Twelve head coaches stood at the podium during last week’s SEC media days. Shockingly, not one declared, “Thank goodness for Tums because this season could be an unmitigated disaster.”
There’s nothing like the optimism of July, when nobody has lost a game yet. So how do things really stand in the SEC? Here’s a loose guide. I’ve ranked the 12 schools by a combination of perceived current strength and the program’s direction. Feel free to debate.
Looking Down On The Villagers
♦ 1. ALABAMA: It was funny when Nick Saban lost to Louisiana-Monroe in 2007. There haven’t many opportunities to laugh since. Alabama is 16-0 in the SEC’s regular season in the last two seasons (it only lost to Florida in the 2008 conference title game). The Tide is coming off a BCS title and could repeat. Direction firmly established.
♦ 2. FLORIDA: The Gators are 26-2 with a BCS title in the last two seasons. To recruit, they open the front door. The only questions center on the health of their head coach (Urban Meyer) and the success of Tim Tebow’s replacement (John Brantley). But the program is too strong and too deep to expect a significant descent any time soon.
A Step Below
♦ 3. LSU: Almost placed the Tigers fourth but they did win the BCS title only three years ago. The question is: How much of Les Miles’ early success was residual from the Saban era? His SEC records in his first three seasons: 7-1, 6-2, 6-2. In the last two (with most of Saban’s players gone): 3-5, 5-3. Miles is catching as much heat as Mark Richt. This year’s rebuilding effort includes replacing seven defensive starters. LSU fans want to see progress.
♦ 4. GEORGIA: Richt went 4-4 in the SEC in two of the last four years, not catastrophic. But the last four BCS champions came from the SEC. That changes the grading scale. The 2008 Bulldogs underachieved. The 2009 team was bad enough that Richt finally felt compelled to dump three assistants, including defensive coordinator Willie Martinez. This year’s team should fare well, partly because of an easier schedule. But there are questions at quarterback (freshman) and on defense (new scheme). Richt needs to firmly establish direction.
Usually Good For An Upset
♦ 5. SOUTH CAROLINA: Steve Spurrier made his mark on offense. His South Carolina teams have been strong on defense. Even he mused that for the first time in his career, he received a salary bonus for his team’s graduation rate, not a bowl game. South Carolina is a stable and competitive program with a great fan base. But Spurrier can’t recruit talented skill position players to Columbia. It wouldn’t be a shock if he retires after this season.
♦ 6. ARKANSAS: Every season there’s one team that’s overrated by media and fans. This year it’s Arkansas. The Razorbacks have a very good quarterback in Ryan Mallett. But what about the rest of the team? And the coach? Bobby Petrino was a success in Conference USA and the Big East. Big wow. He’s 5-11 in the SEC and, it should be noted, Arkansas wasn’t exactly a train wreck when he took over (Houston Nutt went 11-5 in conference in his last two seasons).
♦ 7. MISSISSIPPI: Almost put Ole Miss ahead of Arkansas. Nutt inherited a team that had four straight losing seasons and is 18-6 in two years. He has done better with Ed Orgeron’s players than Ed Orgeron did. But the Rebels have lost eight starters on offense.
♦ 8. AUBURN: The Tigers were a punch line when they hired Gene Chizik to replace Tommy Tuberville. But just because Auburn didn’t fold up last season (8-5, 3-5), let’s not assume greatness just yet. The Tigers went 2-5 after a 5-0 start before beating Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. This year’s quarterback, Cam Newton, has talent but also some baggage: He started at Florida but was suspended after being arrested and charged with stealing another student’s laptop. Bottom line: It’s too early to judge Chizik.
♦ 9. TENNESSEE: Derek Dooley inherited a mess, on and off the field. Dooley has all the makings to be a great head coach but he might be overmatched at this point of his career. The Volunteers are short on talent and too much of Dooley’s time right now is being occupied by just giving the team structure and discipline.
♦ 10. MISSISSIPPI STATE: Dan Mullen, a former Florida and Utah assistant, still needs to separate himself from Urban Meyer’s shadow. But he did a solid job in year one and made a terrific hire in defensive coordinator Manny Diaz (Middle Tennessee State). These Dogs may be moving up.
No Place To Go But Up
♦ 11. KENTUCKY: Joker Phillips usually had great offenses as an assistant, but this is a program that went 16-39 in the SEC under Rich Brooks. Three months to basketball practice.
♦ 12. VANDERBILT: New coach Robbie Caldwell has a lot of one-liners. He’ll need them.
A look back at SEC media days