PD’s Future Implications: Part II
The power balance in the SEC has been quite a roller coaster over the past decade. The balance of power lay squarely in the East for the entire decade of the ‘90s, winning the conference title eight of the ten years and having generally the two best teams in the league throughout the decade in Florida and Tennessee — with Alabama, Auburn and Arkansas just occasionally making some noise in the West. The ‘00s decade was a very even one, with the East and West splitting the SEC titles down the middle at five apiece. However, the power balance rested just slightly with the West, with three teams winning titles and four teams winning the division, compared to two and three respectively from the East.
There were three major impacts in the ‘00s decade in terms of the power shift, and Nick Saban was responsible for two of them. The first impact was the gradual, then plummeting demise of the Tennessee program, coinciding with the second two: the rise of LSU and then Alabama, both under the leadership of Nick Saban. While only three years old, the ’10s decade has seen the power spike in the West with LSU and Alabama becoming nationally dominant powers at the same time Florida fell from status of national kingpin for a two-year lull of mediocrity. But in Florida’s place, both South Carolina and Georgia emerged as national powers. Still, they were not able to outpace LSU or Alabama over those three years. Throw in the one-year blip of Auburn’s national title thanks to the Flim-Cam Man, and the West appeared to have wrested the power balance cleanly from the middle. Going forward, however with Florida having righted its ship and stapled itself to the national top 3, even with a M*A*S*H unit offensive line and depth craters all over the roster, the rest of the decade could go either way. Or it could remain split down the middle as it was the last decade. The addition of suddenly amazing Texas A&M to the West and utterly impotent Missouri to the East, certainly bodes well for the power brokers on the left side of the southeast.
Having reviewed the SEC East teams and plotted each program’s probable trajectory over the next several years, it’s time to do it for the West division teams. Consider it a peek into their ability to maintain the balance of power in the SEC, and more specifically whether certain teams will be a threat to Florida at the top of the league standings and national rankings.
Alabama is king again. And it is good to be king. However, the Crimson Tide’s reign has not been nearly as dominating as perception informs the average college football fan. Certainly around recruiting season, the mantra around the SEC is that Bama gets everyone it wants. And when the coaching silly season kicks in every year, the lament is that Bama always holds onto all of its coaches and everyone else loses theirs. The Crimson Tide also do not lose juniors to the NFL as routinely as does Florida, for example. All of these axioms are basically true, however the overtones of complete dominance that accompany them are far more perception than reality.
Perception says that Alabama has dominated the world for the last four years, with the exception of the Cam Newton Anomaly of 2010. But closer inspection shows the true story: it is not total domination, but rather a perpetual combination of great coaching, good fortune and good timing. Consider the first year of their “domination” run, 2009. They were not the team that spent the entire year dominating the nation: that was Florida. In 2009, Alabama was steady but pedestrian, simply getting it done against a decent, but not daunting schedule. Included was a five-point win against a 7-5 Auburn team and a two-point win over a 7-6 Tennessee team that was preserved only through a last-second blocked field goal — a field goal that should have been allowed to be re-kicked 15 yards closer because the Bama player who blocked it, Mount Cody, ripped his helmet off and paraded around the field while the game, even the play, was still live, which should have resulted in a 15-yard penalty and a re-kick. It was not unlike the potentially game-winning but missed field goal by Pitt this year against Notre Dame that should have been re-kicked because the refs ignored two players on the field wearing the same number. And that Irish-like good fortune of Alabama’s came home by the truck load when the far superior Florida team spent SEC Championship game week partying, getting drunk, getting arrested and suspended, and basically everything they could think of except preparing for the SEC title game. Then Alabama was given the gift of gifts when their BCS national title game opponent Texas lost their star quarterback — and all hopes of winning — on the first series of the game. And they still clung to just a three-point lead with three minutes left in the game before getting the final gift of a Texas fumble at the Longhorns 3-yard line and a Texas interception a few seconds later just outside their own red zone.
In 2010, they lost three games, including one to South Carolina, and suffered an embarrassing come-from-far-ahead loss in the Iron Bowl. Then last year of course they lost to LSU in Tuscaloosa before being fortunate enough to climb back into the national title game. This year they are two brainless coaching decisions away from being a three-loss team again. But because Les Miles and Mark Richt are such terrible game day coaches, there is Alabama in the national title game again. This is not to downplay the Crimson Tide’s success — they have earned every bit of it — but just to highlight the fact that they are not nearly as dominant as the media would have us believe, and they are in fact just a few plays, and a large number of very fortunate events that they did nothing to create, away from having zero national titles since 1992.
They have won two of the last three and will win a third in the last four next month primarily because their coach is both a great game week coach and a great game day coach. There are a number of coaches in the SEC who are one but not the other. There are only two that I know who are both. There used to be three, but I believe Steve Spurrier through his temper and frustration that lead to constant knee-jerk reactions and emotional decisions instead of logical tactical decisions, has lost his ability to be a great game day coach. Gator fans should be happy to know that the other one of the two coaches in Gainesville. And unless Florida coach Will Muschamp matches or surpasses Saban’s coaching impact on his program, Alabama will continue to win more SEC titles and national titles than it loses.
Les Miles will always have the talent flowing into Baton Rouge at national championship level. And he is a great game week coach. However — and I doubt I will get many arguments on this one — he is an average game day coach and often outright throws games away through his sometimes clinically insane in-game decisions. Exhibit A is the game against Alabama this year, where he took so many points off the scoreboard with his insistence on calling trick plays when none were needed in a game the Tigers were controlling and at times even dominating throughout. And then, of course, there was the brain dead decision to abandon the defense that had been dominating all day and facilitate the Alabama comeback drive with a prevent defense punctuated with an inexplicable last-play reversal into a jailbreak blitz after allowing Bama through the prevent defense to get close enough to score on a blitz-beating, stupid-simple screen pass. Staggering.
The annual Les Miles season-ending post-game press conference brain-dump only solidified the status quo at LSU: as long as Miles is the head coach, they will continue to be an elite national power and win an occasional SEC title, but will probably not win another national crown, because when the bullets are live in the biggest games, Miles will blow a circuit and do something unthinkably dumb to throw it away.
As much as the Aggies have thrust themselves into the national consciousness as a New Jack college football elite, I still see them as somewhat of a mystery program. There is no question that Kevin Sumlin is a great coach, and that Johnny Manziel is an incredible talent, but it is too early to tell if this program is an elite status team for the long haul or if it was able to catch lightning in a bottle this year. It will be interesting to see how both the team and Johnny Football do going forward without being able to sneak up on anyone. When you look at the second half against Florida and the last three quarters against LSU, both Manziel and the Aggies’ offense were darn near inept. The better defenses in the SEC can limit and even shut them down right now (exception noted, Alabama). That may continue or A&M may persevere to improve and overcome — in addition to their defense, which could make great strides and become an elite SEC defense themselves. Over the long haul, the Aggies are for real, but it is impossible to know what level between “elite” and “solid” at which this program will settle as their equilibrium point.
Arkansas offered Miles its head coaching job. Why not just offer Bill Belichick? Saban? How about the Pope? Bret Bielema takes over and will keep Arkansas respectable. He was able to win the Big Ten title the last three seasons, which raises the question of why he would want to quit that job to coach at Arkansas. For someone who had only coached in Iowa, Kansas and Wisconsin to decide to tackle the recruiting battles in the southeast as well as leave the pillow-soft Big 10 for the meat grinder of the SEC, sends up at least a couple of big question marks. From the Razorbacks’ perspective, it was an odd coaching search: first pick is a divisional rival at one of the national elite programs who it was certain would never even consider the move; second pick was a successful coach but one who has absolutely no experience coaching in the SEC or extensively recruiting the southeast, and whose only interaction with the SEC has been to publically reprimand the conference for its recruiting tactics that Urban Meyer brought with him to Ohio State. Either Bielema will have to change his position on recruiting committed players, or he is not going to fare well at Arkansas. The best thing this hire has going for it is that he is a defensive coach, which is key in today’s SEC.
So Auburn responded to one of its worst seasons ever by firing the coach that won it the national title one year prior and hiring Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator for that BCS title-winning team. I think the one common thread to that offense and that national title that ties both of these coaches together — and likewise leaves both out in the cold as far as my confidence level in their head coaching futures — is Cam Newton. And as Rick Pitino might say, “Cam Newton is not stepping through that door!” I don’t believe it is a good idea to hire an offensive gimmick guru in a conference dominated by defenses. Malzahn also has no BCS conference head coaching experience. In fact his only head coaching experience is one year at Arkansas State, where he was good enough to lower the Red Wolves’ Sun Belt Conference record from 8-0 under Hugh Freeze the year before to 7-1. He was given his first college coaching job by Houston Nutt only because he could deliver the starting quarterback and many of the highly rated teammates from Springdale High School. He lasted there only one year, after which he and most of the players he brought with him bolted the school in a widely publicized soap opera between coaches, players and players’ parents. Many will disagree, but at this point I don’t expect to see any more success for Malzahn at Auburn than we saw out of Brad Scott when he went to South Carolina.
Hugh Freeze. I am not sure why he was hired in the first place. He spent three years as the Ole Miss tight ends coach and has only one year of head coaching experience at Arkansas State. However, he did a good job in making Ole Miss slightly more competitive while losing a lot of games in 2012. The Rebels were just 3-5 in SEC play, and their three wins were over Auburn, Arkansas, and MSU — the first two of which were among the three worst teams in the conference. Expect the Rebel Bears — or whatever they are calling themselves these days — to keep doing what they have been doing, which is not posing much of a threat to Florida on any level.
For all the pomp and circumstance over Dan Mullen and what a great job he has done as head coach of the Bulldogs, I just keep looking at the pudding and not seeing any proof in there. This year he led them to an 8-4 season, a good year by MSU standards, but the hype and expectations around him have not been to be simply, “good by MSU standards.” The Bulldogs started 2012 off 7-0, with wins against absolutely nobody. Then when they played the difficult part of their schedule, they lost four of their last five games, including a 41-24 beat down by their hated in-state rivals Ole Miss. Their only win in the last five games came against a terrible Arkansas team that had long since given up on its season. Last year, Mississippi State was 7-6. In 2010, it was 9-4 and in 2009 the Bulldogs finished 5-7. In four years under Mullen, they have had two typical average MSU seasons and two years wherein they had good seasons by MSU standards. I don’t see Mullen and the Bulldogs raising their level of play above this plane. Mullen needs to grab the next available advancement head coaching position that opens up or he will miss his window of opportunity. Of course, it may be that he was not even mentioned as a candidate for the Auburn, Tennessee or Arkansas jobs because the shine has already come off his star.
So there you have the quick pulse of the SEC West and what I expect the teams in the division to do in the years to come. From my perspective, after a couple of years of looking very dominant with Alabama and LSU bullying the conference and nation around, Auburn getting its one outlying championship season and Arkansas having a brief spike into the national top 10 before crashing out on Bobby Petrino’s hog, the West is stabilizing and coming down a half step. Texas A&M takes Arkansas’s place in the power equation, but it remains to be seen just how long or how strongly it can maintain staying power. From the perspective of the Florida Gators, it doesn’t get any easier dealing with the West division teams going forward. All and any ground that is to be made up must come from Florida’s ascension, not the descent of the teams across the SEC aisle. In my next Postulations piece, I will look at the programs in the state of Florida and in the national power group with which Florida must contend for supremacy, and project the next several years of success level for their programs. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.
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