Sports Psychology And The SEC East

One of the most enduringly amazing things about college football is the all-too-human nature of the psychological strengths and weaknesses that attach themselves to various programs.

As someone who has covered the sport for seven years, I am always struck dumb with astonishment whenever the same programs — though composed of different players — continue to manifest the same habits, for better or worse. It’s as though each school is its own family line, with the newborns showing the same traits of their older siblings.

In the 1990s, Alabama always seemed to be there at the end and win the SEC West. Over much of the past decade, Tennessee would struggle early, play down to its competition, but find a finishing kick in November. Vandy fell short of a bowl, Auburn usually got nipped at the wire after a drama-filled campaign, and Arkansas was eternally unpredictable. And hey — Georgia still pees its pants against Florida: that’s a “family” trait that largely held up in the Ron Zook years, and has blessedly continued into the Urban Meyer era.

John Grisham should try writing a novel based on the football personalities of the SEC’s schools over the years, so richly developed are the characters involved. The only challenge would be to pick a specific set of years in which a certain set of characteristics prevailed. An SEC novel for 2006 would look very different from an epic work based on the mid-1970s or late 1980s.

What’s fascinating about this season, then, is that several SEC schools — for better or worse — face the distinct possibility that they might change their personalities. Most of these dramas, moreover, are located in the Eastern Division, right where Florida happens to reside.

Xs and Os have their place at the table, and players couldn’t care less about the literary themes used by a sportswriter to prevent a column from being stale and boring, but in all seriousness, it IS one of the big questions of the 2006 football season: will the schools of the SEC East shed or regain their current personalities, for better or worse? It’s a very significant topic, once you trim off the thematic window dressing.

Florida — interestingly enough — is the SEC East school that currently lacks a defined personality Sigmund Freud could wrap his mind around. But if you had to put the Gators in one category and not another, one would have to say that the Gators are trying to shed a bad personality instead of regaining a good one.

With three different coaches over the past five seasons, the Gator program has the least-defined identity: nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing in which to exult, either. Ultimately, 2006 is more a matter of shaking off the inconsistency and sluggishness of past years than it is about reclaiming the old glory days of the 1990s. First things first: shed the current profile. Then, in future seasons under Tim Tebow, the Gators can establish a new personality in which they become the understood master of the SEC East, the queen bee to everyone else’s drones.

The other five schools in the East, however, have clear “personality issues” to wrestle with. Starting in Knoxville, will Tennessee regain the late-game confidence and overall toughness this program has had for so long? Will 2005 turn out to be an aberration, or a genuine harbinger of future struggles? If the 2006 season suggests that the latter answer is more likely, Phil Fulmer will face a do-or-die 2007, something few could have predicted a few years ago when Florida, not the Vols, faced a coaching crisis.

Simply stated, will Georgia still find a way to win with a fresh face at quarterback? After four years with both David Greene and D.J. Shockley in the fold under center, Mark Richt had a certain comfort zone at quarterback. That’s gone this year, as UGA will truly have to turn the page and start anew. Will this change tear down the boys in Athens, or is this program strong enough at all the other positions to defend its East title from last year? Greene was a natural leader throughout his career, and Shockley blossomed into a leader last year. Richt must cultivate some degree of leadership at this position in 2006; otherwise, the character and mindset of this team could take a big tumble … not to mention the win and loss totals.

Point-blank: can South Carolina shed its long history of avoiding championships, even while being a much more known commodity? This figures to be a bear of a year for the Gamecocks. They won’t sneak up on anyone anymore, and the mere presence of Steve Spurrier places an extra amount of pressure on the program. Moreover, Blake Mitchell’s lack of arm strength is something that can never be too far from anyone’s mind in Columbia. The smart money says that this program has a very limited ceiling, and is not about to put any hardware in an empty trophy case. Last season was a nice bit of overachieving, but it was spoiled to a degree by losses to Clemson and — in the Independence Bowl — Missouri. Can Spurrier cement and re-establish the cultural change he’s trying to engineer in the Palmetto State? He’ll have a very tough time turning USC into a different literary character.

Finally, can Kentucky or Vandy do anything that might possibly surprise us? Poor Vandy — even when having a noticeably improved season in 2005, the same taste of frustration filled the Commodore program. They did beat Tennessee for the first time since 1982, but the Dores — who could have gone to a bowl by beating EITHER Middle Tennessee or Kentucky (not both; just one of the two!) — couldn’t get the job done. An historic opportunity was missed, and now Jay Cutler is gone. Will Vandy — or its equally sad-sack partner from Lexington — be able to make any kind of statement this season? Not likely-these two characters, if they ever appeared in Masterpiece Theater, would be the lowly maidservants at the country estate who are always abused and mistreated by their arrogant, affluent employers.

So when you sit on the couch watching college football this fall, remember: the couch also applies to the teams you’re watching in the SEC East.

Florida will learn more about its personality in 2006.

Tennessee and Georgia want to preserve their personalities, but the Vols might be on the verge of a personality disorder this season.

South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt — on their own levels and in their own way — want to become completely new people who can make a better life for themselves.

That makes three teams who want to change, two teams who don’t, and a team in Gainesville that just might be the one left standing when this psychological case study — otherwise known as the 2006 SEC East season — runs its course.