COLUMN: The declining state of the SEC
A few years can seem like an eternity in athletics. That is definitely the case for the SEC, which was perennially the top conference in college football in recent history. The SEC hoisted the national championship trophy every year from 2006 to 2012. However, over the past few seasons, the memories have faded and so has the conference's grip atop college football.
Today, one could argue that the SEC is the worst conference among the Power 5 conferences. Halfway through the season, the SEC currently holds a 7-6 record over opponents from other Power 5 conferences. In 2016, the SEC finished 6-9 against Power 5 teams and went 6-7 in bowl season.
Coaching is the main reason as to why the conference is struggling. 10 years ago, the SEC was loaded with proven coaches roaming the sidelines. Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, Phillip Fulmer, Tommy Tuberville, Urban Meyer, Les Miles and Nick Saban all were head men in the SEC. 11 national championships have been won by these respective coaches combined. Today, Saban is the only coach of this group left in the conference.
The conference has hired a lot of competent coaches in the last 10 years, but for one reason or another, they haven't worked out. Bobby Petrino won a lot of games at Arkansas. Hugh Freeze took Ole Miss to heights it had not been in a long time. James Franklin did a terrific job at perennial doormat Vanderbilt. When Missouri joined the league in 2012, they brought in a top notch coach in Gary Pinkel.
The problem is that when all of these coaches left, administrators and schools completely whiffed on the some of their past hires which have set programs back. To make matters even worse, the current set of coaches is nothing short of abysmal.
A top five coach in Urban Meyer left Florida, and the Gators hired Will Muschamp who had never been a head coach before his days in Gainseville. His offenses were a disaster, therefore Florida turned to another former Saban assistant, but one who had head coaching experience in Jim McElwain.
Tennessee struggled tremendously under Derek Dooley. The Vols then hired Butch Jones, but they look like they will be searching for their fourth head coach since Fulmer with Jones firmly on the chopping block.
Last offseason, LSU athletic director struck out on Tom Herman, who was at Houston at the time, and panicked. He hired interim coach Ed Orgeron to replace Les Miles. Orgeron's team was walloped in Starkville by the Mississippi State Bulldogs, struggled with Syracuse and lost to Troy.
Orgeron is no stranger to the SEC, as 10 years ago he the head coach at Ole Miss. That didn’t go well though as he finished with a 10-25 record overall and went 3-21 in the SEC over three seasons.
Derek Mason, Mark Stoops, and Barry Odom all had no previous head coaching experience before cashing in on SEC gigs. Currently the seven coaches in the SEC East averaged less than two years of head coaching experience before they all landed their respective jobs.
SEC athletic directors are entirely at fault for not being able to fire their below average coaches. Bret Bielema looked like a good hire at the time for Arkansas, but it is year five for him as the head hog and things are starting to go sideways.
The problem is that athletic director Jeff Long is going to have a big mess on his hands if he has to let Bielema go. He has a $15.4 million buyout. Bielema has won eight games at Arkansas only once and has done nothing to deserve that much job security in the form of his buyout.
At LSU, Alleva gave Orgeron a $12 million buyout. Orgeron was clearly not Alleva’s first choice for the job and had nothing in his career to warrant such a buyout. A more appropriate buyout for Orgeron would’ve been a case of red bull and a bowl of gumbo.
At Tennessee, Butch Jones and his staff would be owed over 14 million-dollars if fired this season. It is year five for Jones and he hasn’t been able to win the train wreck that is the SEC East yet.
The SEC will always be judged by the seven power programs in LSU, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. Of those seven, it is only clear that only two have upgraded from their last head coach.
One of those is Alabama with Saban. Alabama is by far the most dominant program in the conference. Tennessee did upgrade with Jones, but that has more to do with how awful Dooley was than how good Jones is.
Georgia and Auburn are the only two teams outside Alabama right now that look like worthwhile football teams. It's still too early to tell in Kirby Smart's tenure if he will be able to get over the being "good but not great" hump that got Mark Richt fired.
At Auburn, Gus Malzahn has been a roller coaster ride through his five seasons. He did replace a coach in Gene Chizik however, who won Auburn one of its two national titles.
It is clear that a majority of the conference has downgraded with their last coaching hire.
LSU replaced a guaranteed at least 8-9 win coach a year in Miles with a less than stellar Orgeron.
Pinkel retired and Odom has a dumpster fire on his hands in Columbia, Missouri.
James Franklin very well could be the best coach in Vanderbilt history; therefore, Mason would have had to have knocked it out of the water to live up to his predecessor.
South Carolina replaced all time great in Spurrier with Muschamp who couldn’t get the job done at Florida.
In the Gators' Swamp, McElwain thus far has won a very bad SEC East twice and is about the same as Muschamp, which is significantly worse than Meyer, who won two national championships with the Gators.
At the top, stability is key to run a proficient college football program. With such lackluster hires, instability has led to a lot of turnover in the conference among head coaches.
78.5 percent of SEC jobs have turned over since 2012. That is by far the most among the Power 5 conferences. Among them, 71 percent of jobs have turned over since 2012 in the Big 10, while it is 60 percent for the Big 12, 64 percent for the ACC and only 50 percent for the Pac-12.
Since 2012, the ACC has hired former SEC coach Mark Richt at Miami and Virginia Tech hired a rising star in Justin Fuente. Chris Peterson was hired at Washington as the Pac-12's big fish.
It is the Big 10 who has upgraded their coaching staffs the most over the past few seasons, however. Penn State hired James Franklin from the SEC. Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh straight from the NFL ranks. Minnesota and Purdue hired young stars in P.J. Fleck and Jeff Brohm respectively.
Over the past five seasons, the SEC has hired no coach that can match any of these hires by Power 5 foes.
A huge problem has been the lack of offense for the Southeastern Conference. This includes offensive coordinator hires and development of quarterbacks. Halfway through this season, out of 129 teams, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina are all below 100th nationally in yards per game. LSU and Arkansas join them in the bottom half.
Alabama is the only team in the Top 25 of yards per game nationally. This is a trend that has been going on for more than just this season as well. Texas A&M was the only team to finish in the Top 25 last season in total offense, and the Aggies barely squeaked in at No. 24.
Many offensive coordinator hires are at fault for this type of offense across the conference. Doug Nussmeier has been a disaster at Florida. The Gators have failed to find an even average quarterback and have finished 111th and 116th during his first two seasons on the job.
It took the Gators over seven quarters to score an offensive touchdown this year. Muschamp was fired from Florida for his inept offenses, yet he hired his former coordinator from Florida in Kurt Roper at South Carolina.
For years, LSU’s offense has been like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. With Les Miles, Cam Cameron did nothing to jump start an ancient Tigers offense.
In College Station, Kevin Sumlin and former offensive coordinator Jake Spavital ran three highly-recruited quarterbacks out within a year span in Aggieland.
The SEC has had very few star players outside of Alabama since Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. Manziel is the only player not from Alabama to finish in the top five in Heisman voting since 2012. Dak Prescott was a generational talent at Mississippi State, but the conference has lacked stars in recent years besides him.
The problem with the SEC is clearly not talent, as the conference still dominates National Signing Day each year. It is the ineffectiveness of head coaching hires. Athletic directors and administrators have settled on hires that have set the conference back. They have given coaches too much power with their contracts and it has created a monster that the SEC may not be able to overcome anytime soon.
Saban and Malzahn are the only two current head coaches to have won a SEC conference championship. McElwain is the only other coach who has even played for the conference title. It looks like Smart, Malzahn and especially Saban are the only coaches who can win a SEC title in the foreseeable future.
The SEC got away from its blueprint of hiring dominant coaches on the field, and it has hurt them tremendously. It's time for athletic directors and administrators to shell out their efforts for the sideline talents of years past. It's not a far-fetched concept for the conference with the most pagentry in college football, considering that outside of Auburn, Alabama and Georgia, every other team in the SEC is regressing.