ATLANTA — The SEC’s latest edition of Media Days began with Lane Kiffin signing a mustard bottle.
“I have signed a lot of mustard bottles and golf balls, which normally I haven't,” Kiffin later said. “It's been a unique offseason.”
That’s putting it mildly. Since the SEC’s Georgia knocked off the SEC’s Alabama in the national championship game earlier this year, the college football landscape has turned upside down. A proposed expansion to the College Football Playoff vaporized. The ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten formed an “Alliance” that lasted only as long as it took for the Big Ten to poach USC and UCLA from the Pac-12. Name, image and likeness deals rage largely uncontrolled and unregulated. Two of the most notable coaches in the country began a war of words, hinting at revealing secrets that would have resulted in mutually assured destruction.
Through it all stands the SEC, feeling, as commissioner Greg Sankey put it, “no sense of urgency in our league. No panic in our reaction to others' reactions. We know who we are, and we are confident in our collective strength.”
SEC Media Days are a four-day extravaganza in which each of the league’s 14 coaches proclaims how excited he is for the upcoming season, and 13 of them answer questions about Nick Saban and Alabama. It’s called “Talkin’ Season,” and there’s a whole lot of talkin’ — about hopes, dreams and expectations — and, given that this is the SEC, a little bit of braggin’, too.
(As for the new souvenir Kiffin created: the bottle was a reference to last year’s Ole Miss-Tennessee game, where Kiffin’s Rebels beat the Vols on a late defensive stop, and Tennessee fans responded by pelting the field with, among other objects close at hand, a golf ball and a mustard bottle.)
Here’s a roundup of the top moments of the first day of Talkin’ Season.
When you’re running the conference that claims the past three national champions, you’ve got room to strut. Sankey did exactly that, using his state-of-the-conference address to point out how much talent has come out of the Southeastern Conference in the past two decades.
Sankey said that in the midst of college football’s great realignment, he has received inquiries from unnamed institutions who might be interested in joining the SEC. He also took a not-so-subtle jab at the Big Ten in the wake of the USC-UCLA defection.
“We're poised to grow to 16 members on July 1, 2025,” he said, referencing the eventual arrival of Texas and Oklahoma. “This expansion keeps the SEC in contiguous states which supports reasonable geography among like-minded universities.”
Sankey hinted that a change in the SEC’s current divisional format could be coming, but not without much more discussion. “We have to dig through a tie-breaking procedure,” he said. “We have over a quarter century in divisions and we understand all the nuances about how to break ties. We have to dig a bit deeper there with the single division concept in front of us. We want to understand the impact through the use of analytics on bowl eligibility for our teams who are growing their programs, and College Football Playoff access dependent on the number of teams that might be included.”
What Sankey did not do, however, was indicate that he’d be amenable to quick-fix solutions to thorny questions like the size of a playoff or the oversight of NIL deals.
“What sounds like an easy solution to [college athletics’] complexities fails to consider the impacts that those easy answers have on many other matters,” he said. “Frankly, in college athletics, we're here because we've either pushed aside some of those conversations and decisions, or we've dealt with the easy solutions rather than the complexities that account for the full breadth of outcomes and consequences.”
Earlier this year, Sankey offered the other major conferences a chance at collaboration. He was rejected, and now it sure sounds like the SEC will be carving its own path … and reaping the benefits.
The moment when LSU head coach Brian Kelly began speaking, it was obvious that he’d ditched the fake Southern accent that he threw on during his first appearance before the Tiger faithful.
“Understand now, I have a Boston, Midwestern, Louisiana accent now. It's three dialects into one,” he said. “I got all kinds of stuff to throw at you. Just be ready.”
He had little interest in talking about Notre Dame’s prospects for joining a conference, however. “It's probably not been high on my list of things to think about,” he said. “I've been trying to correct a slice for the last couple of weeks, and I haven't had much success with that.”
No one escapes Saban's shadow
Nick Saban isn’t scheduled to speak until Tuesday, but his shadow still loomed over Media Day. The very first question to Kiffin was about what he has learned about trick plays from … Nick Saban.
“Kirby Smart used to say sometimes you come up here and just [talk] about Alabama,” Kiffin said. “So our first question somehow is about Nick Saban, so, that’s pretty usual.”
Eli Drinkwitz gets deep
Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz, clad in one of his many pairs of Jordans, took a moment to offer an opening statement that attempted to bring perspective about college football's future.
“I hope it's bigger than TV deals being the college football guiding principles because every action we take moving forward, we lose sight of what we love about this game,” he said. “We're entering, and rightfully, into a new era of college athletics with student-athlete rights, the ability to transfer through the transfer portal, generating of earnings through NIL, all things that were much needed and need to continue to be embraced.
“But it's also time for college athletics to set a course and a vision for the future. Let's make sure that the core principles and guiding principles that we have reflect the values that we want it to be moving forward.
“Let's not hide behind what the Supreme Court struck down last year, which was amateurism. It's not amateurism anymore. But what is it moving forward? That's the question. That's what the leaders of college athletics need to decide.”
The NIL and coaches: ‘Legalized cheating’
Kiffin had far harsher words for the state of the NIL market, noting that carving coaches out of the NIL process is only opening up a whole new world of problems.
“If you have boosters out there deciding who they're going to pay to come play, and the coach isn't involved in it, how does that work? They could go pick who they want, pay him however much. Are the boosters going to tell you who to play, too? When they don't play, how is that going to work out?” he wondered. “This is not thought out at all, in my opinion.”
Kiffin also didn’t try to dress up NIL in any romantic description. The way to win with NIL is simple: “You have really good boosters,” he said. “It's like a payroll in baseball. What teams win over a long period of time? Teams that have high payrolls and can pay players a lot. We're in a situation not any different than that ... I said Day 1, you legalize cheating, so get ready for the people that have the most money to get players. Now you have it. It is what it is.”
SEC Media Days continue Tuesday with Alabama, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina.