The phrase “Make America Great Again” has entered the political lexicon in 2016, for better or worse. As polarizing as the phrase is, it acts as proof that some people yearn for the past.
Many college football fans would love to see their favorite team become great again. While some teams are currently at their peak, others have struggled.
With that in mind, here is a look at the last time each team was great relative to its own expectations, what went wrong and what the program must do to return to its peak.
Last time the Crimson Tide was great: Currently.
What Happened: Between Nick Saban’s talents as a coach — see the Tide’s 45-40 victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship — and his ability to land recruits, beating Alabama has become a daunting task. The Crimson Tide have brought in six straight No. 1 recruiting classes. It’s easy to be great when you consistently have the top players in America.
How to make Alabama great again: The Crimson Tide will have to replace longtime defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. So they brought in Jeremy Pruitt, who helped turnaround Georgia’s defense. Given the recruiting — Alabama currently has the No. 2 recruiting class for 2017 per 247Sports Composite Rankings — and coaching, the Crimson Tide aren’t going anywhere.
Last time the Razorbacks were great: April 10, 2012
What Happened: In 2011, the Razorbacks finished 11-2, with the losses coming to Alabama and LSU. Then came the offseason, and Bobby Petrino’s affair was uncovered following a motorcycle accident. Petrino was fired on April 10 of 2012, John L. Smith came in for one season and the program collapsed. The Razorbacks went 4-8 under Smith, who was replaced by Bret Bielema.
How to make Arkansas great again: Keep letting Bielema do his thing. While he claims his program isn’t sexy, Bielema elevated Wisconsin to the point that Rose Bowls became the norm. He’s not your typical coach, as demonstrated by his love for offensive lineman. That’s a good thing. The Razorbacks won 8 games last year and were competitive in almost every game. With a little more time, Arkansas could be back to contending with the likes of Alabama and LSU.
Last time the Tigers were great: Nov. 8, 2014
What Happened: For the first year and a half of the Gus Malzahn era, no team seemed as blessed as the Tigers. From the Prayer at Jordan Hare to the Kick Six to beating Ole Miss on account of Laquon Treadwell breaking his leg. Then came the Texas A&M game on Nov. 8, 2014. The Tigers fell behind early, but as usual rallied back. As Auburn was driving to take the lead, a fumbled snap cost the Tigers their shot. And like that, the magic was gone. Including that A&M game, the Tigers have gone 8-10 since.
How to make Auburn great again: Auburn needs to find an answer at quarterback. With the Tigers uptempo offense, the defensive numbers will never look good. But if the offense is scoring as much as it did with either Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, none of that matters. Marshall and Newton were JUCO transfers. The Tigers have another speedy JUCO quarterback in John Franklin III. If he, Sean White or Jeremy Johnson can emerge, Malzahn may finally have the offense he needs to be great again.
Last time the Gators were great: Dec. 5, 2009
What happened: After winning two championships in the three years, Florida seemed destined for another. The Gators then got squashed by Alabama at that fateful SEC Championship Game. Urban Meyer contemplated retiremnt after a health scare and Tim Tebow finished his college career. Last season, Will Grier looked like the future, but he drew a PED suspension and has since transferred to West Virginia. Now into the second year of the Jim McElwain era, Florida still has not been able to find a reliable answer at quarterback.
How to make Florida great again: Get the Gators a quarterback. Florida always has been able to recruit and will continue to do so. The Gators will be stocked with talent, but until Florida finds a reliable answer at quarterback, its potential will be capped. Feleipe Franks may be the future, but for now, Florida is deciding between Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio and Purdue transfer Austin Appleby.
Last time the Bulldogs were great: September 30, 2013
What Happened: The Bulldogs beat No. 6 LSU in a 44-41 thriller and looked like the best team in the SEC East. Then, several skill players got hurt in a win against Tennessee, the Bulldogs dropped consecutive games to Missouri and Vanderbilt and finished the year 8-5. Georgia won 20 games over the next two seasons, but due to running back suspensions and injuries, the Bulldogs were never serious national title contenders. And that ended up costing longtime head coach Mark Richt his job.
How to make Georgia great again: Keep its best players on the field. Between Aaron Murray’s season-ending knee injury in 2013, Todd Gurley’s suspension and knee injury in 2014 and Nick Chubb’s knee injury in 2015, the Bulldogs’ best offensive player hasn’t finished the regular season healthy in any of the past three seasons. Georgia should be able to recruit at an Alabama level with Kirby Smart. If he can get some injury luck, Smart may do what Richt could not: win a national championship.
Last time the Wildcats were great: Jan. 4, 2010
After leading Kentucky to four straight bowl games, head coach Rich Brooks retired from coaching at the age of 68. Since Brooks’ retirement, the Wildcats have consistently found themselves near the bottom of the conference and made it to only one bowl game.
How to make Kentucky great again: At a place like Kentucky, the right head coach needs time to slowly build the program, similar to what Bielema is doing at Arkansas. If Mark Stoops can be given a long leash and prove he’s the guy for the job, he may be able to make bowl games a thing again at Kentucky.
Last time the Tigers were great: Dec. 3, 2011
What happened: The Tigers smashed Georgia 42-10 in the SEC Championship and capped one of the greatest regular seasons of all-time. The problem was that Alabama awaited the Tigers in the 2012 BCS National Championship game. Starting with that game, LSU has dropped five straight to Alabama. The Tigers have become the little brother in the rivalry.
How to make LSU great again: Start beating Alabama. Only the Crimson Tide have recruited better, and no one does a better job of owning their state in recruiting than LSU. Les Miles has proven that he doesn’t need stellar quarterback play to win, as he’s been able to rely on defenses and a strong running game. But to win a championship — which always has been the goal under Miles — LSU has to beat Alabama again.
Last time the Bulldogs were great: Dec. 30, 2015
What Happened: Dak Prescott finished his playing career with the Bulldogs. Prescott is one of, if not the, greatest players in Mississippi State history. He helped turned the Bulldogs into a consistently tough out in the already-brutal SEC West. He also broke every notable Mississippi State passing record. But with Prescott now off to the NFL, Mississippi State has to show it can replace one of the best quarterbacks in SEC history.
How to make Mississippi State great again: Find a replacement for Prescott. While the Bulldogs aren’t considered threats to win a national championship, they’re still a very good team. Getting to eight or nine wins a year has become the new normal under coach Dan Mullen. But to keep that up, the Bulldogs have to find someone who can at least perform at close to Prescott’s level.
Last time the Tigers were great: Oct. 11, 2014
What happened: The Tigers lost 34-0 at home to a Georgia team without Gurley. Missouri won both the 2013 and 2014 SEC East titles. But the Georgia game was a precursor to what turned out to be a disastrous 2015 season. The Tigers would get boat-raced in the 2014 SEC Championship game by Alabama. The offense struggled mightily in 2015. The Tigers went 5-7, and longtime head coach Gary Pinkel stepped down due to health concerns.
How to make Missouri great again: Turn Drew Lock into the next great Missouri quarterback. While defensive linemen have been the Tigers’ top export to the NFL, Missouri also has produced some great quarterbacks. The defense figures to be pretty good in the first year under new head coach Barry Odom. But the Tigers will only go as far as Lock will take them.
Last time the Rebels were great: Currently
What happened: Every year since his arrival, coach Hugh Freeze has made the Rebels better. Ole Miss has increased its win total every year under Freeze, and the Rebels have brought in better players along the way. While it may not have the depth of an Alabama or LSU, Ole Miss’ top-line guys might be some of the best in the conference.
How to make Ole Miss great again: Hope an NCAA investigation doesn’t yield anything too damning. Freeze has proven he can coach and recruit. The problem is the looming NCAA investigation, which still hasn’t handed out a punishment regarding the Laremy Tunsil situation. That will continue to cloud the long-term health of the Ole Miss program. As for this year, the Rebels get Alabama and Georgia at home. Winning 11 games — the Rebels won 10 last year — isn’t out of the realm of the possibility with Chad Kelly at quarterback.
Last time the Gamecocks were great: Sept. 13, 2014
What Happened: Steve Spurrier and company beat Georgia 38-35 in a game that cost the Bulldogs a shot at the SEC East championship. Many thought this meant the Gamecocks were the favorites in the division, as they had been picked to win the SEC East in the preseason. But South Carolina limped to a 7-6 season. Spurrier retired in the middle of last season, and the team finished 3-9.
How to make South Carolina great again: South Carolina badly needs players. Fortunately new head coach Will Muschamp has recruited the southeast pretty well. If he can improve his offense from what he last saw at Florida, the Gamecocks could get back to a bowl game with Muschamp’s defensive prowess. South Carolina has the toughest path in terms of returning to greatness, thanks in part to in-state rival Clemson’s ascendance into the group of elite teams.
Last time the Volunteers were great: Sept. 18, 2004
What happened: This was the last time Tennessee beat Florida. The Volunteers ended up in the SEC Championship game that season and went 10-3. Two of Tennessee’s losses in 2004 came against an unbeaten Auburn team. The Vols have won the SEC East only once since. But this year’s team looks poised to get the Volunteers back into the national picture
How to make Tennessee great again: Beat Florida and Alabama. Tennessee undoubtedly has the hardest crossover opponent in the Crimson Tide. The Volunteers have not beaten Alabama since Nick Saban arrived in 2007. To be in the national championship picture, Tennessee has to stop losing to both its rivals.
Last time the Aggies were great: Sept. 27, 2014
What Happened: The Aggies defeated Arkansas 35-28 in overtime, but it was the first sign that A&M may not be all that great. After a 5-0 start to the Kenny Hill era, the Aggies dropped three straight games and ultimately finished 8-5. A&M finished 8-5 again in 2015, and has had three different quarterbacks transfer from the school since the win against Arkansas.
How to make Texas A&M great again: Find stability at quarterback. Trevor Knight looks to be a one-year solution. Head coach Kevin Sumlin has alternated between quarterbacks in each of the past two seasons. A once-promising quarterback pipeline is all but dried up. The Aggies were great when Johnny Manziel was manning the position. Sumlin has to find someone to do the same or he risks being forced out of College Station.
Last time the Commodores were great: Jan. 11, 2014
What Happened: Penn State hired away James Franklin, who took Vanderbilt to back-to-back nine-win seasons. The Commodores have won just seven games since Franklin left.
How to make Vanderbilt great again: Recruit better than Stanford. Not only does Vanderbilt have to recruit against SEC powers, but it also has to do battle with Stanford, as the two academic juggernauts focus on prospects who can meet the schools’ academic requirements. Stanford has shown the ability to go into Georgia and recruit top players. If Vanderbilt can build its national recruiting brand, the recruiting wins — and thus football wins — should come.