July 20, 2010 8:33:00 AM
Let the hype begin.
The recruiting season is nice, as are spring games. But college football officially gears up Wednesday when the Southeastern Conference holds its annual football media days.
This year''s event will kick off at 1 p.m. in Hoover, Ala., with one of the men everyone wants to see: University of Alabama coach Nick Saban. Alabama players Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner, Dont''a Hightower, and Greg McElroy will join their coach to talk about how the team will try to repeat as national champions.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and players Charles Mitchell, Chris Relf, and Quentin Saulsberry also will appear in the first session of the three-day event.
The teams will provide an ideal contrast. Despite anything Saban might say Wednesday or in the weeks leading up to the season opener against San Jose State on Sept. 4 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Crimson Tide figure to challenge for the overall SEC championship and be in the mix for another national crown.
Ingram, who rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, hopes a reconfigured offensive line, which lost All-American left guard and captain Mike Johnson and right tackle Drew Davis, will help him have another standout campaign.
The Crimson Tide will need center William Vlachos (foot) to return to 100 percent and seniors David Ross and Brian Motley to lead the unit. A solid group of newcomers is expected to add depth.
McElroy, the senior quarterback, also will look to duplicate an outstanding 2009 season in which he threw 2,508 yards, 17 touchdowns, four interceptions, and completed nearly 61 percent of his passes.
Hightower will be counted on to emerge as a leader on defense to help replace the loss of Rolando McClain, who paced the team with 105 tackles (14 1/2 for loss).
While Alabama appears to have plenty of leaders, Mullen and MSU will need players to step into bigger roles this season.
Without workhorse running back Anthony Dixon (1,391 yards, 12 touchdowns), Relf, a junior quarterback, and sophomore Chad Bumphis are the two most likely candidates to help shape the offense. It remains to be seen what identity the Bulldogs'' offense will take on without an experienced go-to player like Dixon.
Relf also could see challenges for playing time from Tyler Russell, the former Meridian High School standout, or Mullen could opt to mix and match the quarterbacks depending on the situation, like he did last season with Tyson Lee and Relf.
The defense, which allowed 321 points and 366 yards per game last season, will have to be better if Mullen hopes to build on the momentum from the season-ending 41-27 victory against Ole Miss. New coaches Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson hope to inject a new level of energy into the unit.
How well returning or new players transition into leadership roles will determine if the Bulldogs take advantage of a schedule that feature seven of 12 games at home.
Florida coach Urban Meyer and new Kentucky coach Joker Phillips will close the first day. We will have to wait to hear how quarterback John Brantley, who won''t be at media days, feels about replacing Tim Tebow, but Meyer is bound to have plenty of good things about his new leader.
Arkansas, Georgia, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina will take center stage Thursday before Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, and Ole Miss complete the event Friday.
Like MSU, coach Houston Nutt''s Ole Miss team should face plenty of questions. The Rebels figure to have a stout defense. Who will lead the offense remains unsettled, although Nutt must be counting on junior tackle Bradley Sowell because he will be one of three Rebels to represent the team at media days. Defensive linemen Kentrell Lockett and Jerrell Powe also will be in Hoover, Ala.
On offense, Ole Miss will need to find replacements for quarterback Jevan Snead, who left school after his junior season, and do-it-all running back Dexter McCluster.
Nathan Stanley, former East Mississippi Community College standout Randall Mackey, and Raymond Cotton will compete for playing time at quarterback. Mackey, the junior college player of the year, could use his quickness and field vision in a hybrid role, much like McCluster did last season in the "Wild Rebel."
But Nutt, ever the coach, refused to put too much on Mackey''s shoulders. He told The Clarion Ledger''s Rick Cleveland in June that he hasn''t had any junior college transfers come into his programs and help them. He went on to say "not many" JUCO quarterbacks have went on to make a difference in the SEC.
Until September, everything is just talk -- and hype.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com