HOOVER, Ala.-- No déjà vu on Tuesday.
The four head coaches who paraded around the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel were all making return trips, but none of their messages mirrored those from last July when they made the whirlwind tour.
Steve Spurrier didn’t fire a shot at Ole Miss this year. For one, the schedule favors him a bit more this year, and secondly no one seems to be taking shots at Ole Miss right now.
“Well last year at this time, Ole Miss was 2-10,” Spurrier quipped to a loaded ballroom.
Twelve months after essentially setting the stage for a dreadful first season in Oxford, second head coach Hugh Freeze spent much of his time at the podium hurling a wet blanket on the expectations now rising at Ole Miss.
That’s what happens when you inherit a 2-10 team, wallop your arch rival, dominate a bowl game and haul in one of the best signing classes in the country, Hugh.
“I stood before you last year and talked about, in year one, the reasonable expectation was to try to get our young men to compete very passionately for our university,” Freeze said. “The expectations that are coming now with our program, I'm very careful. I told every group that I went to this spring, I tell our team quite often, that unrealistic expectations, they always produce frustration.”
The Rebels run something of a gauntlet in the early going, playing four of their first five games away from home, three in conference. An opening night tilt with Vanderbilt could really send things south in a hurry. But maybe not.
If the Rebels can skate through Nashville unscathed, they’ll set up a date with Texas in Austin which would be the biggest game in three years for the Rebel faithful.
A loss there, and 2-5 would be an optimistic outlook before the back half of the schedule opens up. That would certainly nullify the buzz in a hurry.
The Ole Miss team that finished 7-6, but played tough against Texas A&M, LSU and Alabama, free-wheeled all season with nothing to lose.
“We were playing for respect,” said senior linebacker Mike Marry.
That label falls right at the feet of Gary Pinkel this time around.
After puffing out his chest last year at Media Days, Pinkel took a different road this time. See if you can tell.
“People act like we play bunch of high school teams,” Pinkel said in 2012. “We played in a pretty good league."
Pinkel’s club mustered five wins the ensuing fall, its fewest since 2004. His spread offense sputtered, somewhat due to injuries up front and to his quarterback James Franklin. Somewhat due to competent defenses.
There are times that the sportswriter tells the story, but there are also times when the quotes do it themselves. This is one of those times.
“I think we certainly understand how great it is to be in the SEC,” Pinkel started. “The SEC is what I thought it was going to be. It's a line-of-scrimmage league. I knew that coming in. Great football teams start at their line of scrimmage. But certainly it's a line-of-scrimmage league, offensively, defensive line. I don't care what skill positions you have, you got to be good up front. I knew that going in. Certainly it's remarkably competitive. We had six games that went down to the last drive of the game. We won three, lost three…Another thing you have to do is finish in the fourth quarter. We understand that in any sport, but certainly in this league because it's so very, very competitive. Great league. We're proud to be a member of the SEC. I'm excited about it. It's remarkably competitive, that's why I'm glad we're in it.”
I’ll file that under ‘lesson learned’.
The cold truth is that Pinkel stands on the podium today potentially coaching for his job in 2013. If the Tigers post another five-win season and become a punch line in their new league, don’t they have to make a change?
Here’s the message Missouri sent this past year: if we beat you, you have to fire your coach. That happened.
Will Muschamp avoided that fate, narrowly. Not that he would have been fired, but Missouri played his Gators close down in the Swamp.
This year Muschamp didn’t have to answer questions about a 7-5 season. His Gators (kind of) played in a BCS bowl in January after an 11-1 regular season.
“Two things we emphasized last year was turnover margin in 2011, we went from -12, to 2012 we went to +15, which is a difference in a season, difference playing in a BCS bowl game,” Muschamp said. “As far as scoring in the fourth quarter in SEC football games, my first season we were outscored by 50 points, 72 to 22; this past year we outscored our opponents by 41 points, 61 to 20. You're talking about a 91-point swing in a season.”
Now Muschamp has a season’s worth of success on his resume, no matter how narrow or ugly some of the wins were.
He returns his starting quarterback, something he didn’t do last year.
“Jeff Driskel, it's his football team,” Muschamp said.
The junior quarterback piloted the worst passing offense in the league last year, and only one of his top four receivers’ returns. Also gone is 1,000+ yard runner Mike Gillislee.
It’s on you, Jeff. That’s new.
Certainly some Florida greats of the past will willingly offer up some advice for Driskel, but he may struggle to get much help from Spurrier.
The affable head ball coach stole the show late in the afternoon, questioning Notre Dame’s independent status and calling for the Irish to move to the ACC. He also kicked around scheduling inequities in the league. He petitioned for players and their families to receive a stipend so that those close to the players can attend games.
And he’s going to keep fighting; at least that’s what he told us.
“If President Obama were to say 'Spurrier, you and those coaches need to quit fighting for your players, they get enough, they get enough on full scholarship,' then I'll shut up about it," he said.
Please don’t shut up, Coach.