As SEC Country wrote last week, the conversations that rule college football’s placid offseason are all about program expectations.
Sometimes what fans expect is reasonable, but usually it is not. They are emotionally invested and prone to thinking irrational thoughts, which makes predicting their mind frames an even more difficult exercise given all the wild ups and downs any SEC season will produce.
But that doesn’t make today’s exercise any less entertaining. So in the interest of amusing readers on this fine Tuesday evening, we offer one word that explains how each of the conference’s fan bases will feel after the book is closed on 2016.
Let’s get started.
Ignoring the way-too-easy Gators pun. Florida has high expectations heading into Year 2 under coach Jim McElwain. This program has not been a serious national title contender since 2009 — Urban Meyer’s penultimate season in The Swamp — and McElwain immediately leading his team to an SEC title game appearance sets an awfully high standard.
Expecting Florida to eventually build on that early success is reasonable, but that won’t happen this fall. The Gators offense needs more work, and as the Will Muschamp era so clearly conveyed, excellent defenses only get you so far in the SEC. UF fans will be left wanting more after enduring a minor sophomore slump under Mac.
As in, Tennessee will have spent an awful lot of money fighting the Title IX lawsuit filed against the school.
Of course, there’s a dual meaning here. The other major storyline attached to Tennessee this season is whether coach Butch Jones can lead his program into elite territory. Expectations are high, and given the Vols’ recent penchant for playing close/dramatic games, the week-to-week madness with which UT fans will deal should leave many emotionally spent.
Capturing a winnable SEC East will be the consolation prize here. But falling short in the conference title game will have the alumni base a little exhausted.
There are plenty of reasons for average Bulldogs fans to feel good about their team. Kirby Smart already looks like a pretty good head coach. Jacob Eason already looks like a pretty good quarterback. And star tailback Nick Chubb already looks pretty good as he continues to recover from last season’s devastating knee injury.
All of that should make for a reasonably successful first season in the Smart-Eason era, and it will have the Georgia faithful setting their sights even higher in 2017. Whether the school decides to fire Smart after a 10-win 2018 season is anyone’s guess, but for now, hope springs eternal in Athens.
South Carolina: Nervous
The Gamecocks are faced with a major rebuilding effort in coach Will Muschamp’s first season. Poor performance on the recruiting trail during the latter part of the Steve Spurrier years has left the program talent-depleted on both sides of the ball.
Because of this, the early returns under Muschamp likely won’t be pretty, leaving South Carolina fans wondering if athletic director Ray Tanner made a mistake in giving the former Florida coach a second chance. But should they feel nervous? The revamp will take time, and while this season won’t excite many in Columbia, future seasons could offer hope of South Carolina regaining the SEC relevance it had under Spurrier.
Conflict was an integral part of the 2015 season for Missouri — and that wasn’t necessarily by choice. Student protests and high levels of racial tension rocked the campus during the fall. Coach Gary Pinkel announced his resignation near the end of a disappointing season as he continued to fight lymphoma. And then there was the suspension saga of quarterback Maty Mauk, who was ultimately dismissed from the program in January.
Like Muschamp, new head man Barry Odom has a tall task in trying to get his program turned around. Many Mizzou fans probably can’t help but like Odom, a longtime assistant and former player. But when the Tigers likely struggle again in 2016, will their opinion of him change?
Coach Mark Stoops’ time in Lexington began with promise, but the Wildcats have yet to deliver on a couple of pretty strong recruiting hauls. That disappointing trend will continue for Kentucky in 2016, leaving the fan base urgently hoping this team can somehow find the football equivalent of John Calipari.
Vandy should be in line for further improvement in coach Derek Mason’s third season. Perhaps a bowl game could even be in this team’s future.
But would six wins do anything to change the overall perception of the program? Commodores fans have been worn down by years of losses and uninspiring football, and a .500 record lined up next to the school’s recent two- and four-win campaigns just shouldn’t generate much excitement.
Even after an offseason of heavy coaching turnover for the Crimson Tide, it’s hard to imagine Alabama fans being unhappy with much these days. Four championships in seven seasons, the a sixth straight No. 1-ranked recruiting class, a slew of elite talent returning and one of the greatest college coaches in history all make for a pretty rosy scene in Tuscaloosa.
Just how long can this blissful golden era last? Nick Saban, who turns 65 this Halloween (!!), is what you might call a career-oriented person — and that might be the understatement of the century. All-time greats Frank Beamer and Spurrier recently retired at ages 69 and 71, respectively, and Saban seems a safe bet to at least reach that point, if not surpass it.
As he told ESPN’s Chris Low in March: “As long as I can be effective at doing what we’re doing and enjoy doing it, why would I ever change?”
Like Georgia, Auburn perennially places high expectations upon its coaches, and for Gus Malzahn — who helped the school capture a national title as offensive coordinator and then guided it to a second-place finish as head coach — the goodwill bought by his past success may be running low.
Defensive has never been one of Auburn’s calling cards during Malzahn’s time at the school, and if last season’s quarterback problems continue into 2016, Tigers fans may start sending some angry letters to athletic director Jay Jacobs.
As the regular season drew to a close, all signs seemed to point to coach Les Miles being shown the door by LSU. For the most part, however, the Tigers fan base believed in Miles and felt he deserved to stay. His players publicly echoed that sentiment.
If LSU does what many are projecting it to do and ride the star power of Leonard Fournette and others to a national championship, the feeling of vindication among the Tigers faithful for supporting Miles would be hard to suppress.
Ole Miss: Defensive
In case you haven’t heard, the Rebels are in some trouble with the NCAA. They are also poised to build upon a highly successful 10-win campaign in 2015, which ended with a Sugar Bowl rout of Oklahoma State. But whether Ole Miss is actually allowed to play in the postseason this time around remains to be seen.
What is clear: The feeling around Oxford right now is wholly shaped by things occurring off the gridiron. True or not, there are several claims being made about the character of Freeze and his staff, and questions of how clean or dirty a program he has been running. If you’re a die-hard Ole Miss fan, defensive is all you can be with the program under such a perceived attack.
That feeling isn’t likely to dissipate any time soon.
Mississippi State: Forlorn
Bulldogs fans are witnessing one of the most successful stints in their school’s history under coach Dan Mullen. Six straight bowl game appearances is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Starkville. But with record-setting quarterback Dak Prescott now gone and Mullen likely to follow soon after — a guy isn’t linked to all of those job rumors unless he’s actively looking or fishing for a raise the school won’t give him — the Mississippi State faithful can’t help but wonder if this team missed its window of opportunity.
Texas A&M: Concerned
Losing two star quarterbacks and another star quarterback recruit is enough cause for alarm. Kevin Sumlin has overseen some highly successful season with the Aggies, most notably the third 11-win campaign in program history in 2012, but his leash in College Station now seems surprisingly short.
If Texas A&M finishes middle of the pack in the SEC West as many project, fans can’t help but be left feeling concerned over the futures of both the team and Sumlin, who by all accounts is a strong recruiter with serious offensive smarts.
If you guessed this was a reference to husky Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema, well, you guessed right.
Beyond that, the immediate future of this program won’t be especially clear after a 2016 season that shouldn’t be especially kind to Bielema & Co. Several stars have departed on offense, while Arkansas has fielded the SEC’s 12th-best scoring defense in two of the last three seasons. The recruiting classes have been solid, but to date none have been particularly amazing.
At some point, the Hogs will need to surpass that eight-win mark, and fans will have to wonder whether that actually happens.