walker; and Part 6: Revolution, capturing Spurrier in all his Fun-and-Gun glory.
As if the film itself weren't moving enough, those three legends appeared onstage afterward for a delightful roundtable. Among those highlights:
Manning revealed a fun fact about his youngest son, former Ole Miss quarterback Eli, who was born in New Orleans two days after Walker and Georgia beat Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl to win the national championship. That victory inspired 7-year-old Cooper Manning to suggest a name for his baby brother: Herschel Walker Manning.
Walker was a star among stars on stage, revealing a warm and engaging personality rarely seen by Dawg Nation during his playing days as a speeding bullet/wrecking ball from a tiny Georgia town.
"I don't know if you know where Wrightsville, Ga., is, but there's nothing there," Walker said. "Nothing. If you've got one year to live, you move there. It'll last forever."
SEC Network host Laura Rutledge brought out the best in Spurrier when she said, "You brought swagger back to Florida."
Spurrier's quick response: "Back?"
The video of the priceless back-and-forth among three SEC icons could be an episode all its own. If you care about SEC football - and who among us doesn't - "Saturdays in the South" promises to be worth the wait and the watch.