HOOVER, Ala. – After two years, SEC Media Days is back.

This event gets a lot of attention in the best of times, but now it comes with a second layer. There’s football talk, yes, but there’s also excitement for normalcy.

Or is there?

“The Delta variant has raised its head, and we’re going to have to deal with that. Otherwise, we’re pointing toward football season,” said Herb Vincent, the conference’s associate commissioner for communications.

COVID-19 concerns caused the cancellation of Media Days last year. Cases plummeted in the spring, and it appeared, we hoped, that we were seeing the dying throes of the pandemic.

But it's not dead yet.

As cases rise, eight states from the SEC’s footprint rank in the top 13 of the least-vaccinated states.

Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas make up the top three.

While the White House pushes for increased vaccination rates, the SEC may encourage – such as Alabama coach Nick Saban has done in his state – but the conference will not issue mandates to its schools. Regulations and guidance varies from state to state, as it did with attendance policies for last year’s football games.

Although cases have risen, there’s not a national discussion on whether to play college football. That was a year ago.

Bringing back Media Days as a boots-on-the-ground event has been a priority for the conference.

There are COVID limitations in place, but Vincent estimates that between 750 and 800 media members have been credentialed.

There was not a diminished interest in attending, he said.

Among the restrictions are limits to the number of people in meeting rooms at one time, the number of people seated at tables and how interviews are conducted.

Coaches have always spoken from the podium, but players have been seated at tables in corners of the main ballroom as media would gather around them. The result was players would speak at the same time, and media would drift from table to table.

This year players – and there are only two as opposed to the three players who attended in recent years – will speak one by one from the podium.

Two years ago, the SEC hosted Media Days attendees for a night of food and games at the Dave and Buster’s adjacent to the Wynfrey.

That event has gone away, but the conference countered by providing gift cards to media.

There are other changes.

There will be more reliance on pool photography, and no SEC paparazzi chasing coaches and players around the meeting rooms.

Also, no fans allowed.

In recent years, especially on the day that Saban and Alabama players would speak, hundreds of fans would gather in the hotel lobby.

They were separated from the escalators to the second level by a velvet rope.

This year a viewing area will be made available in the parking lot as players and coaches arrive, but hotel security will be tasked with keeping away fans who can’t produce a hotel room card.

The new policy could lead to creative attempts to reach the lobby.

“If so, that will just add to the lore of Media Days,” Vincent said.

It looks different, but it’s here.

Media Days isn’t 100 percent normal, but it’s 100 percent ready to start.

“This is another step toward normalcy. That’s one of the reasons this event has been very important to us,” Vincent said.

PARRISH ALFORD is the college sports editor and columnist for the Daily Journal. Contact him at parrish.alford@journalinc.com.

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