Can the SEC Rise to the Top, Again?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for a football look at the SEC: where it’s been the past few years, and where it’s going. When the SEC divided into divisions, and added Arkansas and South Carolina, many pundits predicted the end of national relevance for a watered-own league. This view was smashed, with the success of the SEC Champion over the next 7 years.
Alabama won the consensus national title in 1992, with a stunning blowout of Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Auburn went undefeated in 1993. Auburn, Alabama, and Florida were national contenders in 1994, before falling just short in the end. In 1995, Florida made it to the first Bowl Alliance National Championship game, before falling to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. Florida returned to the big game, in 1996, and destroyed arch-rival Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. It was Tennessee’s turn to make the national championship game in 1997, but Nebraska won big in the Orange Bowl. Tennessee returned in 1998, wining a Fiesta Bowl decision over Florida State, for the consensus National Championship. With contenders every year, and 3 national championships in hand in 7 years, the theory of SEC watering-down was dead. Or was it?
From 1999-2002, the SEC made no appearances in the BCS Championship Game, and instead secured a reputation as a league that eats its own. Even in 2003, when LSU made an improbable rise to the BCS national championship, national pundits figured it was a fluke, and awarded the AP title to Southern Cal. The following year, Auburn went undefeated, but couldn’t even get invited to the BCS Championship game. In 2005, the naysayers were awarded a gratifying measure of redemption, when SEC Champ Georgia spotted the West Virginia Mountaineers a 28-0 lead in the Sugar Bowl, going on to lose 38-35.
Since 2005, however, the SEC Champ has gained access to the BCS title game, despite regular season losses,.and has won the title 3 years in a row, by double-digit margins. Furthermore, during the past 3 years, the SEC is 19-7 in bowl games, a 73.0 percent winning percentage. Is the league poised to continue its run in 2009? Or has the league peaked, and settled into an inevitable slide? Let’s examine the state of the SEC, going into 2009. We’ll take a look, and decide whether each team is trending upwards, downwards, or holding steady.
Vanderbilt, while not a championship contender, has benefited from coaching continuity. Of current SEC coaches, only Mark Richt of Georgia has been at his current school longer. Bobby Johnson has been at Vanderbilt since the 2002 season, and he’s got the second-longest current league tenure going! The perseverance of the Vandy administration was rewarded last season with a Music City Bowl win, the first in a quarter-century for the Commodores! With 19 starters returning from that team, one has to figure Vandy will be at least as good in 2009. Trend: Upwards.
Kentucky’s Rich Brooks has enjoyed an unprecedented 3 consecutive Wildcat bowl wins in the past three seasons, but a more sober analysis brings Kentucky’s long-term progress into question. After a 4-4 SEC record in 2006, Kentucky has slid to a 2-6, last place finish in the SEC East, last fall. The Wildcats lose 12 starters, including 6 on defense and 2 specialists, this year. A tasty cream-puff non-conference schedule nearly guarantees 4 wins, but the Wildcats face a tough slate of SEC games. The odds of a 4th consecutive bowl win are not good. Trend: Downwards.
South Carolina was left for dead after an 0-11 record ten years ago, but Lou Holtz breathed life into the failing program, and the hire of Steve Spurrier was supposed to take the Gamecocks to the next level. The Visored One’s record with the Garnet and Black, however, has been pedestrian: 28-22, including 15-17 in the SEC. History says that it’s the best 4-year run in Gamecock history! Wow. South Carolina returns only 12 starters, and their best quarterback (Chris Smelley) was lost to an Alabama baseball career. Trend: Downwards.
Georgia faces a mass exodus of underclass talent, with the early loss of Mathew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. Georgia owns the best overall record in the SEC over the past decade, and most of those wins have been on the watch of coach Mark Richt. While the loss of the two junior NFL draft picks will be big, Georgia returns 6 defensive starters, and 7 on offense. With veteran senior quarterback Joe Coxsettled in, expect the Bulldogs to at least equal last season’s mark. Consistent, tough play has been the hallmark of the Richt era, and I think it will continue. Trend: Holding steady.
Tennessee has fallen far in the past decade. With an 0-3 record in the SEC Championship Game, and a 3-5 bowl mark, it’s not the Vols of old. Long-time national championship coach Phillip Fulmer was forced out in the wake of a 5-7 season last fall, and his replacement (Lane Kiffin) has not inspired confidence in the Vol Nation with his off-season antics. While there’s no way I’m going to write any Monte Kiffin-coached defense off, I’ll be shocked if Lane does much better with the moribund Vol offense of recent years. Trend: Downwards.
Florida: is this year’s “cinch” pick. They return 20 starters off of a national championship team, including a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. With 2 BCS crystals in the past three seasons, and a loaded team coming back, it’s hard to pick against the Gators. The X-factor is the loss of offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, to the Mississippi State Bulldogs. We’ll find out whether it was Mullen’s offense, or Urban Meyer’s, this year! Trend: Holding steady, at the top of the country!
LSU, it could be argued, did less with more, than any other team in the conference, last season. (Runner up: Auburn.) I figure, though, with the hiring of defensive coordinator John Chavis, the days of LSU being lit up for 50 points are long gone. If LSU finds consistent quarterback play this season, they should be the best team in the West. Brutal tailback Charles Scott should see to that! Another 5-loss SEC season, though, will turn Les Miles’ arrow decidedly downwards. Trend: Holding steady as the best in the West.
Arkansas was arguably the thinnest team in the West, last season. With a porous D, and numerous players lost to the NFL, they were nearly everyone’s cellar-dweller, before the season. Somehow, Bobby Petrino milked 5 wins out of that, including a stunning upset of LSU in the season finale. For most of the past decade, under Houston Nutt, the Razorbacks were the nasty team you hated to play, but also the team that managed to blow big game after big game. Arkansas’ 2-7 bowl record in the SEC is the proof. Arkansas has had a losing record 3 of the last 5 years. For this year, everything seems to hinge on Michigan transfer quarterback Ryan Mallet. With 19 starters returning, if Petrino repeats anything like the coaching performance he pulled off a year ago with Casey Dick, Arkansas is the darkhorse West contender. Trend: Cautiously upward.
Mississippi State has been the SEC’s offensive doormat for going on 7 years. Former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen hopes to inject life into the Bulldog attack this fall, but he does not have much, beyond behemoth tailbackAnthony Dixon, to work with. The Bulldogs have carved their niche defensively, the past half decade, but this fall, only 4 starters return on defense, on a team that has little quality depth. Trend: Downwards.
Ole Miss rebounded mightily last season, under new coach Houston Nutt, and is now mentioned among the favorites to win the SEC West, this season. Arkansas fans, familiar with Nutt, would urge caution. The Rebels are fairly loaded, talent-wise, and with a 37-member signing class this year, one would figure that Nutt will have some depth to work with. All optimism aside, though, it’s worth noting thatJevan Snead was only a 56-percent passer last year. While Ole Miss probably won’t win the division, things definitely look better than the 14-32 mark put together during the 4 years prior to Nutt’s arrival. Trend: Upward.
Alabama rebounded from mediocrity in a big way last season, as Nick Saban’s second Bama squad started the season 12-0. Bama, still a young team, returns 9 starters on defense, and should be plenty strong again in 2009. Quarterback is the question, this year. Greg McElroy looks very capable, but behind him is nothing but green. The Bama offensive style tends to protect the QB, which is fortunate. However, only 46% of the Bama rushing yards from a year ago, return. McElroy may have to produce ahead of schedule. Even if Bama doesn’t win big in 2009, one would have to argue that the Saban regime has stocked the cupboard pretty well over the past two signing classes. Bama should be in the thick of the title race for the foreseeable future, I’m afraid. Trend: Upwards.
Auburn has been gradually trending downwards since the miraculous 13-0 season five-plus years ago, and it culminated in a miserable 5-7, 2-6 season last year. New hire Gene Chizik, an unpopular choice, has attempted to jump-start his tenure by bringing in some huge-name position coaches. At least half of his choices have “future head coach” stamped in bold on that resume… Despite the decline, Auburn’s still a dangerous football team, and should be well-coached. If coordinator Guz Malzhan can find a quarterback to operate his innovative offense, Auburn could be in the hunt all year. Trend: Upwards (after hitting rock bottom a year ago.)
Adding all those trends up, it seems that the SEC might actually be a wee bit stronger in 2009, than 2008! And that’s a league that went 6-2 in bowl games! Florida is the unarguable head of the class, but several other teams have a chance at national glory, including LSU, Georgia and Alabama. It will be an interesting season, for certain!
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