HOOVER, Ala. — With nearly 1,300 media members at SEC Media Days, the same stories are bound to pop up from Gainesville to College Station.
One meme, though, may be premature. For example:
True, the standout quarterback class from 2013 is gone. Departures of Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron have left a void of experience. What’s left lacks starts and yards, but the class may be no less intriguing.
Only one of the top eight passers return, but the returning quarterbacks are far from green. Auburn’s Nick Marshall won the league a year ago. Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace is a multi-year starter. The new quarterbacks at Mississippi State and Missouri showed enough in part-time duty a year ago that they can be dynamic contributors.
“The quarterbacks are not any less talented than the ones that just left,” Wallace said. “There’s just going to be a turnover.”
And then there are the running backs. Four of the top seven rushers in yards per game return to the league. Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and South Carolina’s Mike Davis didn’t make the media day roster, but that doesn’t make them any less impressive.
So for anyone who is worried about a lack of star power in the SEC, we present this rebuttal:
Todd Gurley, Georgia
Gurley is as legitimate a Heisman contender as any running back around the country, even considering Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram are the only players at the position to win the award in the 21st century.
Before Gurley sustained an ankle injury against LSU on Sept. 28, he had rushed for at least 100 yards per game in 11 of 17 games. During that span he’s rushed for 20 touchdowns and topped 20 carries only six times.
“If he stays healthy, I think he's one of the better players in America, no doubt about it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Hopefully he stays healthy. I see that he's getting into great condition. If we continue to get him in great condition for this season, I think the sky's the limit for him.
Mike Davis, South Carolina
Like Gurley, Davis saw part of his season derailed by injuries. At one point, Davis led the SEC in rushing before playing through shoulder, knee and ankle injuries to finish the season.
For a South Carolina program that has emphasized run-pass balance as well as any Steve Spurrier-coached team, Davis could be a workhorse. He topped the 100-yard mark seven times in the first nine games. During that span, he averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
“From Marcus Lattimore to him, there’s no drop off,” South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt said. “There’s something about him. He can make you miss. He has that power and he has that speed. If you don’t bring that extra something, he’ll blow past you.”
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
Splitting time with Derrick Henry, who broke out for 161 yards from scrimmage in the Sugar Bowl, may cut into Yeldon’s ability to compete for postseason awards. But it also raises the possibility that Yeldon and Henry will be the best running back duo in the country.
On his own, Yeldon averages better than six yards per carry in his career to go with 26 touchdowns the last two years.
Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Wallace is first to mention that the end of the season — when he threw five interceptions against Missouri, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech — changed the complexion of the season.
Before that, he had thrown 17 touchdowns to only five picks, not a bad mark for a quarterback whose decision-making has been called into question. Since the end of last season, Wallace visited with private quarterback coach Tom House for a “complete overhaul” on his mechanics to improve the velocity on his passes.
He also is another year removed from shoulder surgery that limited his confidence last season. And despite all that, Wallace was third in the SEC in total offense, and more than 30 yards per game more than anyone else returning.
“I’m throwing it the way I threw it in junior college,” Wallace said. “That was the best I ever threw it.”
Maty Mauk, Missouri
Speaking of quarterbacks with an unpredictability streak, Mauk said he’d like to model his game after former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (and what dual-threat quarterback wouldn’t?).
He’s not there yet, but he completed 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in a dominating 36-17 win over Florida in his first career start. He followed that in the next two weeks with 114 rushing yards and three passing touchdowns in a double-overtime loss to South Carolina and five touchdown passes in a win over Tennessee.
“Maty Mauk will surprise everybody, every week,” Missouri center Evan Boehm said. “He’s a playmaker. You saw it in Johnny Manziel, you saw it in AJ McCarron and you saw it in Aaron Murray.”
Nick Marshall, Auburn
The returning quarterback of the SEC champions was absent at SEC Media Day due to a marijuana citation, and his status for the opener against Arkansas is unclear.
He’s still a possibility to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 — he came 24 passing yards of the feat a year ago.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Mississippi State’s quarterback history is not nearly as illustrious as other programs in the league, meaning Prescott’s bid for the top single season in Starkville history is attainable.
Does Prescott have the ability to do it? Despite playing 11 games and splitting time with Tyler Russell early in the season, Prescott passed for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 829 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
Long-term, the SEC player with the most potential may be a freshman running back at LSU. Leonard Fournette will start as part of a running back committee, as usual at LSU, to start the year.
By the end of the season, he may start living up to media day comparisons to Michael Jordan and Adrian Peterson.
“That’s the only guy play the running back position you can compare him to,” Terrence Magee said.