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July 17, 2014

TOM LINDLEY: Posturing, predictions fly as SEC turns to a new season

There’s plenty  to enjoy about the Southeastern Conference’s annual cattle call in Hoover, Ala., where media of every description join players and coaches from each of the league’s 14 football teams to discuss the coming season. The best aspect is that it serves as the official kickoff of the new season. The long wait is over.

The strange thing about SEC media days is that while there’s plenty of talk about the who has the best team and which players will emerge as stars, four intense days of discussions don’t produce a lot of breaking news. Much of the bantering is forgotten by the time reporters put their suitcases in the trunks of their cars and head home.

The routine is similar, if not exactly the same, when other conferences step up to showcase their 2014 seasons and key games scheduled for the weeks and months ahead.

There were a few new developments and plenty of light moments during SEC media days this week.

Commissioner Mike Slive, the guy with the biggest stick when it comes to college football, repeated his threat, make that his promise, that the country’s power conferences will break from the NCAA if they aren’t guaranteed more autonomy. Without a “positive outcome,” expect big changes, he told reporters in his opening remarks.

At its annual summer meeting next month, the NCAA will address reorganization and unveil plans that it hopes will douse talk of separation. Liberalizing expenditures associated with athletic scholarships — and addressing a student athlete’s true cost of spending a year on campus — is a minimum starting place for the likes of the SEC. What remains to be seen is what the NCAA’s plans may include or how receptive smaller, mid-major programs will be to approving a program they can’t afford.

Slive continues to emphasize the point that there’s not much room between what the power conferences want and what they’ll accept. That leaves embattled NCAA president Mark Emmert in a difficult position.

But, back to the lighter side of football.

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin fielded a string of questions last year about quarterback Johnny Manziel. With the Heisman Trophy winner off to the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, what would the subject be this year?

Would you believe Johnny Manziel?

Sumlin tried to deflect, explaining that college football is about managing changes in personnel. “There’s not going to be another Johnny Manziel,” he explained. The offensive system could change. Perhaps it won’t. “We’ve been able to recruit very well to a system we believe in.”

Asked once again about Manziel’s social life, Sumlin deferred to the Cleveland Browns for an answer. It was a good way to change the subject.

When South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier approaches the microphone, reporters know they’re about to get a witty observation or two. True again.

This time the Ol’ Ball Coach praised Alabama’s Nick Saban. Or did he?

Spurrier referred to the national championship winner down the road in Tuscaloosa as “the greatest recruiter in the history of college football.” On second thought, perhaps that was a back-handed compliment.

Was Spurrier intentionally leaving the impression that Saban’s ability to stockpile players, and not his coaching, is what has brought all of those trophies back to Bryant-Denny Stadium?

Saban won’t enter the verbal one-upmanship. He’ll leave the battle to the field.

Sadly, the Gamecocks and Crimson Tide won’t play during this year’s regular season. A SEC Championship battle in Atlanta is the only possibility for a put up or shut up game.

Last year, college football initiated a “targeting foul” that carried an automatic ejection and a 15-yard penalty for a blow to a defenseless player’s head. Players adjusted to the change. It worked.

This year, another new rule has been adopted. An “offensive player in a passing posture” can only be hit in the “strike zone,” described as the area below the neck and above the knees. The rule is designed to protect players — mostly quarterbacks — from game- or career-ending injuries.

It’s good to get back to discussing football. Soon the games will begin.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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