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Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze: RB Jordan Wilkins poised for ‘a special year’

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Looking back at a disastrous 2016 season for Ole Miss, you can choose from a slew of factors that triggered the collapse: injuries, coaching and dismal defense among them. The absence of a decent running game cracks the top 5.

For the second time in three years, the Rebels rushing attack finished 11th among SEC in yards per carry, at 4.25. Only twice did Ole Miss running backs combine for 200 yards rushing in a single game — one of those was against Memphis. And coach Hugh Freeze’s pass-heavy system didn’t help produce balance. Ole Miss rushed the ball 35 times a game, the 12th-lowest rate of any Power 5 team last season.

Still, was the dip in rushing production that surprising? Not really. Ole Miss said goodbye to four senior starters on the offensive line, including first-rounder Laremy Tunsil, after the 2015 season. Then running back Jordan Wilkins learned he would have to sit out the 2016 season because of “an administrative error” related to his academic eligibility.

“The way he handled it made you proud,” Freeze said of Wilkins. “He’s been listening to us about how to handle adversity in life. The leadership role he provides having gone through that gives him even more credibility.”

As the season went downhill, so too did the offensive line’s injury situation. At one point tackle Sean Rawlings became the starting center out of necessity. So, yeah, none of this really set the Rebels up to succeed in rushing.

That could change in 2017, for a couple of reasons.

Number one: Freeze expects big things from Wilkins, a junior who showed great promise in his first two years on campus.

“With the disappointing news of not going to a bowl game next year with our self-imposed deal, I was curious to see how he’d react,” Freeze said. “And he immediately took the charge on, ‘This is how we’re going to handle it.’ I’m just so proud and praying he has a healthy year, because I think he’s going to have a special year.”

Freeze also cited progress he saw across the offensive line, which returns most of its starters from last season. Left tackle Greg Little, a former 5-star recruit, gained valuable experience as a true freshman. Upperclassmen Jordan Sims, Javon Patterson and Daronte Bouldin should anchor the interior.

“I said from Day 1 it would take us four to five years to get the offensive line the way we wanted it,” Freeze said. “I believe if we stay healthy, we’re going to have one of the better offensive lines in the country.

“The job [offensive line coach Matt Luke] has done in recruiting and being able to redshirt finally has paid off for us. Really excited about the comfort level and the chemistry those guys have up there. We’ve got most everybody back.”

It’s hard to gauge whether Ole Miss will show more balance under new coordinator Phil Longo, a disciple of Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense. For what it’s worth, Longo told SEC Country that his philosophy on running the ball differs from other Air Raid gurus including Leach and Kliff Kingsbury.

“At some point I feel like it’s important to have an emphasis on the run game,” Longo said. “I don’t particularly care if we throw or run it 70 times to win a game … As long as it’s what the defense is giving us, I’m all for it.”

However often the Rebels hand the ball to a running back this fall, they’ll at least have the tools to be better on the ground — and that will help sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson and his young receivers.

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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Ole Miss willing to go down with Hugh Freeze, and NCAA will oblige

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Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says he wants “finality.” He’s probably not going to get it under the circumstances he’d like.

The Rebels released their official response to the NCAA’s second Notice of Allegations on Tuesday, and the takeaway is clear: Ole Miss has no intention of backing down when it comes to the serious accusations levied against Freeze.

The two most notable of these are the Level I “lack of institutional control” and “head coach responsibility” claims, but a total of 15 Level I allegations can be found in the NOA. Most occurred under Freeze’s watch, with a fraction attributed to Houston Nutt’s tenure.

The university, which begins the response by citing its internal investigation, proactive compliance measures and self-imposed punishments (including the bowl ban) at length, eventually addresses the Level I charges:

“In taking responsibility for what has occurred, the University has self-imposed significant and appropriate penalties …

“All but three of the Level I allegations (i.e., Allegations Nos. 5, 20, and 21) were the result of intentional misconduct specifically intended to evade monitoring systems implemented by the University, the athletics department, and the head football coach …”

“The University contests the allegations concerning institutional control and head coach responsibility (Allegations Nos. 20-21).”

Those are the legalese equivalent of fightin’ words, and it’s either a bold display of support or brazen stupidity. 

By continuing to resist — that’s how the NCAA will see this — Ole Miss not only looks reckless, but risks getting hammered harder by college football’s governing body, as well. The NCAA is out for blood and wants Freeze to be the sacrificial lamb. This is where the Rebels have made their stand.

Objectively, you have to wonder: Is Freeze worth it?

He’s a fine football coach who led the Rebels to their first Sugar Bowl win in decades. His offense beat Alabama twice. But he’s not the second coming of Johnny Vaught. Does fighting for him outweight the potential long-term damage done by a two-year bowl ban, more scholarship reductions or worse? A year-long suspension for Freeze is on the table. The anxiety surrounding this investigation has already poisoned recruiting efforts (see: 2017 signing class, “penalty”).

Let’s assume for the purpose of argument that Freeze, who is still beloved by many in Oxford and around the state, had no knowledge of his staff’s wrongdoings, as the university argued in its response.

Freeze may be a fantastic human being — I can’t personally vouch for his character, but I know some who can — and it’s hard to believe athletics director Ross Bjork would fight this hard if that wasn’t the case. Yet, that probably matters little when the NCAA sees these matters in black and white.

The officials investigating this mess see a repeating trend of broken rules. Ole Miss has admitted as much. Not much can be done to completely protect Freeze at this point, so why try?

Bjork and his team can try to deflect blame from Freeze by bringing up the likes of  “Student-Athlete 39,” widely recognized as Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis, or ex-assistant Barney Farrar. Lewis certainly would have a conflict of interest in telling the NCAA about improper benefits he may or may not have received.

With the evidence available to the public, however, it’s unlikely Farrar acted as a rogue agent, just as it is unlikely an alleged cash-dealing booster only paid this particular ex-Ole Miss recruit. The existence of your typical “college football bag man” is common knowledge at this point. And here’s Ole Miss, harping on the account of one football player and requesting to be present for his interview.

RELATED: Ole Miss requested interview with Dan Mullen about NCAA allegations

Ole Miss will achieve the finality Freeze seeks only by bowing out of this fight, and that means firing Freeze. In continuing to battle the NCAA, the Rebels may ultimately have to fire Freeze anyway. Coaches rarely, if ever, survive this sort of onslaught given the internal and external pressure to clean house.

It’s a lose-lose proposition for the school. Bjork may feel good defending a coach he personally respects, but when the men in suits with hundred-page reports show up on your doorstep, you’ve already lost.

The Rebels will meet with the NCAA Committee on Infractions later this year. Despite a tornado’s worth of potential fallout churning in the distance, Ole Miss is standing pat, going about its business and apparently willing to die on this hill with Freeze if necessary.

In other words, this picture is the perfect metaphor for Ole Miss v. NCAA:

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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Hugh Freeze resigns: Ole Miss-NCAA saga was always going to end this way

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Months of accusation, blame-deflection and bitter entrenchment on both sides of the NCAA’s prolonged war with Ole Miss culminated Thursday evening in the shocking resignation of coach Hugh Freeze.

Freeze reportedly made at least one call to a female escort service on his university-provided phone, information which came to light only as a result of bitter ex-Rebels coach Houston Nutt’s lawsuit against his former employer.

Nutt, if you’ll recall, took legal action against Ole Miss because of alleged off-the-record comments Freeze made to sportswriters, in which he purportedly attempted to shift the brunt of the then-new NCAA accusations onto the Nutt regime.

RELATED: What Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork and Chancellor Jeff Vitter said after Hugh Freeze’s resignation

In this way, Freeze brought about his own destruction. And, while the circumstances surrounding his sudden departure are certainly surprising, the ultimate result is not.

As I wrote last month, the only possible outcome of Ole Miss v. NCAA would involve the resignation, firing or indefinite suspension of Freeze. The NCAA was always going to win this battle. That the Rebels’ athletic administration stood by its football coach in light of an all-out public assault only makes this defeat more bitter for the school.

How will Freeze’s proverbial SEC epitaph read? That depends who’s doing the writing.

He led Ole Miss to its first Sugar Bowl win in nearly 50 years, compiled a 39-25 overall record, beat the legendary Nick Saban — twice — and generally brought college football back to national relevance in Oxford, Miss. The images of Rebels fans rushing the field and climbing the goal posts at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium will forever remain an iconic highlight of the Freeze era.

But were those accomplishments built on a staff that, if the NCAA allegations are true, systemically skirted many of the sport’s rules? A dominant recruiting run fueled Freeze’s surprising on-field success. To his detractors, Thursday’s resignation can only be seen as an admission of guilt, even if his ultimate departure had more to do with personal misconduct.

That’s Hugh Freeze, the football coach. Hugh Freeze, the human being, is a much trickier subject.

Piety was always part of the 47-year-old’s public persona. This does not make Freeze unique among football coaches, but for some of those who most supported him — particularly fans, players and their families — his religious devotion made him appealing in the same way Tim Tebow’s faith did.

Freeze’s decision to bow out of a fight that Ole Miss administrators, players and fans often fought on his behalf, amid some Mike Price-esque accusations unquestionably tarnishes his legacy. There is far too much smoke surrounding this situation for any reasonable person to not shout, “fire!” Freeze preached one thing from his pulpit, and did another backstage.

Nobody is without fault, but Freeze made himself an easy target for ridicule by selling himself as something better.

RELATED: Ole Miss recruits react to Hugh Freeze resignation

When we look back upon Rebels football in the 2010s, Freeze’s string of NCAA woes will define it as much as the football team’s run of on-field glory. So will a bumbling PR campaign that desperately tried to paint an embattled coach as the victim.

You want to know who the real victims are here? It’s not Freeze, who made millions as a head football coach in the SEC. It’s not his staff, most of whom should escape this with their careers intact.

The real losers are Ole Miss, its players and its fans.

Freeze (perhaps literally) bought them success on Saturdays for a time. But his players are stuck on a head coach-less team banned from playing in the postseason. His fans, many of them season ticket-holders or donors, are doomed to suffer through a lost season.

And the school, meanwhile, will have to prove to the NCAA that Freeze’s departure marks a legitimate turning point for a program stuck in its crosshairs for many months. Ross Bjork will have to hire a new football coach, who will have to rebuild this program from the ground level and prevent it from drifting into obscurity.

I find it hard to imagine that this is what the likes of Shea Patterson, Van Jefferson and Greg Little signed up for when they faxed their LOIs into the Ole Miss athletic office. The eventual rebuild of Rebels football will be slow and painful for all involved.

Freeze — who all along has self-righteously huffed and puffed about accountability — never lived up to his own words. He never really took ownership of a program that has been gradually slipping into a poisonous bog amid his ridiculous PR charade. The end certainly didn’t come on Freeze’s terms, and perhaps that was deserved.

But, ultimately, the Nutt lawsuit merely hastened the inevitable. Freeze was never going to escape this embarrassing fate.

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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Father of Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson discusses son’s future, Hugh Freeze, and ‘gutless’ Houston Nutt

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Amid the off-field circus that has engulfed Ole Miss football over the last several months, and the last 48 hours in particular, the father of prized Rebels quarterback Shea Patterson displayed a striking amount of composure and resolve Friday night.

That’s when Sean Patterson Sr. spoke with SEC Country about a bevy of topics affecting his son’s college program, including the resignation of Hugh Freeze, the brutally timed Houston Nutt lawsuit, and the mindset of the players caught in this mess just days before fall camp is set to begin.

But the most important insight gleaned from this conversation — and perhaps the one that matters most to Ole Miss fans — was the simple message Patterson shared about his 5-star son.

“As far as our family and everything else is concerned, we support the university. Shea’s not going anywhere,” he told SEC Country.

Yes, Patterson is staying. His teammates, the school and Rebels supporters everywhere can breathe a big sigh of relief.

Freeze may be gone — his exit hastened by female escort-related circumstances that were startling to everyone — but the end result of this months-long imbroglio was not so surprising.

Patterson noted that many players were “very sad” to lose their coach, despite the allegations against him, and he believes the NCAA would have eventually forced him out. He also expressed displeasure toward many of those in the media who, in his eyes, seemingly wanted to see Freeze lose his job.

“Coach Freeze, he loves and cares for these kids,” the elder Patterson said. “Enough’s enough. He’s going to move on with his life. He leaves behind a bunch of people and a bunch of kids that will always care for him, no matter what anyone says. Because who really knows the truth? Who really knows?”

When it comes to Nutt, the former Ole Miss coach whose quest for vengeance became the catalyst for his successor’s demise, Patterson was not so forgiving.

In fact, he said the only thing to really upset him in the last 18 months was Nutt’s media days sabotage. His lawsuit became public knowledge one day before Ole Miss took the stage at SEC Media Days, and as a result shifted most media focus away from the school’s three player representatives: Shea Patterson, Javon Patterson and Breeland Speaks.

“Just because he has a grudge or he has a problem with a coach, he couldn’t wait another few days to go after that guy? He had to get his moment in the sun because he doesn’t have it any more,” Patterson said. “Whether the suit was good or not, that’s not the issue. It’s always the kids who are forgotten. Not one thought was given to them. I’ve coached for 25 years. No way would I ever want to spoil a kid’s moment in the sun.

“It was gutless. It ruined three kids’ days.”

For almost the entirety of the Rebels’ knock-down, drag-out NCAA investigation, however, the entire Patterson family has handled the twists and turns with remarkable poise. They’d have every right to feel angry, confused or hurt by the turn of events that has left Shea Patterson and older brother Sean Jr. — an off-field member of Freeze’s staff — in an incredibly difficult situation.

But the Pattersons see a silver lining: It’s a huge chance for Shea and his teammates to prove the outside world wrong in the face of especially trying circumstances.

The scandal has taken all attention away from the Ole Miss players, he said, as it did in the case of Nutt’s lawsuit. The bowl ban and the sudden departure of Freeze have created rock-bottom expectations for the squad in 2017; the media predicted Ole Miss will finish seventh in the SEC West last week before Freeze’s phone usage came to light.

And yet, some around the program feel like they could surprise this fall. Patterson, Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown highlight what should be a fairly dynamic offense under new coordinator Phil Longo, whose Air Raid system put up huge numbers at Sam Houston State. Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff is a respected coach who can improve a defense that seriously stumbled last season.

Patterson and the rest of the 2016 signing class are “locked in,” Patterson Sr. said, and they’re looking at 2017 as a challenge. Chances are, it’ll be the biggest football trial they’ll ever face.

“In the long run, it’ll make them stronger. It’ll make them tougher mentally,” he said. “During this whole process, we forget this is a kid’s game. That’s what it should be. I think you’ll see it come back to where it’s a manageable situation. It’s unmanageable right now. The [NCAA] enforcement is pretty much, ‘Who do we want?’ It’s not across the board.”

With Freeze gone, the Ole Miss community is awaiting closure more eagerly than ever. Until the school meets with the Committee on Infractions this fall, when the NCAA will determine a final punishment, that won’t really happen.

Recruiting efforts likely will continue to suffer (3-star CB Jaylin Williams has de-committed), and fans may find it hard to not view 2017 as a lost season.

All Ole Miss can do is focus on the game. And for the Pattersons, the Sept. 2 opener vs. South Alabama can’t come soon enough.

“We’re ready to play some football,” Patterson Sr. said.

RELATED: Matt Luke has simple message to Rebels in first team meeting as head coach

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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Report: Hugh Freeze made hundreds of calls to disassociated Ole Miss booster

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More of Hugh Freeze’s phone records were uncovered on Friday and they show that the former Ole Miss coach made hundreds of calls to booster Lee Harris, who is also named in the NCAA’s investigation.

Per USA Today’s Dan Wolken, Freeze and Harris called each other over 200 times, beginning in January of 2015 and running through the end of Freeze’s reign at Ole Miss. The phone calls continued through the NCAA’s investigation of Harris and his involvement with the school.

Freeze’s attorney does not believe that the Ole Miss coach and Harris spoke about the NCAA case, which would be a potential violation of bylaw 10.1 relating to unethical conduct.

Harris owns a restaurant in Oxford, Ms., and the NCAA has alleged that Harris provided free food and cash to Leo Lewis, who is now a linebacker at Mississippi State. Ole Miss has disputed Lewis’ claims but the NCAA, who gave Lewis immunity in the case, views him as credible witness.

Per Wolken, Harris turned over phone records that showed he had texted and called Lewis before National Signing Day 2015. Harris had previously told NCAA investigators he had not talked with Lewis.

The phone records show that a majority of the phone calls between Freeze and Harris took place in 2016 but the calls became less frequent as the NCAA’s investigation went on.

The Ole Miss’ Committee on Infractions meeting is set for Sept. 11 and Lewis, along with Freeze, is expected to be present.

Freeze resigned in July after it came out that he had called an escort service. He was replaced by Matt Luke. The Rebels open their 2017 season at home against South Alabama. Ole Miss will not go to a bowl game in 2017 as it self-imposed a ban.

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Connor Riley – SEC Country

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Former captain on Hugh Freeze: ‘I can understand why people would be scared and afraid of him’

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On July 20, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze resigned from his position after it was revealed that he had made a phone call to an escort service.

Freeze presented the vibe that he is a strong, Christian man as well as someone who was trying to help people, whether that be through college football or his own nonprofit organization. But since his resignation, coupled with the NCAA allegations made against Ole Miss in his time at the school, some have wondered what kind of person Freeze really is.

Josh Peters of USA Today attempted to answer that question and dug as far back as Freeze’s time as a high school coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tenn. Peters reveals that Freeze could be an intimidating figure as well as  someone who could display inappropriate behavior.

“John Wayne is the best comparison I can make in that it’s not a guy you want to go up against,’’ James Allison, a captain on Freeze’s 2004 football team at Briarcrest, said of Freeze. “So I can understand why people would be scared and afraid of him and, if something were to happen, why they might not feel completely comfortable going forward with that.”

Peters also spoke to several female students who attended Briarcrest and noted that Freeze displayed strange behavior. One student said that Freeze made her change out of her Grateful Dead T-shirt in his office instead of doing so in a bathroom. The student said that Freeze did nothing sexual but was still off-put by his behavior.

Freeze did issue a response to USA Today regarding the accusations.

“These accusations are totally false. I can unequivocally say that during my time at Briarcrest Christian School I handled disciplinary issues professionally and in accordance with the school’s policy. I am very confident that the members of the administration who worked hand in hand with me during my tenure will verify that,” Freeze said.

The man Freeze replaced at Ole Miss, Houston Nutt, is suing the school after he claims that the school, led by Freeze, attempted to smear his name with regard to the NCAA investigation. Matt Luke has replaced Freeze at Ole Miss on an interim basis.

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2017 SEC Media Days: Will Muschamp, Hugh Freeze round out winners and losers on Day 4

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The 2017 SEC Media Days have come and gone, and with their passing begins the countdown to fall camp.

This week in Hoover, Ala., saw Jim McElwain get flustered over sharks, Missouri linebacker Eric Beisel channel his inner pro wrestler and Bret Bielema talk about fatherhood and Chipotle. On Thursday, we were treated to more weirdness courtesy of an Auburn die-hard and filibusterin’ Hugh Freeze.

Who won and who lost on the final day of festivities at the Wynfrey Hotel? SEC Country breaks it down:

Winner: The Auburn dog

We’re usually treated to at least one or two “superfans” sporting gaudy getups, which net them a short-lived Media Days spotlight. Last year, it was an Alabama fan sporting a WWE-type championship belt and a giant ring hat. This year, an Auburn fan who painted orange and black tiger stripes on his small dog filled the void.

Please marvel at how silly this dog looks. It’s probably miserable. I’m generally against owners painting their pets, particularly when it’s done for the sole purpose of attention-seeking, but this was well-executed and done with “animal-friendly hair dye,” per the owner.

Loser: Hugh Freeze

We jump from lighthearted fun to … Ole Miss. Freeze, also a loser on Wednesday because of Houston Nutt’s interestingly-timed lawsuit, spent more than half of his appearance at the podium discussing everything but the NCAA scandal that has enveloped his program for many months.

As chronicled by just about every reporter in attendance, Freeze made his opening statement last a whopping 17 minutes. He addressed Nutt’s allegations by insisting he couldn’t comment upon them, and generally giving the same half-apologetic answers he’s given throughout the whole ordeal.

A couple of the Rebels coach’s answers were particularly laughable. Asked about how he prevents corruption in his football program, Freeze responded in part that he was “open to suggestions by our chancellor and our A.D. and our compliance people, our legal team always as to how we can do that.”

Then there was this gem: “Integrity is not always doing the right thing, but it is when something is done that is not right, you acknowledge it, you own it, and you move on from it,” said Freeze, who hasn’t exactly owned it, but who certainly would like to move on from it.

This is, as my colleague Alex Smith so aptly put it, a doomed PR campaign for Freeze, who can merely point to his upcoming date with the Committee on Infractions, cross his fingers and pray the NCAA doesn’t suspend him — which could very well happen.

Winner: Will Muschamp

Coach Boom is slowly becoming an SEC Media Days veteran, and it showed during an opening statement that featured jabs at reporters, Kirby Smart and even his own defensive players, none of whom made the trip to Hoover this year.

“Honestly, the last time we brought our defensive guys to Birmingham, it didn’t go real good,” said Muschamp, whose Gamecocks gave up 46 points in the bowl loss to South Florida. “We gave up a bunch of points and a bunch of yards.”

He navigated the ensuing questions pretty well, and certainly doesn’t seem to have lost his, uh, competitive fire in Year 2 at South Carolina.

Loser: Jalen Hurts

Alabama’s star quarterback, as SEC Country’s Christopher Walsh points out, went somewhat overlooked over the course of Media Days. In fact, backup Tua Tagovailoa probably netted more headlines after Nick Saban said he expects the true freshman to play this year.

Hurts will be the starter, of course. That Saban even needed to address that question, however, is startling. SEC Network’s Greg McElroy ranked Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald ahead of the all-time great freshman quarterback on Thursday, and some have begun wondering whether Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham might be better than Hurts, too.

None of this ultimately has any bearing on how Hurts will perform this fall. But the relative lack of attention is both interesting and perplexing.

Winner: Daniel Carlson

“Legatron,” as he is sometimes known, represented Auburn at SEC Media Days, and the senior kicker fielded some of the silliest questions of the day. Because, honestly, what are you going to ask the kicker?

To Carlson’s credit, he handled his time in the spotlight quite well, and his stated goal of kicking “10,000” field goals this season might be my favorite quote of the week.

Loser: Division realignment

For a couple of weeks this summer, the idea of Auburn moving to the SEC East and Missouri jumping to the West gained a little traction in the public sphere. Former Tigers coach Pat Dye, Malzahn and Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs all addressed it in some form or fashion, so you know folks on The Plains have discussed the idea.

However, Media Days made it quite clear that realignment ain’t happening.

“Has not been an agenda item in the meeting,” SEC commish Greg Sankey said. “It is a conversation in most large press conferences in which I appear, and that’s the extent of the conversation.”

On Thursday, Malzahn echoed his commissioner and downplayed the offseason hubbub.

“I like playing against (Alabama) every year. I think (the realignment talk) was blown out of proportion. I like the way it is.”

Winner: Nobody

Nobody can actually win anything at SEC Media Days, of course. You already knew this.

The four-day event is simply a way for the conference to keep itself in the headlines, tout its dominance and feed the assembled throngs of reporters — all starving for quotes that’ll carry them through the mid-summer doldrums.

Loser: The SEC?

To that end, did the SEC accomplish its own goals in Hoover this year?

Ignoring the lack of compelling personalities (Bielema and Beisel excluded) and the absence of any real news, perhaps the biggest question to surface this week — and the one nobody can really answer until September — was whether the SEC is becoming a one-team league.

A “down” 2016 season highlighted just how wide a gap exists between Alabama and its conference competition. The 2017 Crimson Tide appear ready to return with vengeance, and few squads seem poised to legitimately challenge Saban’s dynasty.

While SEC Media Days ended, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was touting the ACC as the “premier conference in college football.”

The SEC can certainly debunk Fisher’s case with a better collective showing this fall — especially if someone can dethrone Alabama. Until then, however, the conference’s chief nemeses won’t feel inclined to quiet their talk.

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country