HOOVER, Ala. – The college football season unofficially kicked off for Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Florida as players and coaches from both schools strolled through the revolving doors of media interviews at SEC Media Days on Tuesday.

The Georgia Bulldogs led off the day. They will enter the 2017 with high expectations as always. Kirby Smart will enter his second season as the Bulldogs head coach after replacing Mark Richt between the hedges in Athens in 2016. The Georgia job comes with pressure. Richt averaged 10 wins at Georgia, and was one play away from leading his team to a national title game in the Orange Bowl vs. Notre Dame 2012. In the vicious world of the SEC that is not enough.

Georgia finished the 2016 with an 8-5 record and won a bowl game in Smart’s first season, and Smart said he is looking for bigger things in 2017. To do that, Smart explained  his team will have to be more efficient on the offensive line. To help his offensive lines Smart said he plans to use the width of the field and the wealth of talent he has at skill positions on the edges.

The story line for the Bulldogs during their brief stay in Hoover was the buzz around returning both Sony Michel and Nick Chubb at running back. Both have a career haunted by injuries, and probably made the best decision for thier future careers by coming back for their senior season.

Fans patiently wait for Georgia’s Nick Chubb to sign autographs in Hoover

Chubb had some extra motivation to come back. He wants to extend a few streaks over some key rivals, including Auburn. “It would be great to retire from Georgia knowing we beat Auburn four years in row,” he said.

The defense will be the strong point of this Georgia team once again in 2017. The Bulldogs return 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball. One of those being linebacker Roquan Smith. Smart had high praise for Smith, comparing him to some of the greats he coached at Alabama. “Roquan is a standalone player. He’s a guy you can draw comparisons to a lot of players,” Smart explained. “If I had to draw a comparison to anybody, it would
probably be closer to C.J. Mosley athletically, the ability to cover and move in space.”

Smart acknowledged that most teams in the conference are playing catch-up to the three-time reigning SEC champion Alabama. He mentioned a few ways he plans on closing the gap between Alabama and everyone else. “I think the biggest thing is recruiting and development. A lot of people say it’s one or the other, do you recruit great players or do you develop great players,” Smart said. “When you do both, that’s when you got something special, and I think every team in this conference is trying to play catch-up in regards to that. I think each one’s getting closer, and we’d like to see that gap closed through recruiting. But you can only do that  through hard work and grinding, and that’s what we continue to do in Athens.”

The Vanderbilt Commodores rolled through Hoover shortly after the Georgia Bulldogs. Vandy returns one of the nations best running backs in Ralph Webb. Webb has been overlooked for most of his career at Vanderbilt, and his high school days. Webb, however, told the media he uses the lack of respect as motivation. “I am fine with that, I am used to it. I have been underrated my whole life, throughout high school,” he said. “I felt that I was underrated. So I use that as motivation and play with a chip on my shoulder.”

Webb’s head coach Derek Mason agreed with his assessment. “Ralph Webb to me, is probably the most underrated back in this conference. He’s the back that nobody talks about, but all he does is perform,” Mason said. “You put him on a stage, and he’s going to be big. So, for him, he’s never worried about the accolades. And from year one to year four, his game has progressed every year.”

The eastern division could be more wide open than people think, and if given the opportunity, Vanderbilt players said they are ready to compete for a spot in the SEC title game in Atlanta. “We want to compete and win the East just like everyone else, and we are going to do everything in our power to go out and get it done. We caught some fire late in the year last year and we are going to use that to start out hot this year. We are going to make sure we
carry that out through the entire season,” Webb said.

Georgia’s arch nemesis, Florida, also had their turn at media days on Tuesday, but many of the questions the Gators faced surrounded the recent escalation of its rivalry with LSU. Florida recently named LSU its homecoming opponent for 2017 which could be seen as a slap in the face.

While McElwain was at the main podium he faced a few controversial questions on the subject, and he finally had enough. “Here’s what I love about this. So, I get off the plane, okay, having been gone for a week, and, you know, kind of focusing on the future and actually reflecting on the past a little bit like I do every year when I’m up in Montana, and believe it or not, unlike maybe Coach Saban at Alabama, I have no choice in it,” a frustrated McElwain explained. “It’s a university choice. So, they didn’t tell me until I got off the plane and somebody said, ‘hey, guess who your homecoming game is?’ That’s the first I heard about it.”

Mississippi State closed out day two of SEC Media Days. After excellent seasons by the normal Mississippi State standard in 2014 and 2015, the Bulldogs took a step back in 2016. Miss. St. had a combined record of 19-7 in ’14 and ’15, but went 6-7 last season, including an embarrassing loss to South Alabama.

Things may brighten up for the Bulldogs in 2017 as hey return one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks in Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald ran for nearly 1,500 yards as a quarterback, threw for over 2,400 yards, and accounted for 37 total touchdowns. Fitzgerald was an unknown coming into the 2016 season, but his head coach, Dan Mullen, was not surprised. “I knew the skills that Nick had. We thought, you know, since the day he’s got on campus, he was our most athletic quarterback. You know, and so we knew he had the athleticism. We knew he was a great runner,” Mullen said. “So I wasn’t surprised, even though I know coming out of high school, he wasn’t a very highly rated player, didn’t have all of the accolades that a lot of other recruited players had, but I knew he had the skill set,”

Day three of SEC Media Days will feature the following coaches and players:

Wednesday, July 12

  • Bill Hancock, Executive Director of the College Football Playoff
  • Alabama – Nick Saban, Bradley Bozeman (OL), Minkah Fitzpatrick (DB), Calvin Ridley (WR)
  • Missouri – Barry Odom, Eric Beisel (WR), Drew Lock (QB), J’Mon Moore (WR)
  • Texas A&M – Kevin Sumlin, Christian Kirk (WR), Koda Martin (OL), Kendal Vickers (DL)
  • Kentucky – Mark Stoops, Mike Edwards (S), Stephen Johnson (QB), Courtney Love (LB)

Jeremy Law for SylacaugaNews.com | © 2017, SylacaugaNews.com/Marble City Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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