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On Changes in SEC Competition February 8, 2019

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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They say that a college football team’s potential for high rankings and even playoff contention is predicated on the ranking of its recruiting classes.  Alabama’s persistently top-ranked recruiting classes seem to demonstrate this.  Yet while some things remain the same, others seem to be changing.

For several years, the SEC appeared to consist of Alabama and everybody else.  The Crimson Tide had Nick Saban, who has proven to be the best college head coach in the business, while almost all other programs in the conference – with some exceptions – having been led by glorified gym teachers.

That now seems to be changing.  Kirby Smart at Georgia, for example, has proven to be a most capable Saban protégé.  He learned Saban’s modus operandi while defensive coordinator at Alabama, and the Bulldogs’ performance for the past two seasons shows that he has successfully transplanted a critical percentage of this erstwhile master’s methodologies into Athens.  Indeed, the 2017-2018 season culminated with Georgia playing Alabama for the national title.  At the send of the 2018 season, the Bulldogs once again played the Tide down to the wire during the SEC championship game.

While Georgia has emerged as Alabama’s toughest competition for conference supremacy, other intra-conference competition now gradually emerges, too.  Take Florida, for example.  Dan Mullen is such a skillful coach that his previous program, Mississippi State, was briefly the number one team in the country back in 2014 (Dak Prescott sure helped with that, to be sure).  Now, with far more resources at his disposal, he has brought the Gators back to strength.  Their 41-15 trouncing of a solid, Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan team in the Peach Bowl has demonstrated this.  Both Georgia and Alabama ought to be on notice that there is a new up-and-comer on the block.

As things currently stand, Alabama has the top-ranked freshman recruiting class for 2019, and Georgia is right behind them at No. 2.  But Florida is now at No. 9 (up from No. 17 the previous year), and their on-the-field improvement was clearly noticeable in the aforementioned Peach Bowl.  With such a bump in the recruiting rankings, one can only imagine how highly their team rankings could improve come the Fall.

While Georgia needs to start looking over its shoulder at SEC East and border rival Florida, in the west, the competitive pressure is intensifies for Saban and Bama.  Texas A&M caught lightning in a bottle with Johnny Manziel under the leadership of Kevin Sumlin (who went 51-26, not bad for an overall average program).  While it remains my contention that Aggie Nation was a collective fool in jettisoning Coach Sumlin just a few years post-Manziel, they nevertheless seem to have upgraded with Jimbo Fisher, who previously had revived Florida State.  Fisher did not disappoint in his first year (2018), going 9-4, winning the Gator Bowl (52-13 over NC State…ouch!), and finishing the year at No. 16.

Further improvement for the Aggies seems imminent.  Last year, they finished at No. 16 in the recruiting rankings, but this year have risen to No. 4.  Nick Saban’s dominance of the SEC West is about to become considerably more difficult.

It gets no easier from there.  Just behind A&M (who, again, is No. 4) in the recruiting rankings at No. 5 is SEC West rival LSU.  All head coach Ed Orgeron needs is a more creative offense, and they could very well contend with the Tide for divisional supremacy.  Until he does, Orgeron might still merit the “gym teacher” category placement.

One other proven coach of note is Mark Stoops at Kentucky.  A program at considerable disadvantages compared to other SEC programs not named Missouri, Stoops has built the Wildcats up to their strongest level since the Fran Curci era.  Barring some major scandal, he shall have done so through considerably more ethical means at that!  His 2018 recruiting class was only at No. 30, and this year at No. 34.  Yet the Wildcats finished the 2018 season at 10-3, including a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl, and with a ranking at No. 11.  Mark Stoops thus deserves a serious award for the SEC coach to have done the most with the least.

Yes, the SEC still has its fair share of “gym teachers”, but there are others who are clearly talented and have what it takes to seriously threaten Saban’s legendary dynasty.

Look out for Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, and possibly LSU as they look to start campaigns that should make for a very interesting 2019 season in SEC football.

 

 

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