HOOVER, Alabama (USA TODAY) – Hotel employees began the process of removing the chairs, tables, dividing wall, soda machine and surge protectors from the second-floor conference center in the Hyatt Regency Birmingham less than one hour after Kentucky's Mark Stoops closed SEC Media Days, sending a clear and irrefutable message:
The time for talk is over. Football season is here.
Yet the week-long collection of coaches, administrators and media revealed factors that should bleed from "talking season," as South Carolina's Steve Spurrier termed the proceedings, into this highly anticipated SEC season.
Players have been injured, coaches revealed, and others must deal with the consequences of their off-field missteps. Some teams must rediscover the proper mindset; others must discover what it takes to win.
If you look closely – and even if no play was run, no touchdown scored, no tackle made – there were a number of important revelations to take from five days in Hoover, Ala. Among which: Eat the barbecue at every opportunity.
Marshall's status remains unknown
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall did not attend media days, as most expected following last Friday's drug citation. While the Tigers instead opted to bring tight end C.J. Uzomah, one of the week's press-conference stars, Marshall remained very much the leading topic of conversation.
The senior's status within the program remains undecided, "but he will deal with" the consequences, Gus Malzahn said.
"It is a privilege and a reward to represent Auburn here at the SEC Media Days," Malzahn said Monday. "Last Friday Nick lost that privilege. We have high expectations for our players, but specifically our quarterback, being the face of our program.
"Up until last Friday, Nick has been a model student, teammate, and citizen. I know he's regretful and he feels very bad about it."
Another key cog in Auburn's attempts at an SEC repeat could miss all or most of the coming season, however. Defensive end Carl Lawson, a sophomore set for a starting role – and a starring role, perhaps – suffered an ACL tear during the final week of spring drills, Malzahn confirmed.
Lawson's surgery was successful, he added, saying the sophomore is "working extremely hard and he's determined to come back towards the end of this year."
Florida's moving past last season
It took a burial for Florida to put last season in the rearview mirror: Will Muschamp and the Gators met after spring drills and decided to move forward, a decision that could allow a talented team to unite in advance of an attempted rebound.
"It humbles you a little bit as a player, as a coach," Muschamp said of last season. "And for me it's been hard. I'll be honest with you, I always feel like you can learn so much from wins and you can learn so much from losses.
"It was a miserable year, but hey, use it and learn from it. That's what I've tried to be able to do. It's been frustrating, but there's no question they buried it to begin the summer."
The key could be on offense: Florida brought in former Duke assistant Kurt Roper as offensive coordinator, a hire Muschamp believes will allow the Gators to run more plays out of shotgun – telling reporters that according to his research, his offense has always been at its best running plays in this formation.
Pace of play remains a hot topic
Bret Bielema remains at the center of the conversation, and remains entrenched in his belief that up-tempo offenses present a safety hazard to offense and defensive players alike.
Missouri's Gary Pinkel called this theory "fiction."
Said Pinkel: "Never once in all those years in the fastest league I think that plays football, in the Big 12, did I have my team doctor, my trainer, any of my coordinators walk into my office and say, 'I'm concerned about the health of our football team.' It didn't happen ever. Didn't happen last year or the year before."
The new debate has been rephrased: It's "fiction," per Pinkel, battling Bielema's "reality."
"I think I deal more in what I know, what I see, what I believe," Bielema said. "The only thing I'm going to say to that, if you ask me in that tense, you're asking me have I softened my view on player safety. The answer would be no.
"I'm probably more of a reality‑based movie guy more than fiction, I guess. I have seen a couple good fiction movies, so I know good fiction when I see it."
Spurrier oozes confidence – and great quotes
A short list of people, places, topics and themes on Steve Spurrier's hit list:
— Big Ten rivalry games. "I don't know that you can have a trophy for every game," Spurrier said of rivalry games. "Up in the Big Ten they have a bunch of them, several of them."
— Texans' role in defending the Alamo. "I always thought Davy Crockett was the hero of the Alamo, he and those 33 Tennessee guys that came in there and got killed, so forth."
— The rivalry between Texas and Texas A&M. "I think it's a shame that Texas and Texas A&M don't play each other," he said. "I don't mind saying that."
— Clemson. "Clemson used to pretty much own South Carolina in football, no question about it," Spurrier said. The Gamecocks have won five in a row in the series.
— Northern weather. "We don't have those championship games in the snow. A lot of Big Ten teams, the Northern teams, play in some bad weather. Playing in the South has got to help us a little bit, or in California."
— Former quarterback Stephen Garcia. "I saw him on TV last night," Spurrier said of Garcia. "He was interviewed by our local TV celebrity in Columbia there. He got his long hair back. I said it looked like he had joined 'Duck Dynasty' instead of the media."
Alabama's the preseason favorite
The preseason media poll had the Crimson Tide as the overwhelming pick to win the SEC. The Crimson Tide received 154 points in the voting, well ahead of second-place Auburn (75 points) and a significant total ahead of third-place South Carolina (32 points).
The strangest team on the list? Try Arkansas, which won three games a season ago and is expected to remain the same range in 2014 yet earned a single first-place vote – more than Florida and Texas A&M combined. So you're saying there's a chance?
Well, take note of a crucial fact: Only four teams in the last 22 years has the media poll correctly picked the SEC champion; Alabama hasn't won the league the previous five seasons when it entered the year as the preseason favorite.
"To be kind, it doesn't mean anything," Saban admitted. But the media earned a point with the Alabama coach: "You're all the sudden my buddies," he said.
One coach displeased with the results of the poll: Georgia's Mark Richt.
Asked if he's happy with the Bulldogs' second-place selection in the SEC East Division, Richt replied, "No. I'd have us first."
Kentucky stresses the positives
Kentucky will spend at least one more season gauging its growth and improvement in ways outside the win column.
"Like Alabama said, they lost their last two games, we only won two games," senior end Bud Dupree said. "Realistically, not everyone on my team is going to the best in the SEC or in the nation as well."
But the positives are there to be found, if you look closely. Recruiting leads the way: Kentucky has followed up a banner group with another highly ranked class, meaning it could be simply a matter of time before Mark Stoops and the Wildcats enter the SEC bowl conversation.
Despite a two-win debut, "The first 16 months couldn't have gone any better," Stoops said. "Of course we wanted to win a few more games. But I'm very pleased with where we're at. Just keep on grinding and good things will happen."
Saban knows what (but not who) he wants under center
Saban might not know who he wants under center, but he's sure about what he and the Crimson Tide need from the position.
"I think every quarterback has to go through sort of a process of development because three things that are critical factors to me at quarterback is decision making, processing information quickly, making quick, good decisions," Saban said.
"So decision making and judgment is a critical factor, accuracy with the ball is a critical factor, and leadership is a critical factor."
What Saban did not do was name actual quarterbacks, outside of a very brief mention of senior Blake Sims during his opening remarks.
Noticeably absent: Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer most assume – with good reason – to be the Crimson Tide's replacement for AJ McCarron.
"Two out of three of those things are a little bit innate in terms of a guy understanding a system, feeling confident in application of that system so they can make good choices and decisions, can lead, can be accurate, to enhance the players around him," Saban said. "That's the challenge with a young quarterback."
GALLERY: Highlights of SEC Media Days