Most egregious SEC fails of 2015
With just hours remaining in the year 2015, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect back on all the ways that the SEC disappointed us.
Sure, Alabama is in the College Football Playoff. Positives existed. But as we reflected back on the year, there were a ton of notable SEC failures.
Here are the 10 biggest:
1. Vandy’s social media snafu
With a long-standing rape case involving former Vanderbilt football players in progress, the Commodores put out a tweet meant to fire up the fan base as the season approached.
It’s a shame that the sports information employee did not consult a second pair of eyes and get dissuaded. As innocent as it was meant to be, the tweet from Vanderbilt’s official football account missed the big picture.
“We are RELENTLESS, TOUGH AND INTELLIGENT, and …” the tweet read. Corny football-speak, perhaps, but not offensive. The part that came next sent the Twitter mafia into a tizzy, though — a picture with the quote “We Don’t Need Your Permission” that was attributed to coach Derek Mason.
Given the pending rape trial, it was as insensitive as it gets.
Vandy, you're supposed to be smarter than this. pic.twitter.com/NhGljnbrgY
— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) August 6, 2015
The smartest team in the conference pulled off the dumbest SEC fail of 2015.
The Commodores apologized profusely, but it didn’t take long for a maelstrom of anger and venom to point toward Nashville.
And because we can rarely pick on the geniuses at Vandy for doing dumb stuff, we had a little fun at their expense, as well. There’s a bunch of “If Vandy Ran Twitter” memes we created. They’re all here, but here’s one.
2. Texas A&M’s handling of QBs
The Aggies lost three touted starting quarterbacks to transfers in the 2015 calendar year.
First, Kenny Hill asked for his release in early January and headed to TCU. That wasn’t a great surprise. A Heisman candidate early in the 2014 season, he’d lost his job to Kyle Allen at midseason while reportedly dealing with some off-field issues.
With Kyler Murray committed as part of the 2015 recruiting class, something had to give. There was not going to be three big-time quarterbacks, two of them Texas-bred, in College Station.
Allen and Murray went head-to-head in fall practice, and although the sophomore entered the season as the starter, there never was a clear distinction. The true freshman got a surprising amount of playing time in the season opener against Arizona State.
During the season, glimpses of in-fighting emerged, as tension developed among offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, the other offensive staff and the quarterbacks.
Another transfer at quarterback widely was expected. Allen is a highly-emotional player, breaking into tears when he lost the competition to Hill prior to the 2014 season. Murray is a pampered superstar athlete almost like Vince Young, who isn’t used to being told no or being anything other than the best player. Most thought it would become a “two man enter, one man leaves” situation at some point.
Now Texas A&M is left with former JUCO player Jake Hubenak as the only scholarship quarterback on the roster. And coach Kevin Sumlin enters 2016 as one of the coaches most at risk of losing his job.
We’ve only gotten glimpses of what took place behind the College Station curtain. All three players left due to different circumstances.
But if you’re an Air Raid-based coach who built his reputation on a high-flying offense, you’d better be able to retain and develop at least one good quarterback. Sumlin has failed to do that since Johnny Manziel left for the NFL — despite multiple good opportunities.
3. Auburn’s entire year
The win against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl was nice.
That’s not normally a sentence that gets attached to the preseason SEC favorite. An unsarcastic congratulations for defeating a four-loss American Athletic Conference team.
- Jeremy Johnson, billed as the SEC’s top Heisman Trophy candidate before the season, threw six interceptions in the first three games, then got benched.
- Carl Lawson returned from a torn ACL, only to get hurt in the season opener and miss a chunk of the season.
- D’haquille Williams, at one time considered the top receiver prospect in the 2016 NFL draft class, got kicked off the team.
- Jovon Robinson, the electric JUCO signee, ran the ball four times before Halloween.
- “Defensive savior” Will Muschamp wasn’t an immediate fix, as Auburn finished 11th in scoring defense.
- Muschamp then left for South Carolina, and the team struggled to secure a replacement before paying Kevin Steele $1.4 million to come over from LSU. Linebackers coach Lance Thompson, presumably upset after being passed over for that job.
Malzahn just two years ago was being heralded as the man who finally would challenge coach Nick Saban in the SEC West, an “offensive genius” with the capacity to become one of the nation’s best coaches.
Now he’ll enter 2016 perhaps with his job on jeopardy. The preseason conference favorites finished the year 7-6 thanks to a strong bowl performance, but another Birmingham postseason appearance probably won’t be good enough for Malzahn.
4. Will Grier’s weight gain
Florida fired Will Muschamp mostly because he couldn’t develop a quarterback.
So when redshirt freshman Will Grier showed up to fall practice at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Gators fans went into a tizzy.
Depending on which reports you believe, Grier added about 25 pounds of muscle between the end of the 2014 season and this year’s fall practice. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he arrived in Gainesville weighing as little as 172 pounds as an early enrollee at the beginning of 2014.
So when photos emerged of a cut-up Grier, no longer looking like a beanpole, the fan base got excited.
— Chad Grier (@ChadGrier_) July 30, 2015
It turns out there was a reason for the weight gain, other than a few extra peanut butter sandwiches. Grier tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. That misstep, which he blamed on an over-the-counter supplement, earned him a one-year NCAA suspension.
Florida’s offense hit the skids soon after, with Treon Harris falling off following a strong first game at LSU. For his part, Grier essentially dropped out of the program as soon as he lost his appeal and eventually announced that he’d transfer.
5. LSU’s handling of the Les Miles decision
In three weeks, LSU went from an unbeaten College Football Playoff contender to unranked. Leonard Fournette went from a near-lock to win the Heisman Trophy to second-best at his position in the SEC. Most notably, Les Miles, “The Mad Hatter,” became a target of an awkward coup attempt.
With a buyout of $15 million-plus, and a record at the time of 110-32 with the Tigers, it didn’t seem logical that the school would jettison Miles after a three-loss season.
Then the media leaks began, suggesting that assumption was no good. LSU’s boosters agreed to pay the money, if necessary. It almost felt like someone, or multiple someones, were sending test balloons into the Baton Rouge atmosphere to detect a reaction from the fan base. Would the mob be OK if the Tigers offed Miles?
More reports surfaced to indicate that LSU intended to replace, or at least attempt to replace, Miles with Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. The FSU head man made it known publicly he wasn’t interested.
By the time LSU faced Texas A&M in the regular-season finale, it still seemed like a strong possibility that it was Miles’ last game with the program. But the fans chanted his name, clearly supporting their embattled coach. And LSU won. And that darned buyout did not look prudent.
Miles will return, at least for 2016. But LSU’s athletic department sure did let him flounder in jeopardy for a period of time.
It would be “a lot of fun for me to know” who leaked news of his imminent firing to the media, Miles said earlier this month. The LSU power circle looked pretty silly here.
6. A “re-energized” Steve Spurrier
After calmly handling questions about his eventual retirement all offseason, an Atlanta columnist seemed to set off Steve Spurrier not long after the conclusion of SEC Media Days.
Spurrier called an impromptu press conference on July 22 with a clear, aggressive message.
"We got some enemies out there. They're talking negatively about me and South Carolina and I'm sick of it." -Steve Spurrier
— Saturday Down South (@SDS) July 22, 2015
Admittedly, part of this came out of necessity. After the end of the 2014 regular season, Spurrier had openly pondered when he’d retire. Opposing teams leveraged that in recruiting, making it very difficult on the Gamecocks to secure high school talent.
Spurrier intended a show of strength to gain back some confidence in those recruiting targets, and he also seemed unable to stand falling from back-to-back-to-back 11-win seasons to barely making a bowl game.
Still, he almost belittled anyone who dared to suggest he’d lost his fastball or that his retirement was near. At Media Days, he insisted that beating Miami in the Independence Bowl rejuvenated him.
Then, after a 2-4 start, including four SEC losses, Spurrier abruptly resigned. So much for being “re-energized.” But we’ll miss the most colorful quote the SEC has ever seen.
7. Butch Jones’ fourth-quarter play-calling
Tennessee lost four games during the regular season, and had an opportunity to win each of those in the second half. But, thanks to ill-advised timeouts and overly conservative play-calling, Team 119 gave away second-half lead after second-half lead.
UT led Oklahoma, 17-3, at halftime. Coach Butch Jones appeared intent on milking those 17 points until the end of regulation rather than remaining aggressive. Instead, OU scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and won in overtime.
Against Florida, Jones called a pair of timeouts when the Gators lined up to try a field goal with a shaky kicking game, only to see coach Jim McElwain then send his offense onto the field and convert first downs. Then, with 10:19 left, Tennessee scored to seize a 26-14 lead. But instead of attempting a two-point conversion to go up two touchdowns, the Vols kicked an extra point, eventually losing 28-27.
Analysts shredded Jones and fans were livid. In some respects, the coach is lucky that after playing Alabama tough, the schedule weakened and he closed the season on a nice run. Otherwise he’d be facing a slew of offseason criticism. (Instead, Jones got a hefty pay raise.)
Still, with four losses by a combined 17 points — one of those by a touchdown in overtime — it’s fair to ask “what if” regarding this team.
8. The Nkemdiche brothers’ December
It was supposed to be a coronation. Robert and Denzel Nkemdiche have been a big part of the Ole Miss Rebels’ uprising in the last three years.
Instead, it was equal parts embarrassing, bizarre and worrisome.
Denzel, a linebacker at Ole Miss, twice was hospitalized near the end of 2015 — for multi-day stays, supposedly after being found unresponsive. Robert, a potential early first-round pick in the NFL draft, climbed out of a hotel window, went over a wall and fell about 15 feet. Authorities found marijuana in his room.
Both players are off the team as the Rebels prepare for the Sugar Bowl, which is a celebration of sorts for the famed class of 2013.
Robert Nkemdiche still could have a lucrative future in football. But the multiple drug-related incidents in such a short span for these brothers seems like cause for concern.
9. Dak Prescott’s spring break plans
The Mississippi State quarterback and some of his teammates followed a time-honored tradition of college students in the Southeast, flocking to Panama City, Fla., for spring break.
If Prescott doesn’t regret the destination, surely he regrets the events that took place. One afternoon in a parking lot, following murky circumstances, a group of men attacked Prescott and the Bulldogs players. Videos show the quarterback being punched and kicked in the head.
He emerged woozy and unhurt, but the entire scene was disturbing and could’ve ended much worse. He does have a one-inch scar near his right eye, one that will be a daily reminder of what happened.
“I get to wake up and look in the mirror to that every day and I’m not ashamed of it,” Prescott said during the summer at the 2015 SEC Media Days.
“I hope other athletes across the country noticed, saw (the attack) and are learning from it as well. But we live in a different time of day. Everybody wants to be successful. Some are jealous of the ones who are successful and do what it takes to take them down or to be maybe be successful themselves.”
— Brooks Roberts (@BrooksR_BSR) March 10, 2015
10. South Carolina vs. The Citadel
Not even Vanderbilt has license to lose to an FCS school. It appeared that interim coach Shawn Elliott and the Gamecocks would escape the embarrassment when Pharoh Cooper corralled a 94-yard touchdown with 44 seconds left, a near-miracle. But a false start nullified the play.
The Citadel won, 23-22.
A bunch of in-state players that South Carolina didn’t even want beat them soundly, racking up 350 rushing yards.
“They out-coached us. They out-classed us,” Elliott said after the game. “We’ve got to do something.”
Steve Spurrier, you were pretty smart to avoid this fate and bail on the dumpster fire before it really got hot.
HONORARY MENTION: SEC QBs
Here’s the obligatory acknowledgement: Brandon Allen, Chad Kelly and Dak Prescott were pretty good in 2015. Joshua Dobbs and Jake Coker were respectable.
But, on the whole, the SEC quarterbacks were shaky, inconsistent and rotten this season.
Preseason Heisman “contender” Jeremy Johnson? Benched after three games. Maty Mauk, the veteran? Suspended. Will Grier, the young standout? Suspended. Kyle Allen, Patrick Towles, Grayson Lambert, even Coker? All benched. That’s just a few of the highlights.
More schools than not legitimately changed starters at least once. Five SEC players who started at least one game at the position announced after the season that they’ll transfer:
- Kyle Allen, Texas A&M
- Kyler Murray, Texas A&M
- Patrick Towles, Kentucky
- Faton Bauta, Georgia
- Will Grier, Florida
The biggest stars played in the state of Mississippi. The East Division quarterbacks were atrocious. But hey, at least on paper, the 2016 SEC quarterback class is as exciting as any.