As bowl season gets underway, we look back at the year that was in 2013. As usual, the year of SEC football was full of fascinating headlines and incredible moments.
Mike Slive: Rising
Mr. Slive, the Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference has overseen two massive developments recently in conference expansion and a dedicated conference television network. 2013 saw the validation and fruition of both of these developments.
First, with two football seasons in the books with SEC newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri, we’ve seen a Heisman Trophy and a divisional championship from these teams. Texas A&M’s rise with Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel is well documented, and 2013 saw the rise of Missouri to the forefront of the SEC in its second year in the conference. Conference expansion watering down the league? 2013 crushed that notion.
Earlier this year, ESPN announced the SEC Network which will begin airing in August of 2014. With 14 teams in place, more distribution of football games was a logical, next step. The SEC Network will air games each week during the season and provide a plethora of other programming related to SEC football and other sports. Just this week, it was announced that Tim Tebow will be an analyst on the network. ESPN is investing heavily in this network and rightfully so. The network will be a success and provide increased revenues to the SEC member schools.
It was a good year for Mike Slive.
SEC East: Falling
Let’s get into some actual football. It was not a good year for the SEC East. While Florida crumbled and Georgia got decimated by injuries, Missouri stepped into the limelight and delivered a remarkable season. Despite the positives surrounding Missouri, the East needs its traditional powers to be competitive and healthy. This doesn’t mean the East needs Florida to be dominant, but having Georgia, Tennessee and Florida all losing 4 plus games is not acceptable. With the losses at quarterback heading into 2014, the East will continue to be a question mark.
SEC West: Rising
We knew the West would be good, but we discussed at the start of the season that the gap between the two divisions would likely narrow in 2013. Quite the opposite. With Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M being strong, nobody predicted Auburn to rise and win the division. With Auburn now back firmly in place as a regular competitor for the SEC West, the SEC West will continue to be the toughest division in college football, and it’s not even close.
Mainstream Sports Media: Falling
The mainstream sports media has been in decline for years now with the proliferation of page view web content, television shows such as ESPN’s First Take, and 24/7 coverage on topics like Tim Tebow, but 2013 saw a complete embarrassment during the summer offseason. The convergence of TMZ-like coverage and a slow offseason led all major media outlets to run non-stop, ridiculous coverage of Johnny Manziel. Essentially, Manziel farting on a Tuesday would lead SportsCenter. The apex of the hysteria was SEC Media Days in July when the media prepared to pounce on Manziel and make him pay for his transgressions. It was a complete joke (you can read my report on this here).
Johnny Manziel didn’t accomplish everything he wanted to in 2013, but he definitely did his thing on the field of play. He’s likely to be a first round draft pick in the NFL Draft in just a few months. Manziel continued his career in 2013. The media reached a new low.
I thought the SEC was a defensive league? It sure didn’t look like it in 2013. In September we saw shoot-outs between powers like Alabama-Texas A&M and LSU-Georgia. Over the course of a few months, defenses had their moments, but overall, offenses embarrassed defensive coordinators throughout the season. Of course, it all culminated in the shoot-out between Auburn and Missouri in Atlanta a month ago.
What does it mean? Is the days of winning championships with defense gone? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are indeed trends firmly in place where offenses are evolving and more coaches are putting an emphasis on this side of the ball. Teams have absolutely bought into the up-tempo trend and are incorporating spread attacks into their offenses. This is evidenced not just in Missouri and Auburn winning the SEC divisions, but also the capitulation of Will Muschamp on offense and even recent news of Nick Saban bringing in Lane Kiffin recently to consult about the future of Alabama’s offense. It’s also worth looking at which coaches are getting raises. Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn are now both making some of the highest salaries in the SEC as offense-first head coaches.
The SEC will lose massive talent at the quarterback position before the 2014 season, so I wouldn’t expect the dominance of the offensive side of the ball that we saw this year next season, but the focus on offense will remain.
Bob Stoops wanted us to believe all summer that the bottom of the SEC (predicted to be teams like Auburn and Missouri) were terrible and were worse than teams like Kansas and other average Big 12 teams. Well, that didn’t work out very well.
The Iron Bowl (and other games) reminded us just how hard it is to dominate the SEC and win multiple championships over the course of several seasons. Nobody predicted Auburn vs Missouri in the SEC Championship, and it’s a reminder of the parity in this league. Alabama will still be favored by many to win basically everything as we move forward, but it’s a reminder that nothing is guaranteed in the SEC. Winning is hard. Winning championships year after year is nearly impossible.
The State of Alabama: Rising
Two of the top teams in all of college football both reside in the state of Alabama. Alabama and Auburn have won 4 of the last 5 SEC West championships, and even more impressive, THE LAST FOUR BCS CHAMPIONSHIPS. If Auburn beats Florida State, the last 5 BCS Championships will have been won by either Auburn or Alabama! That’s preposterous!
Guess what? Auburn and Alabama will absolutely be in the mix each year with Saban and Malzahn. Can you say Iron Bowl? Wow, that rivalry is going to be great in the years ahead.
We’ve heard it many times in recent years, but the quarterback is becoming more and more important to the game of football both in the NFL and yes, also in college football. Getting quality play at quarterback is crucial for success in the SEC. Contenders like South Carolina, Missouri, Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M all had top notch quarterback play. Teams like Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas were sorely lacking at the QB position.
It’s worth noting that while the quarterback continues to be hugely important, it can look differently in different systems. Nick Marshall can be elite while only throwing 10 times a game in Gus Malzahn’s system. Aaron Murray can throw 40 times and be elite. Either way, to win in the SEC, you need a quarterback that the coach trusts to effectively lead the offensive system that is in place. If you can’t say that about your team, you’re likely to struggle.
The SEC: Rising
As the SEC contends for its 8th straight BCS Championship, you might consider that the SEC is nearing the end of its golden run. Far from it. The SEC continues to set itself up for prolonged success.
Strategically, Slive has made excellent moves in adding Missouri and Texas A&M. Consider the alternative: The Big Ten is adding Rutgers and Maryland. Cue the Big Ten jokes. The upcoming SEC Network will be an incredible asset for the conference fueling revenue and increasing the stature of the conference.
The SEC has locked up future success by locking a number of high profile coaches in place. Nick Saban has re-signed with Alabama. Gus Malzahn’s future at Auburn looks bright. Kevin Sumlin is staying at Texas A&M. Mainstays like Les Miles and Steve Spurrier continue to do their thing. Georgia will never fire Mark Richt. Maintaining a crop of elite coaches across the SEC ensures the trend of dominant football programs will continue.
And, of course, recruiting continues to fuel the talent gap between the SEC and other conferences. 8 SEC teams make up the top 15 classes thus far for the 2014 recruiting class rankings according to 247Sports. We continue to see athletes across the country either desire to play for top SEC programs or play against top SEC programs.
As the college football world transitions to a new playoff system in 2014, you can bet your mortgage that the SEC will be firmly in the mix in the years ahead winning their fair share of national championships. The state of the SEC remains strong heading into 2014.