Not every college football program measures success the same way. A great season for Vanderbilt, for instance, might be a disappointment by Alabama’s standards. So what’s the bar for each SEC team in 2016?
We started with the West, but now it’s time to set some reasonable expectations – relative to each program’s history, personnel and coaching situation – for the East this fall. Frontrunners first.
It’s a successful season if: The Vols win at least 10 games – ending that atrocious, 11-game losing streak against Florida in the process – and the SEC East. Remember when that was a reasonable annual expectation on Rocky Top? From 1995 to 2007, under Phil Fulmer, UT recorded double-digit wins eight times and played in the league title game five times. But since Fulmer left in ’08, the Vols have not achieved either feat even once.
Why it should happen: Butch Jones has been building toward this. Out of the ashes of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, Tennessee won five, then seven, then nine games in Jones’ first three seasons. And last year’s four losses were all of the painfully close variety – Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida and Arkansas beat the Vols by a combined 17 points. With 19 starters back, including multiple stars on both sides, it’s time to close the deal.
And if it doesn’t: Jones isn’t going anywhere, but the natives in Knoxville will grow restless. It’s creeping up on a decade since Big Orange invaded Atlanta on the first Saturday in December. The time has come to turn near misses into signature wins.
It’s a successful season if: The Bulldogs win 11 games and the SEC East. That has to be the standard, right? Because 10 wins and second place in the division the last two years under Mark Richt – who won double-digit games 10 times in 15 seasons – was not enough. Very good isn’t the goal; greatness is.
Why it should happen: Georgia plucked Kriby Smart from the Nick Saban tree because it wanted someone with a national championship pedigree and plan. He inherits plenty of talent, including (if healthy) the best running back tandem in the league, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and a veteran, ball-hawking secondary. Freshman QB Jacob Eason might take some time to get going, but looks like the real deal.
And if it doesn’t: Realistically, if Smart wins nine games in his debut season, the natives probably will remain optimistic about the future. But isn’t it funny how that works? How one man’s fireable offense is another man’s proof of progress? This time next year, though, nobody will be cutting Smart any slack either.
It’s a successful season if: The Gators win eight games and show some promise at the quarterback position, where it’s been a revolving door of mediocrity since Tim Tebow left town in 2009. Despite a 10-1 start and a surprise SEC East title in Jim McElwain’s first season, ending on a three-game losing streak last fall exposed some flaws that a strong defense tried to mask.
Why it should happen: That defense, including an elite secondary, plus three non-conference gimmes, home games against middling Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina and a road trip to sputtering Vanderbilt (which Florida has beaten in 24 of the last 25 meetings) puts the Gators at seven wins. And as good as the Vols look, their last win in the rivalry was 2004.
And if it doesn’t: It will be because of quarterback play. Florida wasn’t the same after Will Grier was suspended for PED use in the middle of last season, and then he transferred to West Virginia. The 2015 offense tanked without him, and now McElwain is choosing between a pair of unproven transfers, Luke Del Rio (Oregon State) and Austin Appleby (Purdue), to jumpstart the offense.
It’s a successful season if: The Wildcats win six games and reach their first bowl game since 2010. After consecutive 2-10 seasons, back-to-back 5-7 records would feel more like progress had Kentucky not collapsed from 5-1 and 4-1 starts the last two years. Breaking through to the postseason is now a must.
Why it should happen: Mark Stoops has landed more high-profile recruits than any coach in program history and his first two classes are all grown up now. The roster is populated almost entirely with his own players, including former U.S. Army All-American quarterback (and new starter) Drew Barker. Beating Florida, Alabama, Tennessee or Louisville on the road seems unlikely, but those are tall orders in any venue. UK gets its most beatable SEC foes – South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State – at home. That puts six wins within reach.
And if it doesn’t: Stoops won’t be fired, even if he records a fourth straight losing season to start his Cats career, because the buyout is just too big. But it would be a crushing blow to momentum, on the field and in the stands. Attendance would shrivel, which would be a nightmare after Kentucky dropped $171 million on stadium renovations and a new practice facility, and Stoops would enter 2017 on the hottest seat in the league.
It’s a successful season if: The Tigers win six games and show a pulse on offense. After going 23-5 with two SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014, Mizzou fell off a cliff in Gary Pinkel’s final season. Quarterback Maty Mauk couldn’t stay out of trouble, the offense ranked last in the league in yards and points, and the Tigers finished 5-7.
Why it should happen: Prized QB recruit Drew Lock struggled when pressed into early action because of Mauk, but the kid can chuck it. There’s hope Lock will put it together now, with former Oklahoma star and new coordinator Josh Heupel mentoring him. The defense, which ranked second in the SEC last season, should be stout again under coordinator-turned-head-coach Barry Odom.
And if it doesn’t: That won’t surprise anyone. The offense faces a steep climb in a stingy league, and road games against West Virginia, LSU, Florida and Tennessee look like automatic L’s. The Tigers’ best chances for SEC wins come against Kentucky and Vanderbilt at home. Matching last year’s record seems doable, but finding a sixth win on their schedule is tough.
It’s a successful season if: The Gamecocks win five games. It’s fallen that far, that fast in Columbia, and new coach Will Muschamp just needs to show some growth from a 3-9 disaster in 2015 that saw Steve Spurrier walk away midseason. USC fans got spoiled by three consecutive 11-2 seasons under Spurrier, even though the program had won double-digit games just once previously (1984). The crash back to earth was swift and painful.
Why it should happen: Spurrier took the Gamecocks’ recruiting to new heights, which means there is some talent in the cupboard. Muschamp, for all his failings as the head coach at Florida, did guide the Gators to a Sugar Bowl and was a terrific defensive coordinator. That’s good news for a South Carolina defense that ranked last in the league last season.
And if it doesn’t: Muschamp, as curious a hire as he was this offseason, will get some time to turn it around. But did Spurrier raise the bar to an impossible height? Consider: In the Gamecocks’ last five seasons under Lou Holtz and first six under Spurrier (2000-10), they averaged just seven wins.
It’s a successful season if: The Commodores win five games, continuing the slow climb back up under third-year coach Derek Mason. Long gone are the days of three consecutive bowls and back-to-back 9-4 seasons under James Franklin, who parlayed that into the Penn State job. Mason went 3-9 his first year, 4-8 last season.
Why it should happen: Mason, a former Jim Harbaugh disciple and Stanford defensive coordinator, dramatically improved that side of the ball in 2015. The offense still needs work, but 1,152-yard rusher Ralph Webb gives Vanderbilt something on which to build. The Commodores were far more competitive last season, losing games to Western Kentucky, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Florida by an average of six points.
And if it doesn’t: Mason might be gone, and that’s probably unreasonable. Vandy won three games or fewer 11 times in the 16 seasons between 1995 and 2010. Then Franklin, thanks to the intersection of remarkable recruiting and a weak SEC East, did the unthinkable. Mason, who helped build a football power at another prominent academic institution, was a logical replacement. But so far, the results have been underwhelming.
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