FPeak SEC occurred in late-October 2014.
When the College Football Playoff committee unveiled its inaugural midseason rankings, the league claimed four of the top six teams in the country: No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 3 Auburn, No. 4 Ole Miss, and No. 6 Alabama. At 6-1, No. 11 Georgia was within striking distance of a Playoff bid as well.
If anything, this was underselling the league’s strength. Using the current method of S&P+ calculation, the SEC boasted the top four teams in the country at the time (in order: Alabama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State) and six of the top 10. Ole Miss was peaking under Hugh Freeze, Mississippi State was doing the same under Dan Mullen, Auburn was 18-3 under Gus Malzahn, and Georgia had rebounded from an injury-plagued 2013.
In addition, South Carolina and Missouri were not even a year removed from their peaks under Steve Spurrier and Gary Pinkel, and Arkansas was readying a nearly perfect 2014 stretch run under Bret Bielema.
At this moment, the SEC’s visions of grandeur were affirmed. The league had been college football’s best for five seasons — not because it was winning national titles but because it was producing the most awesome teams — but surges from the Mississippi schools had pushed it into a different stratosphere.
A peak, however, means you’re about to start falling.
Ole Miss, Auburn, and Mississippi State faded drastically in 2014. Georgia and Arkansas regressed in 2015 while Missouri, South Carolina, and Auburn collapsed.
And this fall, per S&P+, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State, and South Carolina are fielding their worst teams in at least five years. Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mizzou are fielding their second-worst.
SEC S&P+ ratings per year
Depending on your definition, the SEC might or might not still be the best conference in the country in 2016. But at best, it is narrowly ahead of the field.
With a decent bowl season, the SEC might end up with the top S&P+ average in the country. It would be the eighth straight year. The last time a conference other than the SEC ranked first was 2008, when the Big 12 did it. Back then, the ACC was barely better than the Mountain West. Fortunes change, but the SEC’s has stayed mostly the same.
Still, this is the worst SEC since probably 2005, and that’s with maybe the best Alabama team of Nick Saban’s tenure. The ACC could end up first.
But the real story of 2016 is conference parity. The top four conferences are closer together than they’ve been in quite a while.
The league is still good, but on average, it has given away about a touchdown per game since 2014. League average S&P+ was 14.5 two years ago and 7.5 now. Alabama is the obvious stalwart, LSU is fine, and Auburn and Texas A&M have rebounded this fall. Plus, Kentucky and Vanderbilt have improved a bit. But over these last five seasons, six programs peaked in 2014 and two more peaked in 2013. That’s half the league looking at yesteryear.
So what happened?
There was some bad luck, sure. In 2016, Tennessee and Ole Miss got waylaid by injuries, turning disappointing seasons into debilitating ones. Teams like Georgia in 2015 (Nick Chubb) and Ole Miss in 2014 (Laquon Treadwell) and 2016 (Chad Kelly) lost their best players to injury and collapsed.
Turnover at quarterback hasn’t helped. Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt all finished the season starting either a freshman or sophomore behind center, and Auburn did, too, for most of the year.
You could, however, make the case that a lot of the SEC’s issues come from coaching hires. The league was great at it for a while. Now, not so much.
This isn’t a new trend. From a piece I wrote last January:
Success breeds imitation in every industry. In football, when a coach figures out something, hoards of administrators notice. That's how ideas like the wishbone or the spread offense disseminate, and that's how we end up with the beautiful life cycle of ideas.
With Saban, however, teams have attempted to copy without figuring out what they should be copying. They hire his assistants, hoping his influence rubs off. Sometimes it does. Former Alabama DBs coach Jeremy Pruitt became Florida State's defensive coordinator in 2013 and helped to boost the Seminoles to the national title under head coach and fellow former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher. Often, it doesn't. Former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp took the Florida head coaching job three years after a Gator national title and won more than seven games just once.
SEC teams race to collect Saban DNA in the hopes of creating the next Saban in a lab.
Of the league’s current 14 coaches, eight were hired before 2014. Four had won at least 35 games as head coaches when hired, and two (Freeze, Malzahn) had passed short auditions at Arkansas State. The six had combined for a win percentage of 0.689. Only Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops were first-time head coaches.
Of the six current head coaches hired since 2014, three had Saban ties, three were first-timers (Vandy’s Derek Mason, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Missouri’s Barry Odom), and the three with head coaching experience (Florida’s Jim McElwain, Muschamp, LSU’s Ed Orgeron) had combined for a head coaching record of just 66-64 when they took their current jobs. Win percentage: 0.508.
Which group do you think would be more likely to succeed?
Three years into his Vanderbilt tenure, Mason has yet to produce a team at the level of James Franklin’s three VU teams. McElwain’s two-year average is slightly higher than what got Muschamp fired. Smart oversaw a reset at Georgia this fall. Muschamp did go 6-6 in his first year at South Carolina, but it took four one-possession wins and more than 3.5 points of turnover luck per game to offset a No. 93 S&P+ ranking.
Orgeron went 5-2 in his interim audition and nailed his coordinator hires, and his recruiting ability could result in success even if his hire lacked inspiration or creativity. And Odom marginally improved Mizzou on paper in his first season, though the Tigers regressed by one game in the win column.
Maybe these hires will all work out fine.
But despite having all the money in the world, SEC teams have seemingly sacrificed résumés for savings, Saban ties, or both in recent years.
Compare that to what the ACC did in 2016: Miami (Mark Richt, 145-51), Syracuse (Dino Babers, 37-16), Virginia (Bronco Mendenhall, 99-43), and Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente, 26-23) brought in coaches who had combined for 307 career wins and a 0.698 win percentage, 0.709 over the previous two years.
Those were hires the SEC used to make, and depending on your measure, the ACC might have taken the SEC's place atop the power conference totem pole this fall.