SEC FOOTBALL

Five things that have changed dramatically in the SEC


Published: Friday, August 23, 2013 at 6:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 9:21 p.m.

No matter how hard you grip it, you can't hold on. A college football season is a fleeting thing, speeding past you like Usain Bolt on Red Bull. Every year, we all try to slow down and appreciate it, but it's always gone too soon.

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Florida's Teddy Sims sacks LSU quarterback Josh Booty during the Gators' win in Baton Rouge, La., in 1999. LSU lost at home 29 times between 1990 and 1999. (File)

And when the seasons start piling up one after another, stuff happens. Sometimes, it's subtle. Sometimes, it's a smack in the face.

And as we sit here waiting for it to become reality next week, we try to remind ourselves to stop and smell the drama.

Because before you know it, everything has changed.

For example, in the SEC, things weren't always this way, the way you know it now. And it makes me stop and reflect, to look back and ask the age old question, “Wha' happened?”

How did we get here? Sounds like a job for … Dr. Football.

You have questions, I have answers and some of them even make sense.

1. How did LSU get so tough at home?

Ah, one of my favorite myths of the 1980s and '90s was that Tiger Stadium was one of the toughest places to play. In truth, it wasn't that difficult to win there.

From 1980-89, LSU lost 19 home games. From 1990-99, the fans who streamed into Death Valley saw LSU lose 29 times. During those two decades, LSU lost at least three home games 10 times.

And here is where it gets rough for LSU fans — they can thank Nick Saban for making Baton Rouge a place opposing football teams didn't want to visit. Saban's teams lost only five home games in five years (overcoming a 2003 loss to Florida to go on and win a national title).

Les Miles has kept it going with only six losses at home in eight seasons.

And do you know why these two coaches have made it so difficult to go to Tiger Stadium and win a game? They got better players.

I asked Phil Fulmer once why The Swamp was such a difficult place to play and he said, “Because Florida's got very good players.”

The bottom line — your stadium is only as effective as the talent you have.

2. How did Tennessee get so bad?

It was only 2007 when the Vols were good enough to win the SEC East and win 10 games. In the five years since, the Vols are 12-27 in the SEC and six games under .500 overall.

Wha' happened?

The obvious answer is coaching. Fulmer's talent level was on the decline in his last couple of years and the hiring of Lane Kiffin was a colossal mistake on so many levels. His only recruiting class was ranked in the top 10, but it was a classic washout with many of the players transferring to other schools.

When Kiffin left the Vols in a lurch, they made another mistake in hiring Derek Dooley after being turned down by so many coaches. Dooley was one of the unluckiest coaches I've ever seen and that was demonstrated by his first season when Tennessee beat LSU and North Carolina, yet somehow lost to both teams when time was put back on the clocks.

Who knows how it might have been different if Tennessee had won those games, but it's more than just bad luck. With Nick Saban at Alabama and Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, Tennessee started losing recruits it used to get. The Vols can't count on their home state for a big chunk of recruiting the way other SEC schools can.

We'll see if coach Butch Jones can turn it around, but it's not going to happen right away with that talent.

3. How did Alabama become so dominant?

It's a pretty simple answer. The perfect storm of Alabama's brand and Saban's ability to coach has been hard to beat.

Don't forget that his first team went 7-6 and lost to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season. It took Saban a year to get the players to buy in and implement “the process” for building a team. Since that first year, Alabama is 61-7.

Now, it's a vicious cycle. Alabama wins, puts a bunch of players into the NFL and recruits want to be part of it. This is not a run that is going to end soon. Sure, the Tide may lose on occasion, but Saban is the opposite of Derek Dooley — when he does lose, things seem to work out for Alabama. Witness the last two seasons when Bama has lost late in the season and still played for (and won) a national title.

4. How did Auburn get so bad so fast?

We've seen in college football how important a quarterback can be to a season whether it be Tim Tebow or Johnny Manziel. Cam Newton was all that for Auburn and he had Nick Fairley on the other side of the ball having the same kind of effect on players who managed to play above their skill levels.

But Auburn only had one year of Newton, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left and the Tigers tried to run a conventional offense without the talent to overpower people. The result was last year's winless SEC season and the dismissal of coach Gene Chizik.

That was a team that had a lot of quit in them and if you don't have leadership on the field, it had better come from your coach. It didn't and Auburn has a lot of catching up to do.

5. How did Vanderbilt get good?

A lot of credit needs to go to coach Bobby Johnson, who had the program to the point where it was competitive. He left behind players who could play in the SEC and coach James Franklin has given them an edge.

The question still remains — can the Commodores maintain the success of last year when they won nine games?

We're about to find out.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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