How the SEC lost its edge on the rest of college football

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When once-mighty and always-talented LSU couldn’t manage to take a lead on the Troy Trojans of the Sun Belt for even one second Saturday night, it was the ultimate example of how the Southeastern Conference has abdicated its throne atop college football. Dynasties don’t last forever, but the SEC was positioned to remain in power after its historic run of seven straight national championships from 2006-12.

The league had advantages in geography, demographics and tradition. It had financial commitment, building every conceivable facility and overpaying every coordinator. And it had Nick Saban (21).

Today it still has all those things, but the achievements have dwindled outside of Tuscaloosa.

What happened? A few things, but primarily this: The SEC has become a mediocre coaching league, while other conferences (primarily the Big Ten) have hit home runs.

The SEC hasn’t landed a top-tier coach in some time now. It must no longer mean more to the league’s schools. (AP)
The SEC hasn’t landed a top-tier coach in some time now. It must no longer mean more to the league’s schools. (AP)

Look at the four teams currently atop the Big Ten, and look at where they got their coaches. Ohio State landed a two-time national champion in Urban Meyer, off a one-year hiatus from coaching. Michigan wooed Jim Harbaugh, who had taken Stanford to new heights and the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Penn State and Wisconsin both grabbed coaches from other Power Five schools: James Franklin from Vanderbilt and Paul Chryst from Pittsburgh.

They went big. And they went smart.

Were there some fortunate built-in advantages? Sure. Harbaugh and Chryst returned to their alma maters. Meyer is an Ohio native and Franklin was born in Pennsylvania. But there also was a willingness to go get the best available coaches (or, in Wisconsin’s case, a promising coach with deep ties to the program). And the schools all had their acts sufficiently together to present a compelling landing spot.

The most established coach the SEC has hired in the last 10 years was Bret Bielema (22) at Arkansas in 2012. In fact, he’s the only active Power Five hire the league has made since Ole Miss took embattled Houston Nutt off Arkansas’ hands in 2008. Bielema was coming off three straight Rose Bowl appearances at Wisconsin, but that success has been lost in translation. Even wiping a 3-9 debut season off the books (it was a thankless task), he’s 10-15 in SEC play and 2-3 in non-conference games against Power Five competition. But Arkansas also is a tougher job than most of its fans care to admit.

Among the other hires? Gene Chizik (23) was a bust at Iowa State who – somehow, some way, gosh how did it happen – signed Cam Newton at Auburn, won a national title and quickly busted again without him. Chizik’s career record: 38-38. Chizik’s career record without Cam: 24-38.

Mississippi hired pious scammer Hugh Freeze (24) who – somehow, some way, gosh how did it happen – brought in a breakthrough recruiting class in 2013 and now is unemployed and facing major NCAA sanctions. He left behind two upsets of Alabama, a few hundred pages of NCAA documents and some phone records that will make your hair stand up.

Florida replaced Meyer with career assistant Will Muschamp (25), who lasted four seasons, losing to Georgia Southern along the way. That was good enough for South Carolina, which scooped up Muschamp on the rebound in 2015. Coach Boom is 21-22 in SEC play.

Florida replaced Muschamp with Jim McElwain (26), who came from Colorado State. McElwain has done well while dealing with annual personnel issues (suspensions, injuries). He has not made anyone forget Meyer or Steve Spurrier, and an offense-first guy has failed to enliven that side of the ball.

Tennessee whiffed on Charlie Strong and got Butch Jones (27), who actually looks good compared to the atrocious hire of predecessor Derek Dooley and the naïve hire of Dooley’s predecessor, Lane Kiffin. He does not look good compared to Phil Fulmer, Johnny Majors, Bill Battle, Doug Dickey, Bowden Wyatt or Robert Neyland.

Texas A&M landed Kevin Sumlin (28) from Houston, watched him catch lightning in a Johnny Manziel bottle, got carried away and gave him a ludicrous contract that throws massive buyout leverage to the coach. After three straight 8-5 seasons, the buyer’s remorse is heavy in College Station. If the Aggies want to part ways with Sumlin after this season, it reportedly will cost them $11 million – and it all has to be paid within 60 days of his termination.

And then LSU got rid of Les Miles and his SEC titles and national title to promote Ed Orgeron (29), setting the new gold standard for hiring malpractice.

National champion head coaches aren’t all cut from the same cloth. Bob Stoops and Dabo Swinney were career assistants before they took over at Oklahoma and Clemson, respectively. Pete Carroll was an NFL flunkout before USC. Jim Tressel made the leap from Youngstown State to Ohio State.

But here’s what you should know about the last four SEC coaches to win national titles: They all came into the league with a level of experience that suggested they were up for the job. Saban went from Michigan State to LSU; Miles went from Oklahoma State to LSU; Meyer had an undefeated, top-five team at Utah before Florida; even Chizik had cut his teeth in the Big 12. Of the current 13 coaches not named Nick Saban, none arrived with comparable credentials.

The current SEC cast of coaches has a combined 2-32 record against Saban. They not only aren’t on his level, they aren’t close.


Under David Shaw, Stanford (30) has always loved to run the ball. But five games into the season, it has never run it at the Cardinal’s current level of explosiveness.

Behind the remarkable Bryce Love, Stanford leads the nation in most runs of 20 or more yards (22), 30 or more yards (16), 40 or more (11) and 50 or more (eight). At present the Cardinal are averaging a preposterous 8.42 yards per carry, which would break the NCAA record of 7.64 set by Army in 1945.

Of course, maintaining that average is highly unlikely with some of the defenses Stanford will face the rest of the way. The biggest challenge might be the next challenge: at Utah on Saturday. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in fewest yards allowed per carry at 2.66. That alone will be reason to keep an eye on that game.

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