SEC Media DAYS 2023

By George Somerville

With Media days in the rear view mirror and the SEC juggernaut hurtling towards the start of the season, there was a lot to unpack from the week in Nashville.

In this series of articles, our SEC insider George Somerville recalls some of the key moments from SEC Media Days and talks to the big stories which will dominate and be debated right up until the first whistle of the 2023/24 SEC college football season.


The Big Dawg

Georgia head coach, Kirby Smart addresses Media Days/ Image credit: George Somerville

Opening remarks from Georgia head coach, Kirby Smart were eagerly anticipated this year. Last time around Smart stood on the podium in Atlanta and pledged that Georgia would not be hunted – Georgia will do the hunting said Smart. Which is exactly what Georgia did on their way to a second successive National Championship.

But in the modern day no team has won three National Championships so Georgia is chasing immortality. Which is why the room was packed to hear Kirby Smart.

Before I talk about how Kirby rose to this challenge let me set out how he ended his opening remarks. Kirby dropped some facts casually into his words that should send shivers down the spine of anyone in college football not connected to Georgia football. Smart made an extraordinary point about the consistency of his program

“Every full-time coach on this year’s staff — listen to me carefully — every full-time coach on this year’s staff was on last year’s staff. Tell me the last time a National Championship team can say that…..Retention for us is the key to sustaining success. Again, retention is the key to sustaining success”.

No change to Georgia’s coaching staff for another year must be a scary thought for anyone who has to face the Bulldogs this year.

Better never rests

Kirby Smart didn’t mention his opponents during his Media Days remarks, because Kirby doesn’t think that the biggest threat to his team winning a third successive National Championship sits outside of Athens, GA

“The threat for us is complacency. The first thing you have to do is acknowledge that it’s a threat”.

Smart said in that head teacher like tone that makes everyone sit up and pay attention.

Smart continued to “lecture” the room,

“We look for two things when we look for people to join our organization. I’m not talking about players, I’m talking about anybody in our organization. Do they love football and do they embrace being part of something bigger than themselves. Are they

The Georgia head coach went on,

So when you see complacency take over it’s when a team’s enthusiasm and ego start worrying about outcomes. That’s not what we do at Georgia. That’s not what we bring into our place. That’s not what we bring into the culture we want to have. We want selfless people who love football, and that’s what we build around”.

Smart spoke about how as a team the Bulldogs have used the New Zealand All Blacks as a glowing example of a team that performs to a high level regularly and to knows how to consistently win. Smart said that the Bulldogs had studied the All Blacks for 6 weeks over the summer, a “deep dive” he called it.

Out of this deep dive became a mantra which his team has adopted.

“One of their big mantras is better never rests. We believe that. Those are strong words now when you think about it. Think deep on it. Better never rests”.

“I don’t know who this guy is but he told me y’all are going 7-5 this year”

At the College Chaps we love Chris Marler from Saturday Down South/ College Football Uncensored podcast. We have gotten to know Chris well over the years so it was great to meet him finally in person in Nashville. It was awesome except when I got to be his fall guy and incurred the wrath of Kirby Smart.

Let me explain. Chris had (who is also a comedian) promised consistently via his social social media that he was going to tell Kirby Smart that his team was going 7-5 this season.

To do so Chris decided to tag “that” comment on the back of a perfectly sensible and pertinent question about the incredibly high standards that Smart has achieved during his time in Athens. In doing so Marler had to find a fall guy, who just happened to be the person sitting next to him. Me.

And so these immortal lines were quoted live on television. Pointing to me Chris Marler said,

“I don’t know who this guy is but he told  me y’all are going 7-5 this year before he handed me the microphone”.

Kirby laughed it off by saying he didn’t quite hear the line but in the very next question asked, Kirby quoted the line back when saying,

“People are like, what are you going to tell your team this year? You going to tell them people are going to say you’re going to be 7-5?”

So remember folks, head coaches are like elephants – they hear and remember everything! Everything!


The Commish

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey takes the stage on Day One/ Image credit: George Somerville

Spoiler alert, in part four of Notes from Nashville I’m going to relay some of my more personal highlights from the week. One of which includes an interaction with Commissioner Sankey.

But before we get to that let’s cover what the Commissioner said in his opening remarks. The Commissioner of the SEC is a powerful position – perhaps the most powerful in all of college football. So as much as he receives praise for the job done steering the SEC to become the most powerful conference in the game, there must be times when those pressures become a heavy weight to bear.

Not that you would imagine this from Greg Sankey. You get the feeling that nothing phases this man from Up State New York. A hockey player in school, Sankey is much taller than expected and casts a formidable figure on the podium.

Two tributes dominated the Commissioner’s opening remarks. First a tribute to the five policemen who were first responders during the mass shooting at a Nashville school earlier this year. Four of the five officers were in the Grand Hyatt and took to the stage as the Commissioner spoke of their heroism. It seemed a fitting tribute to a group of men who stopped a tragic event from becoming much worse.

The second tribute took the form of Sankey electing not to wear a tie for the event. A theme that he continued across all four days. Commissioner Sankey explains why,

“Last year in Atlanta, one of my backstage conversations was about the uselessness of neckties. It was a conversation that went much longer than I anticipated and ended in the rhetorical question of why neckties survived but powder wigs went away.

That conversation was with Mike Leach, and today I’m without a tie just to honor Mike’s memory. You know we lost Mike in December, a person important not simply to the South Eastern Conference — we only had him for a few seasons — but to all of college football. He was fascinating and impacted the lives of thousands of people across the college football spectrum and across his life”.

It was an understated but poignant tribute to Coach Leach which seemed like the kind of thing that the Pirate would have nodded his head to.

Somewhat inevitably the questions fired at Sankey were principally around two themes – the evolution (or creep) of NIL on college football and conference expansion.

The Commissioner shared his views on “super conferences”,

“When I was here in Atlanta last year, I was clear that we’re focused on our growth to 16. Do I think it’s done? People will say, well, I get to decide that. Right now it appears others are going to decide that before we have to make any decisions.

My view is we know who we are. We’re comfortable as a league. We’re focused on our growth to 16. We’ve restored rivalries. We’re geographically contiguous with the right kind of philosophical alignment, and we can stay at that level of super conference.

When you go bigger, there are a whole other set of factors that have to be considered, and I’m not sure I’ve seen those teased out other than in my mind late at night”.

It is going to be interesting to see how conference evolution pans out over the next few years. Rmours are rife that the BIG conference isn’t finished yet and with the demise of the PAC12 seemingly imminent, you can never say never to further SEC expansion. And if you noticed, Greg Sankey didn’t use the “never” word.


The Ice Man Cometh

Auburn Head Coach, Hugh Freeze returns to SEC Media Days/ Image credit: George Somerville

There is always speculation as to who the winners and losers are over the four days of the Media days event. Of course there is nothing to be actually lost over this week but it is important to get fans, players and of course the media onside with plans and strategies ahead of the big kick off in early September.

Lots of eyes were on Auburn’s Hugh Freeze in the lead up to Media Days. Not only was Freeze returning to the SEC for the first time since his exodus from Ole Miss  – a return many thought not possible – but also Auburn football is in recovery mode from the disastrous Bryan Harsin era on the Plains.

Hugh Freeze was very impressive in Nashville. The general consensus being that he won over hearts and minds which is vital for the Auburn community and something that Bryan Harsin never really achieved. Having an SEC background certainly appears a pre-requisite for the War Eagle fan base and a head coach who has beaten arch rival Nick Saban at Alabama has gotten expectations soaring. War Eagle soaring. So Freeze was off to a good start.

Hugh Freeze is back!

In Nashville and on the podium in the main room, Freeze was humble but confident. Optimistic but retrospective. Hugh Freeze does have a personality that lends himself to winning folks over, but regardless he was clearly on a mission to win the room.

“We’re excited, thankful for this opportunity, obviously, to be back in what I think is the greatest program — the greatest conference in college football, representing one of the greatest programs that I think is in college football”,

Said Freeze during his introductory remarks.

Included in these opening words was an acknowledgement of the support he had received not just from Auburn but also from the SEC office. The NCAA and with it the SEC came down hard on Ole Miss and Freeze at the time of the NCAA sanctions. The situation with Ole Miss where recruiting violations were even more sullied by Freeze’s personal circumstances was never a good look for the SEC. However, it appears that Hugh Freeze and the Commissioner maintained a straight talking relationship during Freeze’s time at Liberty. A time where he rebuilt his career.

“There’s never been a time when I had a  conversation with Commissioner Sankey that he wasn’t telling me exactly what the truth was and probably had great wisdom behind it. Whether I liked it or not, I always felt like, man, he really has thought through this and he’s really telling me what he thinks is the truth and best. I respect that with people”,

said Freeze who came across as honest and grateful for the support.

a long road back

The follow up question was an interesting one. Given his spectacular downfall from his time in Oxford, MS did Freeze ever see a way back into the SEC. Hugh’s response was typical of the way that he approached his Media day. Honest and straightforward.

“truthfully when the ending at Ole Miss occurred it was hard to truthfully process would you ever get that opportunity again, so I would have to say at that point no.” 

“I would be less than truthful with you if after we started having success at Liberty, particularly with it just going FBS and us being able to beat the likes of Arkansas and BYU and Virginia Tech and Syracuse and playing close with every Power Five that we played, did the thought start creeping in your mind that certain opportunities might present themselves again? Yes, at that point. But not prior to that point did they enter my mind”.

recruiting is everything

 Freeze knows however that he needs to complete one or two recruiting cycles before Auburn will really be able to compete.But the confidence is still there, its just that he knows he has to have the right calibre of players to meet his expectations

“I think once upon a time I was probably one of the better play callers in college football. Obviously better players make you a better play caller. 

I don’t know that I was the greatest play caller or one of the best play callers the last few years at Liberty. I managed the game really well and gave our kids a chance to obviously win some huge games, and we were really good on defense, and I kind of played to that.” 

Said Freeze although his words exuded realism to the task at hand,

“I do think that the ’24 and ’25 recruiting cycle will tell a large portion of the story of my tenure there. I believe that.  Maybe ’26 we might get three cycles, but we’ve got to start closing the gap on the elite programs in this conference.  And when you add Texas and Oklahoma, that only increases the competition, also”.

Freeze and Auburn are going to be an interesting watch this year. Hugh has started his tenure off on the right foot. Question is can he maintain a level of performance in year one which keeps the critics off his back and allow his a recruiting campaign to get his plans in place? That is the million dollar question.


Mock Draft

george somerville

College football writer