Historically, Vanderbilt has made three major contributions to the Southeastern Conference:
* Given it some needed academic heft.
* Increased the self-esteem (and victory totals) of the other football programs.
Last week, the Commodores added a fourth entry: Saving the SEC from its worst all-around athletic year in at least a quarter century.
When Vandy defeated Michigan for the College World Series title, it was only the mighty SEC’s fourth national championship of the 2018-19 academic year. The other three: men’s indoor track (Florida), women’s indoor track (Arkansas) and women’s outdoor track (Arkansas). That’s a pretty meager trophy collection.
A humbling year for the SEC is one of the primary takeaways from our annual Power Five athletic department rankings, which can be found in school-by-school detail here. The math behind the rankings remains the same: An averaging of the last five years of finishes in the Learfield Directors Cup standings, which are the metric favored by the National Association of College Directors of Athletics (NACDA).
Year-over-year, eight SEC schools dropped in the rankings from 2017-18 to ’18-19: Georgia, Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Missouri, Mississippi and Mississippi State. Five of those dropped more than 10 spots: Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Missouri and Ole Miss. Five rose in the rankings: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, with the latter three all enjoying double-digit improvements. Florida, the overall big dog, was the same year-over-year.
Since expanding to 12 teams in 1991-92, the only time the SEC has won fewer than four national titles in a year was 2015-16, when it won three — one of which was football, which of course Just Means More. Only two other times has the SEC won fewer than five championships: 2009-10 and 1994-95.
Vanderbilt saved the league from a couple other ignominious distinctions. First, this would have been the first year since 2004-05 that the SEC didn’t win at least one championship in what generally could be considered the highest-profile sports: football and women’s volleyball in the fall; men’s and women’s basketball in the winter; baseball and softball in the spring. Second, it kept the SEC from having the fewest national titles of any Power Five conference — the Pac-12 won 13, the Atlantic Coast Conference six (including both football and men’s basketball), the Big 12 five, and the Big Ten and SEC tied with four apiece.
Bottom line: In terms of both quantity and quality of national titles, this was a rough year for the SEC — and it fits into a trend of declining prowess in the league that loves to boast about its superiority.
From the expansion to add Arkansas and South Carolina through 2006-07, the SEC averaged 7.1 national championships per year, with a high of 10 in 1998-99. Since then, the average dips to 5.3. Over the last five years, the average is just 4.6.
Are other conferences catching up in areas of traditional SEC strength? Is this a byproduct of football hyper-focus? Is it all simply cyclical? There are more questions than answers at present, and more empty space in SEC trophy cases than usual.
Other takeaways from the rankings:
* The Pac-12 has endured a lot of (deserved) criticism for its revenue sports travails, but it still lives up to its self-proclaimed Conference of Champions moniker in Olympic sports. Seven different schools won national titles: Stanford, UCLA, USC, California, Washington, Colorado and Utah. By itself, Stanford’s six national titles would outrank every conference but the ACC.
* The best-performing non-Power Five athletic department over the past five years (and in 2018-19 specifically) was BYU. The Cougars would have been 33rd in our rankings, between Tennessee and Baylor.
* The best-performing non-FBS athletic department was Princeton. The Tigers would have been 35th, between Virginia Tech and Arizona.
* The best-performing school that plays no football at all was Denver. The Pioneers would have been tied for 45th with Maryland.
* The biggest improver in the five-year cycle was Texas Tech, which jumped up six spots. The Red Raiders had a great 2018-19 while simultaneously subtracting a poor 2013-14 year from the books.
* The biggest decliner in the five-year cycle was Michigan State, which fell five spots. The Spartans lost a big 2013-14 season from the body of work.
* In previous years, there were multiple Power Five athletic programs that were skulking around in triple digits in annual performance. This year, there was only one: Take a bow, Pittsburgh, the new post child for Power Five athletic futility. The Panthers were 137th in 2018-19, dragging their five-year average below previous cellar dweller Washington State.
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