SEC Media Days are over, but the event in Hoover, Ala., represents the unofficial "start" of "talkin' season." Coaches tried to put their best feet forward at podiums, at SEC Network desks, and on radio row... which is part of their job. Whether they were blowing smoke or had every reason to say what they said, let's offer a realistic set of expectations for each SEC team, starting with the weaker half in the East.
This is the one team for which a record doesn't seem to represent the best measurement of growth and progress. Missouri doesn't need to hit a numerical target so much as leave the season with a sense that the culture at the university and the direction of the program are both healthier and easier to identify.
Missouri -- the school, not (just) the football program -- has endured immense internal change, which doesn't necessarily sound bad on the surface. The finer point is that the University of Missouri system has been shaken by poor leadership, rocked by student protests, and weakened in terms of its profile in the Show Me State. Gary Pinkel was a pillar of leadership and competence for a very long time. He led the football program within one win -- in 2007 -- of the BCS National Championship Game, and then to consecutive SEC East titles before health concerns caused him to rather abruptly step down.
Barry Odom has inherited a weak program at a bad time. He needs at least three years (through 2019) to see if he is the man who can successfully lead this program into the next decade. Missouri is that damaged, and Odom deserves that wide a berth.
This is a long-term improvement project. The 2017 season should be very messy. If Odom can sense that the clean-up crew will begin to arrive in 2018, this season will have achieved its purpose. That's not sexy, but Mizzou is in no position to wear a fancy dress to the ball in Atlanta this December.
A repeat of last season -- winning record, bowl game, win over Louisville -- would be pretty darn good for Mark Stoops, who saved his job in November of 2016. The one basic step UK would love to take is to win a higher-level SEC game. Louisville was the only team with a winning regular season record Kentucky managed to beat. Any win against an upper-division team would give Stoops the clear knowledge that his program can rise -- now and in the future.
SOUTH CAROLINA, TENNESSEE and VANDERBILT
I don't regard any of these three teams as a division title contender. South Carolina needs an offensive line (and frankly, a better offensive coordinator, but I can give Kurt Roper a chance this year to see what he can do with Cadillac talent Jake Bentley at quarterback). Tennessee lost a lot of individual quality from last season's underachieving team. Vanderbilt -- even when at its very best under James Franklin -- didn't come particularly close to winning the SEC East, and did not collect a lot of high-end league wins. The Commodores excelled because they finally won every game against equal or lesser teams, instead of letting those opponents slip away.
The Gamecocks, Vols and Dores should expect 8-4 and hope for more. Anything less than eight wins would definitely be a disappointing season in a wide-open East.
Big, bad Bama and an augmented Auburn outfit would be hard to beat in Atlanta, but first things first: Florida needs to win the East again. Once that goal is tucked away, the Gators need to put up a real fight in Atlanta. Another blowout would create an undeniable sense that the program -- while hardly "bad" -- is not returning to elite status in the vein of Spurrier and Urban. That's the next step... and if UF can win the SEC, its season would be complete.
Barrett Sallee, a former colleague at College Football News and one of the best and most skilled reporters in the college football business, has not shied away from saying that Georgia should think College Football Playoff and national title contention this season, even though this is Kirby Smart's second year as a Division I head coach.
That's fair. That's also reasonable. Given UGA's talent, I would not blame any Dawg fan for thinking that way.
I will simply hold the bar a little lower.
Smart is such an unproven entity as a head coach -- and the Bama-Auburn combo so strong (genuinely in Bama's case, on paper in Auburn's not-yet-proven case) -- that for me, winning the East has to be the foremost priority for UGA. Expecting to win the SEC is a legitimate aspiration, but if the team doesn't win the East this year, it will be a DISASTER for the program. Winning the East -- getting that monkey off the back -- is far more important than greater dreams of bigger glories. UGA needs to make the checkdown instead of throwing the bomb into double coverage.