Assigning final grades to all 14 SEC teams in 2015
The 2015 season wasn’t a great one for the SEC from top to bottom. After a record 10 SEC teams were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 early in the season, that number dwindled as low as four.
Alabama, though, has a chance to redeem the conference with two wins in the College Football Playoff.
Before then, we decided to grade all 14 SEC teams prior to bowl season. The results? Mostly average. We assigned Bs or Cs to 10 of the 14 teams, and the Tide received the only A.
Auburn, Missouri and South Carolina? You’re going to have to perform better if you want to pass this class.
The “A” might as well stand for “adapt.” That’s been the key to coach Nick Saban’s consistency at Alabama. In 2015, he hired a defensive backs coach and got smaller and faster at the position, trading lumbering run-stuffing safety Landon Collins for former cornerback Eddie Jackson. One year after hiring Lane Kiffin and injecting some tempo into his offense, it took Saban about four games to realize that he didn’t have a quarterback on the roster capable of winning games like Blake Sims did in 2014, but that his defense suddenly was back to normal. So he leaned hard on the big-bodied Derrick Henry. The Tide’s one loss can be dismissed as a bit of a fluke due to the minus-5 turnover margin and the lucky bobble turned touchdown by Ole Miss receiver Quincy Adeboyejo. Bottom line, most of the nation was ready to discount Alabama as a national championship team. Yet here we are, and the ’15 version of Bama is even better than ’14.
The month of September crushed this team. If you think this grade is a shade harsh, remember that the Razorbacks were a preseason top 25 team and being talked about as a potential dark-horse contender in the SEC West. But Jonathan Williams broke his foot just before the season, and new offensive coordinator Dan Enos went away from the running game a little too much early. Three consecutive losses, including games against Toledo and Texas Tech, gave the team zero room for error the rest of the season, if Arkansas wanted to meet preseason expectations. The comeback against Tennessee was nice, as was outlasting Auburn in four overtimes and shocking Ole Miss with the craziest SEC play of the season to win another overtime game. This team learned how to pull out some close ones. But it very easily could’ve missed a bowl game altogether, thanks to a leaky secondary and an offense that took too many games to find balance.
Having to play at Legion Field in the Birmingham Bowl is in some ways more humiliating for the preseason SEC champions than if the team finished 5-7 to put a merciful end to the season. It turns out Jeremy Johnson can’t read defenses, Jovon Robinson took too long to grasp the offense, Duke Williams just couldn’t fall in line, Carl Lawson couldn’t stay healthy and coach Gus Malzahn looks nothing like an offensive genius without a standout quarterback. Throw into the equation the fact that the program lost Will Muschamp after just one season and this year has been a total debacle for Auburn.
The SEC East title obscured some growing concerns late in the season. Florida won a lot of one-possession games, some of them against teams that weren’t very good — East Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic. To be fair, too, the East Division was pretty bad this year. Without Will Grier at quarterback, the Gators weren’t able to continue to fool teams with smoke and mirrors on offense. This team easily could lose three consecutive games to close the season if it falls to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. The defense is about to endure some major losses. Still, coach Jim McElwain proved he can get results, winning 10 regular-season games when most thought 8 would be a very good season. Despite personnel deficiencies, it’s clear this offense is going to get much better.
I agree with Saban and others who say 9-3 is a pretty darned good result, one that even the strongest of programs is likely to have now and again. But Georgia was a heavy preseason favorite to win the SEC East, and rightfully so. Even now, UGA’s 2015 schedule looks like a joke. What is this team’s best win? Beating 6-6 Auburn on the road? Staving off 8-4 Georgia Southern in overtime? Those are the only two bowl teams the Bulldogs beat all year. The team lost by 28 to Alabama and 24 to Florida, the two SEC division winners. Yes, losing a player like Nick Chubb can change the season. But the quarterback play regressed throughout the season, rumors of internal strife among the coaching staff surfaced and this team once again failed in its biggest games. The fact that Georgia didn’t win a single division title the last three years with its talent is stunning.
The Wildcats lost 6 of 7 to close the season without a bowl game once again. Whereas 5 wins marked a step in the right direction in 2014, this year’s total is perplexing. It plants seeds of doubt about coach Mark Stoops, who has recruited above Kentucky’s usual level. But can he turn that talent into victories? Four of this team’s wins came by one possession early in the schedule against teams that didn’t make the postseason. UK just hasn’t been able to put together a complete game on both sides of the football in a long time. Now pointed toward his fourth season, Stoops is just 4-20 in SEC play, with wins against bottom-dwellers South Carolina (x2), Vanderbilt and Missouri. Another season like this just won’t be good enough.
This season felt like a roller coaster. It started slow — the long clink-clink-clink of a pulley uphill — due to the weather cancelation of the season opener and squeaking out a win against Mississippi State. Then everyone forgot about the problems at quarterback as Leonard Fournette bashed every opponent into submission like a Whack-A-Mole. Suddenly the team crested the hill with a top 4 ranking and a Heisman favorite. Then Alabama appeared, and the cart accelerated downward as people screamed during three consecutive losses. Then, an emotional victory that gave way to coach Les Miles retaining his job. Forgive LSU fans if they look frazzled, hair blown into a goofy position, with one of those sheepish grins of theme park riders exiting off the platform to the right. At the end, LSU met expectations, nothing more or less.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: B-
Dak Prescott remained one of the country’s best college quarterbacks and the defense didn’t totally fall apart after heavy losses to the NFL draft. Still, Arkansas was this team’s most impressive victory, 51-50. Beyond that the team lost to every decent team it faced, and got manhandled by Alabama and Ole Miss in November. The foundation for the Bulldogs isn’t as strong as it is for in-state rival Ole Miss. What will happen once Prescott leaves? The 2015 season didn’t answer that question in resounding fashion, as the team avoided a last-place finish in the SEC West on the strength of a 17-9 win at a struggling Auburn team in September.
Back-to-back SEC Championship Game appearances gave way to a 5-7 team that was worse than the record indicates. The team essentially shed quarterback Maty Mauk midseason due to behavioral issues. Russell Hansbrough suffered an early-season ankle injury. A bunch of no-name receivers couldn’t get open, the offensive line couldn’t protect or get any push and freshman quarterback Drew Lock looked like a high school kid. Never mind that the defense played well. This team was a top 25 program before the year started, and lost 6 of its final 7 games. This is not the way that coach Gary Pinkel wanted his career to finish.
OLE MISS: B+
Oh, what might have been. The Rebels beat Alabama yet again, this time in Tuscaloosa. Chad Kelly turned out to be a threatening SEC starting quarterback. Laquon Treadwell played the best season of his college career. The Landshark defense remained opportunistic, but wasn’t as intimidating as the 2015 version. A road loss to Memphis was a big downer, but the weird Arkansas conversion on fourth-and-25, followed by the two-point dagger, prevented the 2013 class from winning an SEC West title in its final year together. This group came oh-so-close from a rare 10-win season in Oxford, but still must be commended for a job well done.
SOUTH CAROLINA: F
Congratulations, Gamecocks. You were the only team to beat North Carolina during the regular season. … Then you went 2-9 the rest of the year. After proclaiming he may coach another four years just weeks earlier, coach Steve Spurrier abruptly quit the team when it became obvious this season would continue to torpedo his career record while he had to endure repeated questions about his eventual retirement and whether the team would be able to retain any recruits. No one expected this team to win an East Division title this year, but to lose to The Citadel? The Gamecocks personnel has taken a nose dive in the last two years, and then the program hired Will Muschamp, who got fired from Florida barely one year ago.
The Vols beat Georgia and nearly took down Alabama and Florida. There’s little shame in falling to a pair of College Football Playoff teams by a combined 12 points, including one in overtime. But the feeling that Team 119 left at least one or two wins out on the field remains prominent. Coach Butch Jones got too conservative in the second half as this team coughed up a third- or fourth-quarter leads with regularity. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs didn’t improve as a passer like everyone hoped. But this team improved by two regular-season wins and kept the narrative going. Incremental improvement in 2014 and 2015, if it continues, could lead to championship contention in 2016. The personnel skews young, but the roster quickly is gaining experience and depth.
TEXAS A&M: C
Kevin Sumlin’s track record as a head coach in College Station: 11-2, 9-4, 8-5, and now 8-4 with a bowl game pending. Teams like Alabama and LSU have demolished the Aggies at the line of scrimmage in back-to-back years. In fact, Texas A&M is 4-8 against SEC West competition since Johnny Manziel left for the NFL, and that’s including two fortunate overtime victories over Arkansas. For a second consecutive season, the team’s primary quarterback entering the year is going to transfer elsewhere. Luring defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU wasn’t an immediate fix. Sumlin may be an all-star recruiter, but for all of Texas A&M’s monetary resources and talented personnel, the Aggies are going to need to show something in 2016, or he could be out the door.
The Commodores threatened to make it into the B- range, scaring SEC East champ Florida and hanging tough against Georgia and Ole Miss. Vandy pulled off not one, but two SEC wins as well. The defense probably was one of the best in the SEC, especially up front. But the offense continued to be historically awful. This team nearly went 1-3 in non-conference games, getting crushed 34-0 at Houston, losing the season opener to Western Kentucky and needing a late rally to overcome nearby Middle Tennessee State. Vandy also allowed South Carolina to get a rare win. The team failed to reach 20 points nine different times. Derek Mason transformed this team from an embarrassment to an often-feisty underdog. But until the offense gets better, the grade won’t go higher from here.