2021 SEC Media Days takeaways: Nick Saban takes center stage, coaches advocate for CFP expansion

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SEC Media Days dominates the college football landscape for four days each July — unless, you know, it’s been canceled by a pandemic — but when the Nick Saban takes the podium, the buzz accelerates to another level. That was the case again Wednesday, when Alabama’s legendary coach took his turn at the microphone on the heels of his seventh national championship to highlight the event’s third day.

While Texas and Oklahoma’s reported interest in joining the SEC generated major buzz in the afternoon, there were plenty of other highlights from another day of the talking marathon. In addition to Saban, there were a couple of first-timers taking center stage at the event in Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea and Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, along with another heavyweight in Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher.

From more talk about college football’s evolving landscape to specific on-field questions, there is plenty to recap from the action. Let’s get to the biggest takeaways from the Wednesday storylines at SEC Media Days.

Alabama, Georgia in good shape on vaccination threshold

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Monday that six of the league’s 14 teams were above an 80% COVID-19 vaccination rate, which is significant because once teams reach 85%, they’ll no longer be re required to test regularly. With the league not planning to reschedule games that are disrupted due to COVID-19 complications, teams that can hit the 85% threshold could end up with a competitive advantage by avoiding potential forfeits related to virus issues.

It should be no surprise, then, that the league’s two favorites are among those with the highest vaccination rates. Saban said he thinks Alabama is “pretty close” to a 90% vaccination rate just one day after Georgia coach Kirby Smart said the Bulldogs are above the 85% mark.

“I’m hopeful that more players make that decision, but it is their decision,” Saban said.

Saban, of course, missed Alabama’s victory over arch-rival Auburn last season after testing positive for COVID-19 prior to the availability of a vaccine. Then-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian took an elevated role for the game, which the Crimson Tide won 42-13.

“How does the personal choice and decision you make affect the team?” Saban said before noting how COVID-19 issues deprived the NC State baseball program of a chance to continue at the College World Series last month. “There’s been a couple examples here in baseball now that have had a huge effect and impact on teams.”

But Saban reiterated that he’s allowed doctors to give “sort of lectures” about the vaccine as they make what he referred to as a “personal decision.”

Jimbo Fisher has ‘no regrets’ about Alabama comment

Fisher injected some life into the offseason news cycle when a remark he made to the Touchdown Club of Houston in May about beating Alabama coach Nick Saban’s *butt* made the rounds in a playful but eye-catching way.

“I don’t have any regrets. That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? Isn’t that why everybody’s here?” Fisher said. “That’s what makes this league this league. That’s what we expect to do at Texas A&M. In saying all that — Nick and I are friends. We’ve known each other a long time. We coached together. We’re from the same world, if that makes any sense. I have the utmost respect for what he’s done and what he’s accomplished. He’s the standard, and the standard is what you have to play to.”

Fisher is among a long line of Saban’s former assistants who have tried and failed so far to knock off their former boss. Last year, a loss to Alabama cost Texas A&M a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Despite surviving the gauntlet of an SEC-only schedule with just one loss last season against the eventual national champions, Texas A&M found itself on the outside looking in when the CFP announced its four-team field. The Aggies still took advantage of a nice postseason opportunity by beating North Carolina in the Orange Bowl, but Fisher made it clear he believed the Aggies belong in the playoff.

Texas A&M would have easily made a 12-team field, though, and Fisher encamped himself among the most vocal supporters of the potential for expansion during his Wednesday appearance.

“I’m all for it,” Fisher said. “I think it’s necessary. I think it’s needed. And not just because we finished fifth, but I think — here’s the point I want you to ask. Name me a sport in any collegiate level that, that except for the top five conferences, which are about 60 teams, where the other 60 teams have no chance to win the national championship. There’s not a sport in our world that that is not — that can’t happen.”

Mike Leach REALLY likes CFP expansion

Leach is known for his off-the-wall rants about pirates, mascots and historical events, but he’s got an unorthodox take on one of college football’s hot topics as well. While most coaches appear to be relatively accepting of potential College Football Playoff expansion to 12 teams — with a few exceptions such as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney — Leach thinks tripling the CFP’s current four-team should only be the start.

“It’s never enough,” Leach said. I’ll tell you, Dr. (Mark) Keenum, our president, is on that committee, so I know they’re in good hands. I think that part is outstanding. I think 12 teams is a huge step in the right direction. I personally would like to see 64, and you could format it out pretty easily. But I think it’s a huge step in the right direction, and I look forward to it.”

While Leach mainly stayed on topic and avoided the epic diatribes for which he is known, he did sneak in a couple of classic Leach moments during his debut at SEC Media Days. For one thing, he skipped an opening statement at the podium, forgoing the opportunity that most coaches seem to use for a slate of canned talking points pumping up the virtuousness of their programs. That left more time for questions, and one of them centered on his flirtation with Tennessee as the Volunteers searched for a new coach in 2017 following the dismissal of Butch Jones.

“I talked to Tennessee, but that thing never — well nothing ever got nailed down,” Leach said. “Then, pretty soon, they had coup d’etat there. You guys can sort that among yourselves, but that’s pretty well-documented. So, yeah, I didn’t end up in the middle of the coup, lucky for me.”

New energy at Vanderbilt

First-year Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea faces a steep climb as he takes over a program that struggled to an 0-9 record during last season’s SEC-only slate. Though predecessor Derek Mason took the Commodores to a pair of bowl appearances in his seven seasons, it’s been eight years since Vanderbilt last finished with a winning record, as the consecutive nine-win campaigns of 2012 and 2013 under James Franklin fade further into the rearview mirror.

Over that span, the quality of athletic facilities has continued to increase in the league as universities have invested in lavish upgrades to help attract top talent. Vanderbilt, however, has lagged behind in that arms race. Thankfully for Lea, a former Vanderbilt fullback who is arriving from his prior post as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, the Commodores have some big upgrades on deck. This spring, the university announced plans to spend $300 million to upgrade athletic facilities, and Lea is beginning to see the dividends.

“It certainly has an impact, and it will continue to have an impact,” Lea said. “I think as that number becomes conceptualized in diagrams and those are released and as shovels hit the ground, I think we’ll continue to see a positive impact in recruiting.”

Of course, recruiting will still be a unique experience for Lea at Vanderbilt, where admissions standards are lofty and elite academics require a commitment from athletes that makes the school unique among its SEC peers. But as a former Vanderbilt player, he is uniquely equipped to make that pitch.

“I jump in with an accelerated perspective,” Lea said. “I know the intricacies of what the program is about, how it fits in our university, what the recruiting profile should look like and where the resources are. So for me, it’s seizing the opportunity we have to build something different to give this program chance to be at its potential.”

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