September began with a nauseating lurch across a wide swath of SEC territory, and by the time November ended in similar fashion, the whole region was hurting.
The SEC bounced back to a solid 6-6 bowl record as it rang in the new year, sure. Alabama pummeling Washington and a few prominent Big Ten bowl busts certainly helped. But has that uneasy feeling really dissipated down South?
Opening 2016 with a .500 non-conference record in Week 1 and going 1-3 against the ACC during Rivalry Week will always be hard to forget. The SEC lost to South Alabama, Southern Miss, NC State, Kansas State, Georgia Tech (twice) and Florida State (twice), all in the span of one season.
A Crimson Tide loss on Monday night would put the conference at 0-3 against Clemson this year and arguably allow the the ACC to swipe the “toughest conference” title for itself. The debates would increase in volume, at the very least.
Having said all that, however, there shouldn’t be too much doom-and-gloom in the SEC offices this offseason. And I’m not just talking about how the conference dominates its rivals at making money, or how the league has a shot at some swift vengeance next season.
To truly put the 2016 season in perspective, we need to rewind the clock.
The new millenium
Among SEC teams, only Alabama reached the double-digit wins mark this fall. To find the last time the league didn’t have multiple 10-game winners, you have travel back to the 2000 season — a truly poor year for the league.
Florida won the conference at 10-3. Auburn finished runner-up at 9-4. Five more teams went 8-4 (Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State).
The Gators, despite a strong year out of freshman quarterback Rex Grossman, finished their penultimate season under Steve Spurrier with sour-tasting losses to rivals Florida State (30-7) and Miami (37-20 in the Sugar Bowl). Georgia fell to a ranked Georgia Tech team by double digits. LSU lost to UAB in Death Valley.
Only two SEC players earned consensus All-American status (John Henderson and Fred Smoot). Worst of all, the SEC went 1-3 in New Year’s Day bowl games. Michigan beat Auburn in the Citrus Bowl and Kansas State beat Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl, in addition to UF’s Sugar Bowl defeat.
You had a coaching legend nearing the tail-end of a decade of dominance — Spurrier at Florida — and not much else to get excited about. So, yeah, there are some similarities to the 2016 season, only Florida wasn’t half as good as Alabama.
Yet, in a few ways, the 2000 season also marked a turning point for the SEC.
When Nick Saban arrived at LSU that year after a so-so tenure coaching Michigan State, the SEC had claimed only three of the last 19 national championships.
While you certainly can’t credit Saban alone for the development of the SEC’s strong reputation, his success at LSU and Alabama no doubt shaped it to a large extent. After his LSU program captured the national title in 2003, the SEC went on to win eight more college football crowns over the next 12 years, including a stretch of seven consecutive years where the trophy resided in SEC halls.
Saban’s teams won five of those championships, and he’ll have a chance to make it six against Clemson. He helped revive LSU after the program lay dormant for much of the 1990s. He has Alabama poised for long-term success well after he eventually retires. And, most importantly, his work ethic has made the SEC more competitive top-to-bottom.
You could argue that Saban is the single-most important individual when it comes to the league’s rise to prominence over the past decade-plus.
Of course, you could also argue Spurrier’s work at Florida and Phil Fulmer’s at Tennessee before him was just as important in laying the foundation for it.
The coaching tree grows
Fulmer and Spurrier were the conference’s big dogs before Saban arrived. From 1993-2000, one of those two men won the SEC championship every year, with the exception of 1999 (Mike DuBose at Alabama — LOL).
But by 2000, the coaching field had grown noticeably deeper. It marked Jim Donnan’s finale at Georgia, after which the Bulldogs hired Mark Richt, who guided the team to consistent success for the next 15 years.
Tommy Tuberville was in Year 2 at Auburn, and the Tigers’ 9-4 finish marked the first of eight consecutive winning seasons under his watch. In 2002, he would hire Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator, who would go on to coach the team to a national title in 2010; Chizik’s top assistant Gus Malzahn won the SEC title in 2013, then fell short in the national championship game vs. Florida State.
Of course, neither Richt nor Tuberville really developed assistants the way Saban did. Saban’s development of assistants who have gone on to become head coaches might be unparalleled.
So what does this have to do with the present?
Saban, eventually, will retire and Alabama won’t be the same. The Crimson Tide probably will keep winning, but not at this insane pace. But, as was the case during 2000 and in the year following, the SEC has some young, bona fide coaching studs waiting to take up the coaching mantle.
Could Jim McElwain elevate Florida to title-contender status again? Can Kirby Smart replicate Saban’s immense recruiting success in the talent-rich state of Georgia? Can Ed Orgeron win in his home state and learn from his mistakes at Ole Miss?
As long as Saban still coaches, expecting anyone to rise up from the pack to challenge him is asking a lot. But if he does hang up the headset, the next few years could be really interesting for the SEC.