1. WASHINGTON — One of the quietest, tamest Southeastern Conference Media Days in recent memory ended on Thursday.
The league’s intention in sending Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze to the podium as the final act was to slip him through at a time when many media members had already left Birmingham or were so bored from the previous three-plus days that they’d sleep through his appearance.
In general, the strategy paid off. Freeze wasn’t bombarded by vicious questions on Thursday. In fact, his turn through the circuit was quite tame. Sure, some media looking for soundbites they could use against Freeze got a little material _Freeze’s commentary about integrity got some mileage from some who just don’t like the guy and/or believe he’s a fraud _ but Ole Miss did as well as could be expected at SEC Media Days.
Freeze’s 16-minute filibuster in the main media room _ the exact same length as LSU’s Ed Orgeron, by the way _ got some attention, but it was mostly playful. I was hoping Freeze would keep going and run out the 30-minute clock. It would’ve been an epic performance. I was hoping he would launch into a recap of the Freeze family summer, Les Miles-style.
Instead, he took some questions. The questions were fine. So were the answers. Look, I like SEC Media Days. I get a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, and it’s an opportunity to get some really good guests on the Oxford Exxon Podcast (available on iTunes; please leave a five-star rating), but I’ll be honest here: From a news value standpoint, the event is a waste of time.
I keep saying I’ll do this, but I think this time I’m serious; next year, I’m going to Destin, Fla., for the SEC spring meetings. I’ll probably still go to SEC Media Days, but it will be for the benefit of the podcast. From an Ole Miss beat writer perspective, the 10 minutes we had with Freeze before he began the circuit Thursday was more than enough, and there’s a probably a way to arrange that meeting in Oxford.
Ole Miss’ three player representatives _ offensive lineman Javon Patterson, defensive lineman Breeland Speaks and quarterback Shea Patterson _ acquitted themselves nicely, as expected. It’s unfortunate but completely understandable that they had to answer a lot of questions about the NCAA cloud over the program, potential sanctions and the like, but at this point, it is what it is. That’s the story around Ole Miss these days. Throw in Houston Nutt’s lawsuit against Ole Miss, one that was not so coincidentally filed less than 24 hours before Freeze’s appearance in Hoover, and one can understand why outside media view the Ole Miss program is one in chaos.
Still, Ole Miss got in and out of Hoover without damaging itself. Like I wrote Thursday, there was no way for the Rebels’ contingent to “win the day” on Thursday. However, it was certainly possible for the day to go badly for Ole Miss and for someone to make a comment that would become headline news. Hell, there were rumors all day Wednesday that a story detrimental to Freeze was going to pop overnight Wednesday that would stop the Ole Miss coach from making the trip.
None of that happened. Ole Miss showed up, took its turn and got out with no damage done. No nasty story popped and Freeze did as well as anyone could have expected. He’s got more media circuits to make and more opportunities to screw up, but Freeze appears to be on message at this point.
2. Still, from a pure public relations standpoint, Ole Miss comes across as a program in scandal, and everyone in Oxford has to be more than ready to get past this, however it may end.
The program continues on, certainly. As Russell Johnson documented all weekend, recruiting is going full-steam and the players in Hoover all talked about the desire to get on the field and play spoiler in a season in which postseason games aren’t going to happen.
However, the narrative _ I’ve grown to hate that word and am hereby resolving to use it less _ around the program is all about the NCAA. That’s it. It’s all anyone asks me about. Literally 90 percent of the conversations I had with colleagues was about Ole Miss’ NCAA woes.
I don’t know what’s coming. No one does. I do believe elements of the NCAA investigation are going to be exposed in the coming weeks that will not be flattering to the investigators in the case. Will that matter? I don’t know. Frankly, I doubt it. The NCAA’s response to Ole Miss’ response to the second notice of allegations is due in the next couple of weeks. From speaking to sources, I don’t believe the NCAA investigators are taking any allegations out of the NOA. Both sides appear to be girding their proverbial loins for a battle in front of the Committee on Infractions.
Leo Lewis has hired a powerful attorney with a tremendous reputation. People in Oxford are hopeful the Rebel Rags lawsuit against Lewis, Kobe Jones, Lindsey Miller and all the John Does is going to put the fear of God into the defendants and the NCAA investigators, but so far, no one is blinking.
Nothing would shock me. If you trust the NCAA process, you’re nuts. If you believe Ole Miss’ counsel is going to step to the plate and crush a home run five years into an investigation, well, God bless you, you’re one positive _and perhaps frighteningly naive _ soul. Anything less than a two-year bowl ban and show causes would have to be considered a victory by virtue of survival at this point.
The bottom line is this: Ole Miss has to put this entire episode in its rear view mirror. All signs point toward the university backing Freeze, regardless of what’s coming. If that’s true and he’s in Hoover next July, he’ll be challenged with not only restoring his image but rewriting the narrative _ dammit, there I go again _ around his program.
“We obviously have created it in and around our program, you know, the length of it, we can set here and debate all of that,” Freeze said Thursday. “But you can’t. We’ve got to be responsible for the areas in which we were deficient in, that we didn't either react or act properly, or whether it was staff or whether it was boosters.
“So we have to own that. And me being in the position I am, I've got to stand and look people in the eyes and take that. And, you know, I’m _ I have been doing it for several years now, and it’s _ I’ll certainly be glad and rejoice and thank God when it's over, but in the meantime, I've been charged with leading us through this time. And so I've got to look at myself, our staff, our boosters, our people and our players and try the best I can to manage that while we go through it.”
3. SEC Football Media Days concluded on Thursday with media in attendance predicting Alabama to win the 2017 SEC Championship. Georgia was selected to win the SEC Eastern Division with 1,572 points, including 138 first-place votes, narrowly edging two-time defending division champion Florida who was second with 1,526 points and 96 votes to win the division. Tennessee was third with 998 total points. Points were awarded on a 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale. Alabama was picked to win the SEC Western Division with 1,683 total points, while Auburn was second with 1,329. Alabama received 225 first-place votes in the West. LSU was third with 1,262 points. Six times since 1992 – four times in the last 20 - the predicted champion at SEC Media Days has proceeded to win the SEC Championship. Media in attendance have correctly predicted the eventual champion two of the last three seasons. Alabama had the most first-team All-SEC selections this season with 10, which is a new record for the SEC Media Days All-SEC Team.
Ole Miss was picked last in the SEC West. The prediction adds to the already-large chip on the Rebels’ collective shoulder and provides yet another layer of motivation for the coming season.
Fans, predictably, criticized the media’s predictions, and that’s more than fair. We, as a collective, aren’t good at this prediction thing. I get it, but that’s far from impossible.
Ole Miss has question marks at running back, linebacker and defensive back. The Rebels have a brutal early schedule that includes road trips to Cal, Alabama and Auburn. Then there's the NCAA issues, which could conceivably serve as one hell of a distraction midway through the season.
If you're on the outside looking in, it's easy to forecast a disastrous campaign. If Ole Miss wants to use the media forecast as a motivational tool, good for them. But if you're honest, you see how some can't buy Ole Miss stock right now.
4. rivals.com's Woody Wommack was in Hoover for SEC Media Days. Among the items he produced was one about incoming freshmen who have impressed coaches and teammates this summer. Ole Miss’ D.D. Bowie made the list.
5. One of the key players in the league in 2017 will be Jarrett Stidham. If he performs at a high level, Auburn is a legitimate contender in the SEC West. If he’s all hype, the Tigers could lose five game.
So naturally, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was asked a lot about Stidham during Malzahn’s tour of Hoover.
“I've got a lot of history with Stidham from the standpoint that we actually recruited him in high school,” Malzahn said. “He’s a good athlete. He's a lot better athlete than people think. I think he started at wide receiver his sophomore year. He can return. He's got a 35-36 inch vertical. He runs a 4.6 (40-yard dash). “In our league, you have to escape. Things are going to break down. The defensive lines are too good. You have to have a quarterback that can escape pressure, keep his eyes down the field, know when to throw it, know when to run it, and protect the football and make good decisions. We had a chance to really evaluate him in the spring. Our defensive line is pretty talented. And so we got a lot of good information. And we like the way he reacted, too.”
6. Surprisingly, the most relaxed coach to take the dais might have been Will Muschamp, who insiders believe is quietly building a strong foundation at South Carolina.
Muschamp has admitted to friends and colleagues he made mistakes early on at Florida. He’s learned from them, they say, and is doing things differently in Columbia, all while staying true to his personality.
“I think the most important thing is just understanding your roster, understanding the players you have on your team, the young men you've recruited in the previous two years to your football team,” Muschamp said. “You’re able to mold your team a little bit more about where you want to go and the direction you want to head with it, which, probably, to me, gives you a little bit more of a comfort level, as far as moving forward. I think that as much as anything.
“But I also need to credit our players because I think they have bought into the type culture we want to have within our organization. And we have not had much resistance from that. Now, we've had some attrition, but the guys understood maybe this isn't for me, I want to go somewhere else, which is fine, but I want guys that want to be at the University of South Carolina. I believe we're on the verge of some really good things.
7. Give Kevin Sumlin credit. He knew questions about his job security were coming, and he was smart enough to know two things _ the Aggies’ terrible finish last season and his athletics director speaking out this spring _ were the impetus for those queries. Sumlin didn’t bristle. Instead, he admitted things had to change in College Station for him to return to the dais in Hoover next July.
Interestingly, Sumlin said one area really stuck out when he self-evaluated his team in the offseason.
“We have got to be a better run defense,” Sumlin said. “We have to. And I don't think there's any secret to that. I think that our ability to be multiple and change things up are things that we worked on a little bit.
“I think we were a pretty good defense early in the year. We lost some critical pieces. I think when _ over the course of the year when we lost a couple corners, and did some things, Priest Willis was playing pretty well early in the year and Nick Harvey got a little bit dinged up _ we had a situation where we're putting pressure on some younger guys and gave up some big plays later on in the year, but we've got to be a better run defense. I think the things that we've talked about, the things we set down and discussed, the things that (Texas A&M defensive coordinator) John (Chavis) has — that we have discussed openly — are things that we've implemented throughout the spring.
“And so do we got to get better? It's not just John Chavis. It's across the board. It's everybody. As I told you before, we have the biggest sign in our building that says ‘No excuses.’ We're not giving any excuses, and that starts with me. So everything that has to happen, anything that we want to do, we want to be, because we want to be a top-tier football team. We want to be a championship football team. And so the things that we've done or we keep putting in place, and the things, as we adapt to this league, to figure out how we can get to that next level, we're doing. And that's not just him. That's across the board.”
8. Nick Saban has built a dynasty at Alabama, and, as mentioned earlier, the media overwhelmingly expects the Crimson Tide to add to its collection of SEC titles this fall.
I didn’t see Alabama’s appearance on Wednesday, as I was holed up in a hotel room writing about Houston Nutt’s lawsuit and fielding calls on a wild rumor day on the Ole Miss beat, but I talked to a lot of media who cover that program. They all said one common thing: The loss to Clemson in the national championship game stung to the core and has served as motivation this offseason. In other words, if you were hoping Alabama might lose some of its edge in 2017, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Saban said something similar when asked about that game.
“Well, we really try to do it the same way because whether you win or lose, we're always trying to self-assess to see what we need to do to get better,” Saban said. “I think when you lose, everybody's much more -- the mindset is much more I'm willing to change. I want to learn. I don't want to waste a failure. What could we have done better? Because everybody's hurt by the fact that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play of the game, but it wasn't the last play. It's what led up to the last play. And I think our players realize that.
“It takes a tremendous amount of accountability to be able to execute and sustain the execution for 60 minutes in the game. And we played against a really, really good team, which I think when you get in the playoffs, that should be what you expect. And we weren't able to finish the game like we needed to. And I think there's a lot of lessons to learn, and hopefully we won't waste a failure.”
9. Years ago, when in college, I went to an Orioles game with my then-girlfriend, who lived in suburban Washington D.C. The Orioles then played at Memorial Stadium, which was cool to me because as a kid growing up in Ruston, La., I idolized Ruston native/Baltimore Colts quarterback Bert Jones. At the time, Orioles Park at Camden Yards was in the construction phase.
Years later, rivals.com held its annual publishers conference in Baltimore and we were headquartered at the Hilton Baltimore, which overlooked the aforementioned home of the Orioles. I didn’t see a game, but I checked out the stadium and the gift shop and all of that. I always thought it was a cool place and figured I’d enjoy a game there.
I was right. My son, Carson, and I saw the Chicago Cubs and Orioles play Saturday and Sunday, and on a scale of 1-10, Orioles Park at Camden Yards is really, really close to a 10. We sat in left field Saturday night and behind first base on Sunday afternoon. The stadium is 25 years old this summer, but man, it’s still awesome. It’s a perfect setting for baseball. The park has phenomenal sight lines, great amenities, a wide open concourse and one of the best team shops I’ve seen.
We got there early and watched the Cubs take batting practice. Cubs reliever Eddie Butler threw Carson a ball and made a fan for life. Carson’s favorite player, Anthony Rizzo, hit a bomb over the right field wall and Butler got the game’s final four outs to improve Carson’s mark at Cubs games he’s attended to 2-6. We each had a crab cake sandwich, and I never spent more than a minute or two in line for concessions.
We got there just in time for Sunday’s series finale. The people couldn’t have been nicer. In the past few years, I’ve visited great ball parks in Minneapolis, Washington and San Francisco, among others. I’m a ballpark/stadium guy. I always have been. The Orioles’ home is near the top of my list. I will look forward to a return trip.
By the way, as a lifelong Cubs fan, the weekend was interesting. There had to have been 20,000 Cubs fans in Baltimore, and God, Cubs Nation is obnoxious. I’m sorry, but it is. There are so many bandwagon fans. Everyone loves a winner; I get it. However, when you’re the fan that suffered through the bad times, it’s hard to feel a lot of commonality with the fan who can’t remember when Kris Bryant wasn’t the Cubs’ third baseman.
Anyway, I heard plenty of grumbling from Orioles fans during the two Cubs’ two blowout wins. Like I said, I enjoyed Baltimore and had some nice conversations with plenty of Orioles fans, so much that I might have kind of adopted a favorite American League team for the sheer hell of it. Still, I’ll admit it: Damn, it’s fun to be hated. That pitiful lovable loser crap got old over the years. The Cubs are the champions now, and for at least one weekend, while they exerted their dominance over the Orioles, it was good to feel a little jealous bitterness directed toward the boys in blue.
10. I left SEC Media Days Thursday afternoon, picked up Carson (who had been attending UAB Soccer Camp during the week) and flew to Baltimore. We caught the train to Washington and spent most of the weekend in the nation’s capital.
It was his first trip to D.C. We saw the Capitol, went to some of the Smithsonian museums, walked the National Mall and went to the Newseum. In other words, we were tourists. The Vietnam War Memorial always hits me hard. My parents are the age all those names on that wall would be today if they hadn’t died in that senseless waste of humanity. All. The. Names. That’s what strikes me. Name after name after name after name. In a city full of powerful reminders about the cost _ and often, the necessity _ of war, that one always punches me in the gut.
It was my first trip to the Newseum. The 9/11 tribute is incredibly well done. Seeing the large piece of television antenna from one of the World Trade Center towers was an emotional experience. Carson is 10. He wasn’t alive on that horrific day, but he saw the way his dad and others around me were impacted by the wall of newspaper front pages from that vicious attack on our nation. I think it hit home for him.
Anyway, I can’t recommend a trip to D.C. highly enough. I love history, so I could spend days upon days here.
Anyway, we’re headed back Monday, and we’ll have coverage of recruiting and whatever else may break on the Ole Miss beat throughout the week. Until then, here are some links of interest to me _ and hopefully, to you _ for your reading pleasure.
Chris Speilman’s lawsuit against Ohio State could set monumental precedent.
Cursed by the body that was his blessing, Greg Oden returns to Ohio State.
Paul George’s arrival in Oklahoma City begins a year-long recruitment.
The lawyer, the addict
Scott Schebler was surprised to hear ‘Sexual Healing’ on his walk to home plate.
Ten years later, Billy Donovan and Patrick Patterson finally connect.