Tiger-Eye Review—Urkatastrophe Edition
Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France 1906–1909, 1917–1920, nicknamed "Le Tigre"
A Preseason Review of the SEC
With apologies to the great George Kennan, I’m reminded of the German translation of his remark about what Europe experienced between 1914–1918 when I look over the events of 2014–2018 in the Southeastern Conference.
Both periods started with long-standing traditional powers and regimes that stretched back in time who endured a tremendous conflict in which casualty rates were the highest in history and resulted in many of those regimes collapsing in a whirlwind struggle that sapped the strength, wealth and influence they once held in world affairs.
That has been the SEC in the bowl season the last two years.
There has not been a two-year stretch like this since way back in the 20th Century in which SEC teams lost more postseason games than they won for two years running. There was a stretch of .500 post seasons in the early ‘aughts (2004–2005), but nothing like we have seen these last two years. And with the tumultuous turnover that is happening in the coaching ranks of many teams, it seems that this has a strong chance to continue for an unprecedented third year in a row.
Granted, it’s not the horrendous tire-fire experienced by the Pac-12 which had to rely on Utah beating West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl to avoid a nine-game sweep of the conference, but for a league that dominated the NCAA Football stage for over a decade, it has been a depressing and troubling slide for the “Toughest Conference in College Football.”
What’s that you say? But what about the College Football Playoffs that had three SEC teams in a neck-and-neck race at the end of the season? It did indeed, but outside of those three powerful teams with pedigree athletes, deep recruiting and competent coaching staffs, have you looked at the recent records of the SEC coaches behind them?
Let’s compare 2014 to 2018.
Is that trench where we’re going or where we’ve been?
In 2014, five SEC coaches had been at their schools for more than nine years, four had been at their schools between two to eight years, and there was only one coach who had been hired that year: Derek Mason at Vanderbilt. At the start of the 2018 season, there is only one coach with more than nine years at his school, six with more than two seasons and an incredible five head coaches who have yet to oversee a single game for their respective programs. Unbelievably, no fewer than THREE of those individuals have yet to coach a single game as a head coach of a power-five conference team.
In 2014, if you took out the top three ranked teams, those coaches had 217 victories at their respective schools compared to 377 collective victories of the other school’s coaches. In 2018, the top three own 198 victories, and the remaining eleven coaches have just 91 to share between them.
Can a program sometimes catch lightning in a bottle with a talented new coach and a new scheme on either side of the ball? Certainly, look no further than Georgia’s Kirby Smart and our own Gus Malzahn for examples of an exceptional first or early career season. Both took their respective teams to the national championship game in their first two years, but this is far from the norm at any level of professional coaching. The real test of a coaching choice is when you start to see staffs and how they recruit, develop and organize players and seasons necessary to compete at the collegiate level.
The odds of such success are long for quite a number of new coaches in the SEC.
What the future holds for the Southeastern Conference is anyone’s guess, but it’s still a tremendous gamble. Jimbo Fisher and Dan Mullen might possibly have an advantage with their recent and well established experience in both the conference and the south in general, but there are no guarantees even for those two. Their respective new teams each had dismal recruiting numbers the last couple of years, and they still have to establish themselves with their new personnel.
But for Joe Moorhead, Chad Morris, Jeremy Pruitt and even Matt Luke to some degree, the individual roads they must navigate at their institutions are even steeper. Even with the best of intentions, talent and luck, the expectations of their respective alumni, fans and administrations will likely not be kind or patient, not in this league at this level.
What does this mean for the SEC in general? Two things spring to mind, neither of which are encouraging. There will either be three and possibly five really good teams going forward and a host of mediocrity as these new coaches take on and grow into their roles with their respective programs, or we’ll see further upheaval and dismal performances week to week and into the post season with follow-on coaching/staff changes in future offseasons. Think the UT coaching changes of the post-Phil Fulmer era but apply it across the entire conference at the various programs that aren’t in that “big three” or “big five” block.
Sad to say, the first option may be the very best the conference could hope for. But either way, I have the feeling that by the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (coincidentally after the 11th week’s games of the SEC season are concluded), we will emerge from our entrenched ideas about the SEC to view a landscape that is vastly unfamiliar than what we knew in those heady summer days of 2014.
My hope is that I won’t have to start wearing a colored paper poppy on my lapel for the grandeur that was lost from when the Old Ball Coach, the Mad Hatter and all the other ghosts roamed the sidelines in that seemingly bygone Golden Age.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet—to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
Moina Michael – We Shall Keep the Faith, in response to John McCrae’s poem, In Flander’s Fields
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens—four dowager and three regnant—and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August