Whether you love or hate the SEC, you have to admit the last decade has been very, very good for the conference from a football perspective.
But all things must end. We’re on the cusp of seeing the SEC’s dominance cycle out for a while. For just how long is the great unknown, but a downward turn is coming.
The SEC’s run of dominance began in 2006 thanks in large part to Urban Meyer. Now widely viewed as the best or second-best coach in the game, before he came to Florida, Meyer was the hot up-and-comer who took Utah to the BCS and ran (at the time) a funky offense.
Meyer led Florida to two titles in three years before quitting after realizing life without Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin was hard taking a break to spend more time with his family.
In between Meyer’s titles came LSU’s title run, fluky as it was. This led to the ongoing Alabama dynasty, which was broken up by Cam Newton’s one-year wonder at Auburn. Hey, remember Gene Chizik?
Anyway, my point in bringing up the past is to highlight what led to the SEC’s dominant run: top-flight coaches. Aside from Newton dragging Chizik’s useless ass to the Promised Land, Saban, Meyer and Les Miles led their programs to consistent success because they were really good as head coaches.
A lot has changed since 2008, however. Sure, Darth Saban is still sapping the fun out of football (and winning) but Miles just survived an attempted coup from his own AD and Meyer is now wrecking shop in the Big Ten with Ohio State.
The top tier of the SEC is down to Saban and Miles, and the opinion of Miles tends to vary. But the real reason the SEC’s run is about to end doesn’t have to do with the top tier. It has to do with everything underneath it.
Quick: Rank the SEC coaches after Nick Saban. It’s not easy, is it?
Miles has the championship resume, but take away the two-loss national title team and what does that resume look like?
Georgia and Missouri have first-year coaches. South Carolina replaced Steve Spurrier with Will Muschamp, an epic failure as a head coach in his only previous stint. Is Hugh Freeze (who’s in a bit of trouble at the moment) or Bret Bielema the third-best?
Kevin Sumlin has cache, but what does he have to show for it?
Gus Malzahn is another 7-win season away from the chopping block. Mark Stoops can’t make a bowl game and Butch Jones is his team’s biggest weakness.
Dan Mullen is a nice coach at a place where being a nice coach is okay. He’s done the most with the least in the SEC West, so does he crack the top five? Derek Mason is…well, he’s at Vandy, bless his heart.
Florida hired Jim McElwain, who seems like the mirror image of Muschamp: A legitimate coach who isn’t a dynamic recruiter.
Here’s what I came up with: Saban, Miles, Bielema, Mullen, Freeze, McElwain, Sumlin, Malzahn, Butch, Muschamp. Kirby Smart and Barry Odom are new coaches so it’s too early to tell. I’m open to debate on the entire list after Saban, frankly.
Compare that list to the Big Ten or the Pac-12 and all of a sudden the SEC doesn’t look so big and bad, does it?
Mark Richt and Steve Spurrier are gone. Meyer is no longer in the SEC. Bobby Petrino, for all of his many, many faults, is no longer in the SEC. James Franklin is at Penn State.
Since 2012, the Pac-12 has added Chris Petersen, Jim Mora, Todd Graham, Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez.
In recent years the Big Ten added Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Franklin, Mike Riley, Paul Chryst, Lovie Smith and finally rid the conference of Randy Edsall and whomever was coaching Rutgers.
The SEC is 11-11 in the regular season against Power 5 opponents in the last two years. That’s hardly dominant. Alabama will be the best team in football more times than not provided Saban is in Tuscaloosa, but what about the rest?
LSU has too much of Mark Richt’s Georgia in them. Georgia is breaking in a new coach. Florida is cycling out of some of the dynamic talent Muschamp brought to Gainesville. Those are the four anchors.
Tennessee has top-five talent, but its coach is a massive question mark until proven otherwise.
The SEC isn’t going to stop being good at football. There’s too much of a baked-in advantage of local talent for that to happen. But what if Smart is more like Muschamp and less like Saban? What if Odom hires poorly and can’t handle the admin work head coaches deal with? What if Muschamp is, well, Muschamp in Columbia?
Florida State is dominating its state in recruiting and odds are strong Richt will improve Miami’s recruiting immediately, making it difficult for McElwain to reel in top-flight talent in bunches.
The SEC is in a state of flux at the moment, and it could be in a similar spot in 2017 should Auburn and Texas A&M struggle.
The Big Ten is loaded with cash and can finally compete in earnest with SEC in the funds department. It and the the Pac-12 have each done a great job of upgrading coaches.
The Playoff also has a big impact on this shift, as well. No longer does the SEC winner get a one-game playoff. It has an extra game to play beforehand, which is yet another opportunity to lose.
This could all be rendered moot should Smart and Odom become great coaches and succeed on par with their predecessors while Auburn and/or A&M bounce back.
There’s a compelling case to be made that Smart and UGA could do some things based on some stuff coming out of Athens, but it’s still a tall order to win 75 percent of games as Richt did. Odds of that seem long, but it’s not impossible.
The concept of one conference dominating the others seems to be fading, however. There is more money than ever going to more leagues than ever. The era of college football parity is upon us. I wonder how SEC fans — and its administrators — will handle this new world order.