Debates Down South: Who is the SEC's most disappointing team of the 21st Century?
Prepare to be disappointed.
How’s that for a lede?
OK, I didn’t mean that you’ll be disappointed with this column. I suppose it’s my job to prevent that.
The theme of today’s debate is disappointment. How fitting for 2020, right? Hopefully looking back on these disappointing teams won’t be a downer, though. Instead, it can just simply provide you with more ammo to hate on your friend’s favorite team.
Who’s the SEC’s most disappointing team of the 21st Century?
Disappointment is totally relative. Obviously a team that goes 0-12 is disappointing. But if it was predicted to win 2 games, well, that’s not really disappointing. That’s just failing to meet some depressingly low expectations.
And to be clear, we’re talking about disappointment as it relates to preseason expectations. The sport with an 8-month offseason tends to have a whole lot of cases of that. That’s different than, let’s say, 2014 Mississippi State. Sure, Bulldog fans are probably still extremely disappointed that a team ranked No. 1 in the inaugural College Football Playoff poll couldn’t win a bowl game, but that’s not fair to call it a disappointing team.
Make sense? Good. Let’s get started.
Why was/is this a debate?
Fire up the old “It Just Means More” cliché for this debate. By “more,” I mean “more disappointment.”
There are plenty of examples of disappointment in the SEC that won’t make the cut today. At first, I tried finding every preseason top-10 team who was ranked at least 9 spots lower in the final Associated Press Top 25. By my rough count, there were 20 such instances. Fifteen saw the preseason top-10 team finish unranked.
I decided to narrow it to only preseason top-6 teams (I’ll explain that later) that finished at least 9 spots worse. Here’s that list:
- 2000 Alabama (Started No. 3, finished unranked)
- 2002 Tennessee (Started No. 5, finished unranked)
- 2002 Florida (Started No. 6, finished unranked)
- 2003 Auburn (Started No. 6, finished unranked)
- 2004 LSU (Started No. 4, finished No. 16)
- 2005 Tennessee (Started No. 3, finished unranked)
- 2008 Georgia (Started No. 1, finished No. 13)
- 2010 Florida (Started No. 4, finished unranked)
- 2010 Alabama (Started No. 1, finished No. 10)
- 2013 Georgia (Started No. 5, finished unranked)
- 2015 Auburn (Started No. 6, finished unranked)
Eleven teams is still too many to look at closely for this discussion, so I eliminated the non-preseason No. 1s that finished ranked. Goodbye, 2004 LSU. From that 10, I wanted to pick and choose what I call my “Flopped 5.” That is, the 5 biggest flops the SEC had in the 21st Century.
I eliminated 2002 Florida because it was Year 1 without Steve Spurrier, and that team wasn’t picked to win the SEC (Tennessee was). Speaking of 2002 Tennessee, I ruled out the Vols because that team was decimated by injuries — the defense and offensive line were gutted — and an 8-win team lost to extraordinary competition that included a peak-Miami squad.
The 2003 Auburn team was chopped because while that year was certainly disappointing, it lost 4 of its 5 games to teams that finished in the top 13 of the AP Top 25 and superstar Ronnie Brown was banged up throughout the year. As for 2010 Florida, Year 1 of the post-Tim Tebow era didn’t even have the Gators as preseason SEC picks, which would have made it tough to say that was the most disappointing SEC team of the 21st Century.
And then there was 2013 Georgia, which returned senior Aaron Murray and Todd Gurley, but that defense was extremely young and was a shell of itself because of injuries by midseason (I rewatched the entire LSU and Vandy games recently and it was quite revealing).
So who does that leave us with for the “Flopped 5?”
- 2000 Alabama (Started No. 3, finished unranked)
- 2005 Tennessee (Started No. 3, finished unranked)
- 2008 Georgia (Started No. 1, finished No. 13)
- 2010 Alabama (Started No. 1, finished No. 10)
- 2015 Auburn (Started No. 6, finished unranked)
Each team had widely different seasons, but all were worthy of earning a spot on this list.
What people said at the time
To properly present this argument, I decided to split this into 2 categories — “the preseason buzz” and “why it didn’t happen.”
In chronological order, here’s the breakdown for each of the “Flopped 5.”
2000 ALABAMA (Started No. 3, finished unranked)
The preseason buzz — Fresh off an SEC title and a No. 8 ranking in the AP Top 25, Alabama returned a whopping 18 (!) starters. That included playmakers Anthony Carter and Freddie Milons to catch passes from the likes of Andrew Zow and Tyler Watts.
The Crimson Tide were an easy pick to win the SEC. And just in case you forgot, those were different times. Alabama was a year removed from its first conference title in 7 years, and in the previous 13 years, Alabama had only started as a top-5 team once. The next step for Mike DuBose after improving the team’s win total by 3 games each of the previous 2 seasons was a national title. Alabama got 3 1st-place votes in the AP Top 25.
The New York Times wasn’t quite as high on Alabama is the AP voters were, though. They had the Crimson Tide at No. 7. The following excerpt from their preseason preview proved to be prophetic.
Who can stop them? They open at U.C.L.A., then get pesky Southern Miss and West Division rival Ole Miss in October.
The important question — can Alabama sustain the urgency that appeared in 1999 after an early loss to Louisiana Tech and a rumor that Coach Mike DuBose would lose his job?
To be brief, no.
Why it didn’t happen — Woof. Where should we begin?
From preseason No. 3 to 3-8 was all sorts of awful, but why? Well, overlooked in all of that preseason buzz about the 18 returning starters was the fact that Alabama replaced an all-time great running back in Shaun Alexander, and an all-time great offensive lineman in Outland Trophy winner Chris Samuels. Both of their absences were felt immensely in 2000.
But the thing that really torpedoed Alabama’s season was the quarterback situation. It was poorly handled by DuBose, who wanted Zow and Watts to see the field. Zow, who was named the starter, admitted his play suffered knowing that Watts was always going to play. Alabama had just 7 touchdown passes all year for the No. 87 offense in FBS.
The result was an inept offense that lacked an identity. For the first time since 1956, Alabama failed to win a nonconference game. Sadly, a 21-0 loss to “pesky” Southern Miss wasn’t even the low point. It was the last-second field goal loss to UCF, which had previously never beaten a Power 5 team.
DuBose “resigned” at season’s end and Alabama’s climb to get back in the national spotlight took a major step back.
2005 TENNESSEE (Started No. 3, finished unranked)
The preseason buzz — How high were people on the Vols? The only team with more preseason 1st-place votes in the AP Top 25 was USC, which was in the midst of one of the best runs in college football history. The Vols got more 1st-place votes than Vince Young’s Texas squad, though the Longhorns got the No. 2 spot (FootballNews.com had Tennessee at No. 2).
Tennessee’s buzz was obvious. An extremely young team won 10 games in 2004, and the losses were to undefeated Auburn (twice) and Notre Dame. The Vols destroyed Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and finished No. 13 in 2004. A postseason bump made Tennessee the SEC’s preseason favorite with hopes of getting to its first national title since 1998.
The roster featured 10 returning starters on a standout defense, as well as preseason Heisman candidate tailback Gerald Riggs Jr. The Vols even returned Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen, who had helped keep them afloat a season earlier despite both battling injuries.
Just before the start of the season, Fulmer named Ainge the Week 1 starter. Fulmer said that it was the type of decision he believed would propel the Vols to the Rose Bowl and the SEC Championship.
About that …
Why it didn’t happen — Like 2000 Alabama, the 2005 Tennessee squad has the rare distinction of started ranked in the top 3 and finishing without a bowl berth. That’s tough to do.
It probably wasn’t a good sign when Ainge opened the season with a 5-of-14 dud against UAB. Tennessee won that game, but the passing “attack” was a mess all season. It only made matters worse when Riggs went down with a season-ending injury in October, but the Vols’ fate was sealed well before then.
I reached out to Jayson Swain, who was the team’s No. 2 receiver on that team, what the biggest reason for that team’s spiral was. To put it simply “offensive production.” Yep. The Vols were No. 102 of 119 FBS teams despite the fact that they had NFL talent like Arian Foster and Robert Meachem.
Ironically enough, the Vols went into Death Valley at night and beat LSU in overtime on a Monday night following Hurricane Katrina.
#LSUvsTENN: 2005 | #Vols RB Gerald Riggs’ (@VolBeast21) game-winning TD caps an incredible comeback win in overtime. #LSU led 24-7 at one point in the 2nd half#Tennessee #GBO #VFL #SEC #CFB pic.twitter.com/3BDatACYSA
— SEC Football Vids (@SECFootballVids) November 16, 2017
It was essentially the only bright spot of the season. They barely beat a Memphis team that didn’t even have star DeAngelo Williams.
It was easily the worst coaching job of Fulmer’s career. His team couldn’t figure out anything on the field, and leading up to that 2005 season, he had 8 players get arrested or cited for crimes from January to July. Hence, the creation of “The Fulmer Cup,” which is a fake award given to the college football team with the most arrests in a year.
The first losing season of Fulmer’s tenure was about as painful as any could have been.
2008 GEORGIA (Started No. 1, finished No. 13)
The preseason buzz — Everything is different when you’re talking about a program without a national title since 1980. The Dawgs’ first preseason No. 1 ranking in program history was well-documented.
And at the time, it made sense. After all, Georgia was fresh off a No. 2 finish in 2007. That happened because of a 7-game winning streak — the longest active streak among BCS teams — to end the season. Georgia put up 40-plus points in wins against Florida, Auburn and the Sugar Bowl against No. 10 Hawaii.
The Dawgs returned preseason Heisman candidates Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, and the addition of 5-star freshman receiver A.J. Green was all the rage in Athens. On defense, the Dawgs had key returners like Geno Atkins and Dannell Ellerbe from a defense that finished No. 18 in 2007. In all, Georgia returned 16 starters.
This excerpt from the AP story following Georgia’s No. 1 ranking is fascinating to look back on:
Richt’s job since then has been to keep his team from getting too wrapped up in the hype.
“I think it motivates the guys to prepare well, but the big thing is: If you think about a championship way back in January … that can wear you down,” Richt said. “It’s our responsibility as coaches to help these guys break it down to one day at a time, one workout at a times, one practice at a time. Just prepare to be in position for the challenge.
“If we don’t work, we’ll have no chance.”
This was, by all accounts, Georgia’s best chance to end the 1980 jokes … until it wasn’t.
Why it didn’t happen — Remember when I said that at the time, it seemed like Georgia’s No. 1 ranking made sense? Well, in hindsight, it might not have been wise.
From Oct. 7, 2006 to Oct. 6, 2007, Georgia lost 6 consecutive games vs. the SEC East. That didn’t get brought up in the preseason discussion. It didn’t help matters that the defense went from a top-20 unit to No. 59 in scoring. Against rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech, the Dawgs surrendered 41-plus points in each contest.
That leads us to … the infamous Blackout Game.
Georgia wearing black jerseys for its night showdown against Alabama was supposed to be the defining moment in a season of promise. It turned into, as former Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran predicted, Georgia’s funeral. In Year 2 of the Nick Saban era, the stunning 31-0 first half was the moment his team arrived.
This was … telling:
That game was a microcosm of Georgia’s season — off-the-charts hype met with crushing results.
Did injuries play a part in that season not ending with a ring? Eh, maybe. The injuries in the trenches to the likes of Jeff Owens, Vince Vance and Trinton Sturdivant weren’t ideal, though that wasn’t what doomed the 2008 season. Richt’s team wasn’t prepared to go 60 minutes with Alabama or a Florida team that steamrolled Georgia 49-10 en route to a national title.
Georgia still finished as a top-15 team, but it accomplished that feat 5 times in the previous 6 seasons. More painful was the fact that it was the last year for Stafford and Moreno, who were drafted No. 1 and No. 12, respectively.
That was the last time Georgia earned a preseason top-3 ranking in the Richt era.
2010 ALABAMA (Started No. 1, finished No. 10)
The preseason buzz — There’s no such thing as a unanimous thing in college football, but Alabama starting at No. 1 felt as close to that as it gets. Alabama got 54 of a possible 60 1st-place votes in the preseason AP Top 25.
Coming off a national title in 2009, the Crimson Tide returned Heisman winner Mark Ingram and his breakout star running mate Trent Richardson while the passing game was highlighted by junior All-American Julio Jones and decorated senior Greg McElroy. And on defense, Alabama had 6 players drafted but was still loaded. Marcell Dareus, Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower and Mark Barron were all back.
On top of that, Saban was fresh off his 3rd consecutive top-4 recruiting class. There was depth and talent at Alabama that some believed was even better than the undefeated 2009 team. That’s why from the moment Alabama won it all in 2009, the question was about repeating. With Saban, there wasn’t any question about the 2010 team’s focus on the mission.
Of course Alabama was expected to win it all. It would have been weird if it weren’t the obvious preseason favorite.
Why it didn’t happen — Two words tell the tale.
Just joking. Sort of.
The stunning loss at South Carolina is still one of the SEC’s top upsets of the past decade. Garcia’s 17-of-20 line highlighted the game of his life. The throws he made that day were All-America level, especially the Alshon Jeffery touchdown:
Why did Alabama lose that game? Fresh off wins against top-10 Arkansas and Florida, the Crimson Tide got punched in the mouth by upset-hungry South Carolina. Some Alabama fans will say 2010 happened because Alabama faced 6 teams coming off a bye, though a 3-loss team wasn’t exactly a play from a national title.
That team, as we found out, couldn’t handle the grind of that schedule. Alabama couldn’t impose its will at the line of scrimmage like it did during Ingram’s Heisman season in 2009, which we saw play out in the legendary “Cam-back” game. Alabama’s blown 24-0 lead to Cam Newton and eventual-national champion Auburn confirmed what many came to know from that Alabama team — it had the talent, but it just didn’t have the gas in the tank to match 2009.
The crazy thing is most teams who have the No. 3 defense and a top-20 offense aren’t considered disappointments by any stretch. But that Alabama team was the anomaly of the Saban era. It wasn’t until 2019 that a Saban-coached team lost multiple regular-season games, and go figure that it was a 2010 team that was arguably the most talented.
2015 AUBURN (Started No. 6, finished unranked)
The preseason buzz — I’d be doing a disservice to you, reader of this debate, if I went more than 1 subject on 2015 Auburn’s preseason buzz without the words “Jeremy Johnson.”
Ah, yes. The hype machine of all hype machines. Johnson was, according to many, the next big thing in college football. Taking over for Nick Marshall, the first-time starter was tied for No. 3 on Bovada’s preseason Heisman Trophy odds (10-1) with Braxton Miller and Nick Chubb. Who was Johnson ahead of, you ask? Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott and Christian McCaffrey, to name a few.
Yeah, that happened.
Johnson had impressed in his first career start against Arkansas in 2014 when Marshall was suspended in the first half. Entering 2015, Johnson had 9 career touchdown passes and 78 pass attempts in 2 seasons. By the time SEC Media Days rolled around, the Johnson hype train had already left the station. Deemed a “perfect fit” for Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense, he had Cam Newton’s size (6-5, 240 pounds) with more accuracy (AthlonSports).
That, plus the addition of Will Muschamp as the team’s new defensive coordinator, led to Auburn starting off No. 6 in the country. The Tigers were picked to win the SEC ahead of Alabama, which had just experienced a Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State in 2014.
It didn’t matter that Auburn had lost its last 4 games vs. FBS competition in 2014. The Tigers were ready to compete for a national title.
Why it didn’t happen — I’d be doing a disservice to you, reader of this debate, if I went more than 1 subject on Auburn’s postseason autopsy without the words “Jeremy Johnson.”
Ah, yes. The hype machine of all hype machines.
(Yes, I repeated that almost word for word. Just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.)
It didn’t even take until the end of September for Johnson’s Heisman campaign to come crashing down. He was out of a job by then. The guy needed a touchdown pass in the final minute just to force overtime against FCS Jacksonville State in Week 2.
He was, as it turned out, not a good fit in Malzahn’s offense. Johnson’s poor decision-making and inability to consistently move the chains with his legs led to his benching after 3 lackluster starts. In that stretch, he had 6 interceptions and he averaged 6.5 yards per attempt. Johnson was arguably the most disappointing player of the 21st Century, at least relative to preseason hype. His situation didn’t get better when veteran wideout Duke Williams was kicked off the team. The 2015 Auburn offense could have desperately used someone like Sammie Coates to stretch the field.
And remember how Muschamp was supposed to lead a dominant defense? The Tigers fell to the No. 54 scoring unit after struggling to replace Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright on the defensive line, and the midseason injury to Carl Lawson didn’t help, either.
The Tigers were a lowly 2-6 in SEC play (1-5 vs. the West) and instead of playing in the Playoff, Auburn was summoned to the Birmingham Bowl. In hindsight, Auburn was wildly overrated because of Johnson.
Extremely disappointing? You bet.
The worst take you can have about this debate
“Well I always knew this team was overrated so they weren’t disappointing.”
Congratulations. You’re smarter than the vast majority of the college football world.
Preseason expectations aren’t based on what Jeff from Tupelo thought. They’re based on what pollsters bought into. Are they perfect? No, but neither is Jeff from Tupelo. He might have thought that Tennessee was overrated heading into 2005, but I can guarantee you he didn’t predict a 5-win season.
Nothing is ever unanimous in college football. Even 2015 Ohio State, which became the first team to ever earn the unanimous No. 1 spot in the history of the AP Top 25, wasn’t picked by everyone to win the national title. Some might have thought, hey, ask 2010 Alabama about repeating. It’s tough, even for teams that return a ton of talent.
The point is, just because I say a team disappointed doesn’t mean everyone on planet earth assumed they’d win a national title. Make sense?
The thing I didn’t know/forgot about until researching this
As much as 2008 Georgia had all sorts of hype as the preseason No. 1, it’s easy to forget 2 things.
One was that team was barely No. 1 to start the year. Ohio State got 1 fewer 1st-place vote in the AP Top 25 than Georgia. Here was the breakdown of 1st-place votes in the 2008 preseason:
- No. 1 Georgia, 22
- No. 2 Ohio State, 21
- No. 3 USC, 12
- No. 4 Oklahoma, 4
- No. 5 Florida, 6
And in case you were wondering, Georgia had 1,528 total points while Ohio State was just behind with 1,506. Would we be talking about 2008 Georgia if it had been No. 2 instead of No. 1? A couple more 1st-place votes for Ohio State could have absolutely shifted that discussion.
The other thing I forgot about 2008 Georgia was that it wasn’t even the preseason pick to win the East. That belonged to eventual-national champ Florida. At the very least, there was at least some expert disagreement on whether Georgia would even play for an SEC Championship.
Little did we know that the Dawgs wouldn’t look like they were in the same universe as either of the SEC’s representatives.
Where I stand on this debate
It’s been about 3,000 words since we did some eliminating, so let’s get back to it!
I’m not going with 2010 Alabama because the SEC’s most disappointing team of the 21st Century had to have finished worse than No. 10 having defeated 5 ranked teams. As baffling as it was for that 2010 Alabama to go 5-3 in the SEC, that team lost a pair of 1-score games to Auburn and LSU, which finished No. 1 and No. 8, respectively. South Carolina won the East and finished ranked, too.
I’m also not going with 2008 Georgia because as I just outlined, the Dawgs weren’t anywhere close to a unanimous preseason No. 1, and they weren’t picked to win the division. And like 2010 Alabama, a finish of No. 13 isn’t a complete meltdown. There were at least moments — mainly in the first month — when it looked like Georgia was worthy of that lofty preseason ranking.
As tempting as it is to go with 2015 Auburn because of the flop that ensued, Auburn didn’t get a single 1st-place vote in the preseason AP Top 25 because Ohio State was the aforementioned unanimous No. 1. Even though they were picked to win the SEC, the Tigers were still ranked lower than Alabama heading into the year.
This debate comes down to 2000 Alabama vs. 2005 Tennessee. Teams that started at No. 3 in the country with 1st-place votes didn’t even sniff a bowl game. They didn’t have a star quarterback go down in September, nor did they have some unprecedented rash of injuries. They were just poorly-coached teams who found new ways to lose games on a weekly basis.
But I’m going with 2005 Tennessee as my most disappointing SEC team of the 21st century. And believe me, it’s close. I won’t talk anyone out of 2000 Alabama. That’s a worthy choice.
For me, though, I’ll give the Vols a slight edge. They had 13 1st-place votes in the preseason AP Top 25 compared to 3 for 2000 Alabama. That Tennessee team got more preseason 1st-place votes than either of Peyton Manning’s teams before his junior and senior seasons.
Expectations should have been higher because Fulmer was widely considered one of the best coaches in America. He had won a national title and since he had taken over in 1992, the Vols had never missed a bowl game or had a losing season in SEC play. Compare that to Alabama, who was coming off that SEC title heading into 2000, but had also failed to record a winning record in conference play in each of the 2 seasons before that.
So again, think about that for Tennessee. You’ve got 10 starters back on defense, and on offense, you’ve got both quarterbacks, a stud running back, 4 of your top 5 receivers and one of the best offensive-minded head coaches in the sport.
And you go 5-7?
It’s not just the 5-7 number because obviously 2000 Alabama’s is worse, though I’d argue there’s not much of a difference between 3-8 and 5-7. It’s the fact that Tennessee averaged 8 points against rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia. No adjustment the coaching staff made prevented the offense from going off the rails. Nobody knew that Tennessee had a floor like that. As it turned out, it was the beginning of the end for someone who was once on his way to becoming a program legend.
That season was teed up for Tennessee to make another run at a national title. In hindsight, the team probably wasn’t going to derail the eventual USC-Texas showdown, but still. The Vols had nobody to blame but themselves. Offseason arrests, poor preparation, a lack of execution, you name it.
We can look back on that 2000 Alabama team and say that DuBose wasn’t very good at his job, or that we should’ve taken more stock into Alexander’s absence from that offense. You can’t look back at that 2005 Tennessee team and blame anybody but the personnel for not living up to those expectations.
There’s no tougher pill to swallow than that.