The SEC’s spot at the top of college football’s food chain is unquestioned. However the pecking order of the programs within the conference is always up for debate.
From year to year there can be wild swings of momentum with the teams in the league. Some will move up, others will move down, and a few will wonder why they can’t seem to move at all.
With that in mind here’s an assessment of where things stand now in the SEC and where they’re likely headed:
Programs on the rise
Here’s a scary thought: The SEC West will never be more competitive than it has been in the time period since 2009. Forgetting Nick Saban’s exploits with the Crimson Tide for a moment, in the last seven years this division has produced two other Heisman Trophy winners — Cam Newton at Auburn in 2010 and Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M in 2012. It’s also seen two other programs play for national championships — Auburn, which won the title in 2010 and played for it again in 2013 along with LSU, which played for the national championship in 2011.
Yet despite the depth and balance of the SEC West, Alabama still managed to rack up three national championships, four conference titles, and two Heisman Trophy winners of its own during this period.
If that’s what Alabama does when the division’s at its toughest, what will the Crimson Tide be able to do now that a few programs in this half of the league are trending downward? As hard as it is to imagine, the Alabama dynasty may just be getting started.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley spent December traveling to Atlanta to see his team play for an SEC championship. That’s a big upgrade over the previous December when Foley was traveling to Ft. Collins, Colo., to look for a new football coach after having just fired Will Muschamp from that position after four years on the job.
Any program that goes from coaching search to conference championship game in just a year’s time is one that’s on the rise.
However, the coach that Foley brought back from that Colorado trip to lead the Gators — Jim McElwain — is supposed to be an offensive genius, but there was scarce evidence of McElwain’s genius in 2015 based on the way Florida’s offense played during the second half of the schedule.
If the Gators don’t find a way to score more points this year the program will be in an entirely different category this time next year.
This one is entirely speculative — not only because new coach Kirby Smart is yet to coach his first game, but because Smart’s predecessor set the bar for achievement so high.
Mark Richt left UGA at the end of last season for Miami after having won everything but a national championship during his 15 seasons with the Bulldogs. The fact that Richt’s final season produced nine regular-season wins and was largely viewed as a disappointment speaks volumes about the level of achievement Richt brought to Athens, Ga.
It won’t be easy for Smart to match it.
Of course a crowd of more than 93,000 didn’t attend this year’s G-Day spring game because they think Smart will match Richt’s penchant for 10-win seasons. Most fans are expecting a lot more from Smart than that, and many of them assume he’ll do it fairly quickly.
In other words, Smart’s gotten nothing but love from Bulldogs fans so far, but he won’t get much patience from them this fall.
No one wants to believe in Tennessee until they actually see it on the field. There are a lot of critics of the Vols heading into the season because of all the hype and accolades for a team that didn’t exactly live up to expectations last season — losing four times in agonizing fashion.
The popular saying goes, “Let’s see Tennessee actually finish off some close games in the fourth quarter before they are anointed as one of the top teams in the SEC.”
However, given the fact that Tennesse has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Joshua Dobbs, among the best duos at runnning back in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and possibly three future first-round picks starting on defense — Derek Barnett at defensive end, Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker, and Cam Sutton at cornerback — those hoping to see Tennessee prove itself in close games this season might end up disappointed by how few close games the Vols will actually play.
This may be the only time the Commodores are ever in the same category with Alabama, but in this case the distinction is warranted.
Vanderbilt could have the SEC’s best defensive coordinator. Unfortunately, they are also employing him as head coach. Derek Mason’s defensive wizardry is well-documented, and so are the numerous challenges associated with coaching a defense from the sidelines while also paying attention to the rest of the team as head coach.
Somehow Mason and Vanderbilt are making it work — at least by the typically meager standards in place for the Commodores.
This year an improved offense — led by running back Ralph Webb — coupled with Mason’s top-notch defense could give Vanderbilt fans a reason to finally forget about the James Franklin era.
Programs falling down
The Razorbacks just lost Brandon Allen — a three-year starter at quarterback who compiled the second-most completions and the third-most passing yards in program history — not to mention running back Alex Collins and his 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns from 2015. What are the chances Arkansas will be better without them? Not great.
Auburn’s attempt this week to display confidence in coach Gus Malzahn by giving him a contract extension mostly fell flat. No one is buying that Auburn’s truly committed to Malzahn long-term. He’s got to win now or he’ll probably be gone, and compiling a lot of wins will be tough against a schedule that includes Clemson to start the year, the full slate against the SEC West, and the traditional crossover game against Georgia.
The only entity capable of doling out a beatdown to the Rebels that will be worse than the one soon to come from the NCAA for improper benefits to former offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and others is probably Alabama — who’s fighting mad about losing two straight to Ole Miss. These two teams will match up in early September, but smart observers of the SEC will notice some erosion with the Rebels program long before the Crimson Tide comes calling for revenge.
The fantastic recruiting class Rebels coach Hugh Freeze put together in 2013 looked too good to be true, and as it turns out it probably was. No one knows what it really took for Freeze to get that historic class onto campus at Ole Miss, but allegations of impropriety aren’t the big problem right now. The more significant issue is that most of the stars off that signing class are gone.
The good news is Ole Miss used those recruits to get to major bowls in each of the last two seasons — playing in the Sugar Bowl this past January and the Peach Bowl the season before that. The bad news is that in both seasons the Rebels still fell short of winning the SEC West.
Unfortunately, that could be the closest Ole Miss comes to winning the division for a long time to come.
There’s only one problem with players who have once-in-a-generation talent: Once they’re gone they leave an awfully big void to fill.
That’s certainly the case at Mississippi State where the Bulldogs have to figure out what comes after the Dak Prescott era. That won’t be easy to determine. Prescott’s record-setting quarterback play gave the Bulldogs a chance to beat almost anyone. With Prescott’s absence the Bulldogs are now a threat to lose almost anyone as well.
The Tigers were once surprise team of the SEC. They snuck into the league and won the East Division twice — in 2013 and 2014. That wasn’t that long ago, but after a string of bad news from the program over the last few months the TV footage from those seasons for Missouri might as well be in black and white. Longtime coach Gary Pinkel is gone, making the decision to retire due to health reasons. Pinkel’s replacement is former defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
Odom may one day be a fine coach, but he’ll be facing a tough situation this year. Not only is Missouri unlikely to compete in the SEC East, they’ll be lucky to qualify for a bowl.
Stuck in neutral
LSU’s neutral zone would equal most program’s glory days, but still: The recent conversation has been the same year after year. If LSU just had a quarterback, Les Miles could get another national championship. Yet the quarterback issue never gets settled, and while LSU never stops being good, they always stop short of being great.
The Wildcats recruiting has improved under coach Mark Stoops, but the results on the field are about the same as every other year.
This year’s roster featuring potential stars in quarterback Drew Barker and running back Stanley “Boom” Williams gives at least the hint of possibility that a breakout season could be on the way for Big Blue Nation. Unfortunately, while success is at least possible, the probable conclusion to the season for Kentucky is one that’s all too familiar to Wildcats fans.
There might not be a whole lot of difference between the end of Steve Spurrier’s tenure as Gamecocks coach and the start of Will Muschamp’s. This is a program that has ceded way too much recruiting momentum to the in-state rival — Clemson — and that has made being competitive in the SEC East almost impossible.
Eventually Muschamp’s prowess as a recruiter will bring talent back to Columbia, S.C., but for now, the Gamecocks are just under-manned — kind of like they’ve been for a while.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin brings in a high-profile quarterback to be either the next Johnny Manziel or to take the program farther than it went under Johnny Football.
The last few times Sumlin tried this, the quarterbacks in question were of the four and five-star variety and they were straight out of high school — guys like Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen, and Kyler Murray. The results were mostly disappointing and in every case the quarterback transferred out of the program in search of better results elsewhere.
This time Sumlin thinks he has a better idea. Instead of bringing in a young and inexperienced signal caller who could eventually get upset and decide to leave, Sumlin is taking someone else’s transfer — former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight.
Knight, in his college career with the Sooners, has already demonstrated a poise and a presence young passers fresh out of high school will have difficulty matching — even ones as highly-recruited as the group that recently passed through College Station, Texas.
What remains to be seen is whether Knight has what it takes to make Texas A&M more than just a minor nuisance to the rest of the SEC West.