Georgia (10 a.m. ET): The expectations are high for this team, but if you ask Mark Richt who he has left in the secondary, it might take him a minute to respond. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were both dismissed from the team, and Shaquille Wiggins transferred away from the program. That leaves the Bulldogs extremely thin on the back end, but star linebacker Ramik Wilson, who will be on hand Thursday, is back for another season. Wilson led the SEC last season with 133 tackles. On offense, it's all about Todd Gurley. If he's healthy, he's one of the best running backs in college football. However, Aaron Murray is no longer there, which means it's now up to Hutson Mason to take the reigns at quarterback. Between questions about the dismissals and questions about Mason, Richt will be plenty busy Thursday.
Ole Miss (10:30 a.m.): Are the Rebels ready to take that next step? Hugh Freeze surprised everybody, including himself, when he led his team to a bowl game in his first season, and he was able to duplicate that success last year. But with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace returning and 10 starters back on defense, a bowl game might not be good enough this season. They have the talent and experience to compete in a stacked SEC West. The other major talking point for Thursday will be the sensational freshman class from a year ago. The likes of Tony Conner, Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all a year older, which is good news for Ole Miss fans but bad news for opponents. Treadwell, in particular, could be in line for a huge season with Donte Moncrief now in the NFL.
Alabama (12:10 p.m.): This edition of SEC media days will have a different feel for Alabama if for no other reason than the Crimson Tide aren't defending national champs for the first time in a while. How will the team respond to losing back-to-back games to end last season? And, maybe more important, how will it deal with the manner it lost to Auburn, falling to its bitter rival in the most dramatic way possible? Alabama coach Nick Saban will no doubt have an eye toward the future and the redemption it holds. But first he'll have to answer questions about a rebuilt secondary, two new starters on the offensive line, and the biggest question mark of all -- quarterback. It's safe to assume the starting job is Jacob Coker's. Just don't be surprised when Saban scoffs at the assumption.
Kentucky (1:40 p.m.): Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If you're looking for a main storyline to follow with the Wildcats on Thursday, it's how well Mark Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and how that's beginning to pay dividends on the football field. The top-to-bottom talent isn't quite there to compete with the upper echelon of the SEC yet, but it's on the right path. And maybe with a few surprise players and a break here or there, Kentucky might play the role of spoiler in 2014. Za'Darius Smith and Alvin Dupree are two of the more underrated defensive players in the league, and Jojo Kemp and Javess Blue are two similarly under-the-radar playmakers on offense. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard could provide some much needed depth at tailback, and Drew Barker has the skill set to play immediately at quarterback as a true freshman. But how will Stoops put all those pieces together? His program is improving with each recruiting class, but it needs time to mature.
In Finebaum's book with Gene Wojciechowski, "My Conference Can Beat Your Conference," Finebaum writes:
"Texas was dead serious about trying to money-whip Saban. Depending on who you talk to -- Bama big hitters or Texas big hitters -- the Longhorns were prepared to give Saban somewhere between a $12 million and $15 million signing bonus and a salary package worth $100 million [plus performance bonuses]."
In December, Saban received a new seven-year deal from Alabama through Jan. 21, 2022, worth $6.5 million in base salary per year and a total of about $55 million including performance bonuses.
In December after Alabama's contract with Saban was finalized, Saban told ESPN.com's Chris Low he "never considered" Texas.
"The way this sort of got spun, it was a little bit more like, 'OK, he got a new contract at Alabama, so he's going to stay at Alabama instead of going to Texas,'" Saban said. "I never considered going to Texas. That wasn't even a conversation.
"I knew that if Mack [Brown] stepped down, there would probably be an opportunity, but it wasn't something I was interested in doing, not at this stage in my career."
Texas ended up replacing Brown with Louisville coach Charlie Strong.
Saban addressed the matter Thursday at SEC Media Days, saying, "I did not have any conversations [with Texas] and nobody offered me anything. If I didn't have any conversations with them, there must not have been very much interest."
You want controversy? You want regional bias? You BCS-raised, college football young'uns don't know squat. Consider Exhibit A: USC and Alabama in 1978.
USC went to Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 23, 1978, and whipped the top-ranked Crimson Tide 24-14 in front of 77,313 fans who didn't appreciate West Coast cool rolling over their southern-fried team like an army of deranged surfers.
The technical term for that in college football parlance is a "head-to-head victory." That the win was accomplished on the road provided it even more gravity as an objective and seemingly insurmountable measure of two teams. Ergo, when the season ended with both USC and Alabama winning New Year's Day bowl games following one-loss seasons, it was obvious who should be ranked No. 1. That would be the Trojans, of course.
Even today, if you throw this Apple of Discord onto a bar table between Tide and Trojans adherents over 50, spittle will fly, veins will bulge, and the unique righteous indignation of college football fans will thunder forth like water over Niagara Falls.
That just begins the story of USC-Alabama, which might have the most storied seven-game all-time series in college football history. Or is that Alabama-USC?
So if we are overbrimming with joy at the prospect of the Crimson Tide and Trojans opening the 2016 season in the eighth annual Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in a Labor Day weekend, neutral-site game, please forgive us.
This, my friends, is what we've all been craving. If this is the luscious fruit brought forth by the new College Football Playoff demanding more challenging scheduling, then let's give the sport's powers-that-be a collective fist bump. They have, rightfully, been taking a lot of grief lately, most notably in the courts. If we can, for a moment at least, block off consideration of the monstrosity of the cash flow certain to gush from this one. Let's instead awash ourselves in the anticipation of the game itself.
Alabama and USC are without question two of college football's preeminent powers. They might be college football's two preeminent powers. They have combined for 26 national championships (11 by USC, 15 by Alabama), 66 bowl victories (32 USC, 34 Alabama), seven Heisman Trophy winners (6 USC, one Alabama), 272 first-team All-Americans (161 USC, 111 Alabama), 797 NFL draftees (483 USC, 314 Alabama), 52 College Football Hall of Fame players (31 USC, 21 Alabama) and such legendary coaches as USC's Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll and Alabama's Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and current head coach Nick Saban.
Whew. While Notre Dame and Michigan fans are jumping up and down, waving their arms, this matchup is about as special as it gets, particularly when you project forward that both are likely to be top-10 teams to start 2016.
As for the series itself, Alabama leads 5-2. The Tide's biggest wins came in the 1946 Rose Bowl and in the Coliseum in 1971 and 1977, a decade in which both teams were dominating their respective regions. USC's other victory, a 42-21 blowout in 1970 in Birmingham, is often credited with pushing forward the integration of college football in the South, as the Trojans' African-American players, particularly fullback Sam Cunningham, tailback Clarence Davis and quarterback Jimmy Jones, turned in big performances. That game has been the subject of many stories and documentary films.
When those iconic helmets are standing opposite each other, there might be a few goose bumps from the old-timers that prove contagious to those who don't recall much from the pre-BCS age.
As for the present, the plot is also pretty thick. For one, the SEC and Pac-12 are the top two conferences in college football, and there's little reason to believe that will change much over the next three seasons. This game, therefore, could operate as a season-long measuring stick for both leagues. CFP committee members might be willing to apply the transitive property if they should be forced to make distinctions between Pac-12 and SEC teams that didn't play -- as in, "Well, UCLA beat USC and USC beat Alabama and LSU lost to Alabama, so UCLA should eclipse LSU."
Finally, there's the Lane Kiffin angle. Kiffin, you might have heard, was fired five games into the 2013 season as USC's head coach. He is now Alabama's offensive coordinator, a pairing with Saban that seems, well, interesting. Kiffin might be somewhere else in 2016, but it certainly would be a notable sidebar to the game if he is not.
By the way, Saban will be 65 in 2016. He might not be atop the Crimson Tide when this game rolls around.
Hmm. Lane Kiffin, Lane Kiffin. Hmm.
Ah, there is a lot to ponder with this one. Plenty of topics that will percolate. And ferment. Perhaps it's good we have two full seasons between now and this showdown to hone our hyperbole.
The Cowboys Classic will mark the eighth meeting between the programs. Alabama got the best of USC the last time the teams met, winning 24-3 in the 1985 Aloha Bowl.
By adding the nonconference tilt with USC, Alabama fulfills its new obligation from the SEC to begin scheduling at least one nonconference game against a Big Five conference opponent starting in 2016.
Last summer, Alabama canceled a previously scheduled home-and-home series with Michigan State for 2016 and '17. Tide athletic director Bill Battle said at the time that the move was done because of "the uncertainty of conference football schedules in those years."
But according to coach Nick Saban, he tried and failed to persuade the Spartans to move the game to a neutral site.
The 2016 game between Alabama and USC could feature an interesting storyline. Lane Kiffin, who was fired by USC last fall, joined the Crimson Tide as offensive coordinator in January.
Alabama won the last time it played at AT&T Stadium, beating Michigan 41-14 to kick off the 2012 season.
HOOVER, Ala. -- In a move to further protect players from dangerous hits, the SEC has defined a "strike zone" from below the neck to above the knees in which an unabated defender may attempt to tackle an "offensive player in a passing posture."
"This is a player safety issue," said Steve Shaw, the SEC's coordinator of officials.
Shaw, who spoke at SEC media days Wednesday, said the rule to protect quarterbacks from being hit below the knees will be enforced regardless of whether the hit occurs inside or outside the pocket. A penalty will not be called, however, if a defender is blocked into the quarterback.
"When a player is under his own power, he's directing his hit and he chooses to go low, that is going to be a foul," Shaw said.
"This rule change, I think, will create the player behavior change."
Shaw also touched on last season's controversial targeting penalty in his address, calling it "the biggest change of my officiating career."
Last season, the NCAA changed the penalty for targeting defenseless players with hits to the head by adding an ejection to the 15-yard penalty.
"What were the results of that?" he said. "Well, first of all, let me say we simply had to change player behavior for the good of the game. I believe we started to see this type of player behavior change that we were looking for."
Shaw said "the trend is good," citing fewer targeting penalties in the second half of last season. Shaw said 14 targeting calls were made in the first eight weeks last season and only five after that.
One change to the rule is that both the ejection and 15-yard penalty can be overturned if officials decide upon review that the foul was incorrectly called.
Shaw did point out, though, that the 15-yard penalty will stand if another foul occurs on the same play.
Ivey won't let distractions get in the way
The conference had a finalist for the award -- which goes to the top wide receiver in college football -- last season in Texas A&M's Mike Evans. But Evans and the conference's other four leading receivers (Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, LSU's Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief), and nine of the top 11, have all left the league.
The only returning members of that top 11 are Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis (sixth in the SEC with 923 receiving yards in 2013) and Auburn's Sammie Coates (seventh, 902), both of whom made the Biletnikoff list.
Here are the four SEC players on the list:
Sammie Coates, Auburn
Amari Cooper, Alabama
Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State
Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
HOOVER, Ala. -- Steve Spurrier has taken a few jabs at Alabama and its head coach this offseason, but when he came to SEC media days Tuesday morning he was full of compliments, calling Nick Saban a recruiter for the ages.
"They've done extremely well, there's no question about that," South Carolina's coach said of Alabama. "I think they've had five No. 1 recruiting classes out of the last six years, which has got to make [Saban] the greatest recruiter in the history of college football."
Spurrier, who enters his 10th season leading the Gamecocks, called Alabama "the favorites" to win the SEC, in large part because of its recruiting efforts. The Crimson Tide wrapped up their third straight No. 1 class in February and have never finished outside of the top three in ESPN's rankings since Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa in 2007. With 16 current ESPN 300 commitments, they are well on their way to another top class.
"Arguably they've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled on a college team, if the recruiting services are correct," Spurrier said.
In June, Spurrier raised eyebrows by questioning whether Alabama had "maxed out" its potential with only two SEC titles in eight years.
But at media days, the story was different.
"They do it the right way," Spurrier said of Alabama. "He runs a good program. It's just amazing how they've been able to stack and keep loading up on players each year."
Spurrier was quick to note that talent doesn't always win out and "sometimes the team that plays the best is the team that wins."
Notable Movers In ESPN 300 Update
6:00 PM ET Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss 9:15 PM ET Temple Vanderbilt
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State Missouri 4:00 PM ET Arkansas Auburn 5:30 PM ET Clemson Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET Wisconsin LSU