The Southeastern Conference football coaches held a spring teleconference on Monday, with the questions centering far more on new rules (or possible future new rules) than plain old football. Well over half the questions asked were about the new December signing period, which is a rule now. Many of the others involved a possible change — one that hasn’t led to any legislation yet — that would allow players to participate in a fixed number of games and still redshirt. There were also a handful of very open-ended questions about possible changes in the SEC’s grad transfer policy, a hot-button topic last summer (remember Maurice Smith) but one that has been dormant this year.

To the resounding credit of the media, Jim McElwain got no questions about the Internet-viral picture of a naked man that sort of looked like McElwain in a compromising position with a dead shark. The real perpetrator has been identified and an innocent McElwain is back to leading a normal life. On the other hand, that was probably the one chance of humor in what was otherwise a routine questioning of a stoic and glum group of coaches.

The fact that there was not much football discussion isn’t a bad thing. (Full disclosure: I asked Nick Saban an early-signing question.) We’ve already had pre-spring previews, mid-spring previews and post-spring previews in abundance and the Great Festival of Looking Ahead knows as SEC Media Days is still a couple of months away.

Even listening to the SEC West coaches provided scant insight into which team (if any) is on the verge of stopping Alabama from winning a fourth straight division title. Dan Mullen of Mississippi State seemed upbeat. He’s enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the past few months, for a couple of reasons. For one, Mullen is recognized as a quarterback-whisperer these days, in part because of Dak Prescott’s success in Dallas and in part because returning MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald looked better than anyone expected down the stretch last season. There’s also an element of “somebody has to be the second-best coach in the division” involved. Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have all beaten a Nick Saban team at one time or another, but all three have seen their star in descent over the last 18 months. (Malzahn could rebound if Auburn hits the transfer quarterback lottery again.) Bret Bielema has been too inconsistent — or, in playing against Saban-coached teams, entirely too consistent. That leaves Ed Orgeron. So Mullen it is, for now.

All of the West Division coaches sounded confident, although Saban did repeat his post A-Day analysis that the Crimson Tide are “not an elite team” at this juncture. Even Freeze talked a good game. He praised sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson as improved, even though Patterson was “as fundamentally sound as a high school junior as I’ve ever seen.” Freeze also said that, if healthy, the Ole Miss offensive line could be “the best in America.” What he didn’t mention was the long grind of an NCAA investigation, and the toll it takes on depth and motivation. This isn’t about what Ole Miss did or didn’t do, and what will or won’t happen, NCAA-wise. I have no inside information, and haven’t sought any. I have witnessed (twice) the way in which a long investigation starts to slowly erode depth, and the way it saps the will of a team with no postseason destination to play for. That doesn’t mean the Rebels won’t give Alabama trouble, as they have for three straight years. But if a spring teleconference was a place to find a contender, a hidden gem, it sounded like Oxford might not be the place to look.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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