Debates Down South: Who's the SEC's biggest surprise team (in a good way) of the 21st Century?
I try to keep it balanced.
A couple of weeks ago, I went down the rabbit hole of trying to determine which SEC team was the most disappointing of the 21st century. Preseason expectations are such a key part of any discussion like that, and in order to properly crown the dubious winner, one has to understand exactly what those were. It was, as you might have guessed, not an easy thing to determine.
So I thought, hey, why not do that again!
This time, we’re looking at the other side. That is, which SEC team was the biggest surprise (in a good way) of the 21st century? We’re talking about teams that wildly surpassed preseason expectations.
I repeat, we’re talking about the SEC teams that wildly surpassed preseason expectations.
Why was/is this a debate?
Well, it’s pretty subjective. It’s not as simple as saying “this team won a title” or “this guy had more rushing yards.” Not everyone is dealing with the same set of preseason expectations, either. We can’t pretend that a team coming off an 0-8 SEC mark is judged in the same way as the defending national champs.
Also, a team like 2019 LSU was a surprise team because of what it did, but a preseason No. 6 winning the title of “SEC’s most surprising team of the 21st century” probably isn’t fair. The winner should have lower preseason expectations.
So let’s get into this because there’s a lot to consider. Plenty of candidates could have made the cut because again, this is super subjective.
As always, I came up with 2 qualifiers:
- Start unranked and finish in top 10 (in Associated Press Top 25)
- Or start outside top 15 and win a national title
I put the second one in there because, yes, we have to include 2010 Auburn in this discussion. That qualifier is legitimate because 2010 Auburn and 2000 Oklahoma were the only 2 teams since 1991 to be ranked outside the preseason top 15 and win it all.
Here’s the thing, though. The first qualifier of “start unranked and finish in the top 10” meant that 2014 Mississippi State and 2018 Kentucky missed the cut. I know. It’s a bummer. Both teams had special seasons and their fans have every reason to appreciate them.
For this discussion, however, we’re trying to find the No. 1 biggest surprise team. Both 2014 MSU and 2018 Kentucky were probably 1-2 wins from winning this title. They had multiple moments of preseason confirmation bias in ways that I’d argue the 4 teams getting most consideration (more on that later) didn’t.
I’d also point out that while 2018 Kentucky’s season was indeed special for moments like the Florida and Penn State wins, the SEC’s biggest surprise team of the 21st century should probably have more than +2 regular-season win improvement. And MSU getting to No. 1 was an incredible accomplishment, but we have to consider the entire season, which saw the Bulldogs lose 3 of 4 to end the year.
Both 2014 MSU and 2018 Kentucky will be more qualified than at least 1 team that made the cut (probably 2), but today, we’re looking for No. 1. Hence, the qualifiers.
With that being said, here are the teams that qualify:
- 2005 Alabama (Started unranked, finished No. 8)
- 2010 Auburn (Started No. 22, won national title)
- 2012 Texas A&M (Started unranked, finished No. 5)
- 2013 Mizzou (Started unranked, finished No. 5)
- 2013 Auburn (Started unranked, finished No. 2)
- 2018 Florida (Started unranked, finished No. 7)
Let’s get mad about a made-up debate, shall we?!
What people said at the time
As stated before, this shapes the argument. Understanding what preseason expectations were for each team is going to lead to clarity.
I split this into 2 categories. They’re pretty simple. For each team, I’ll outline “why we thought they wouldn’t be good” and “why they were much better than we thought they’d be.”
Let’s get this started (in chronological order).
Why we thought they wouldn’t be good — Predicting pre-Nick Saban Alabama teams seemed like a bit of a crapshoot for a couple of decades. Go back to that 2000 Alabama team that started No. 3 and won a whopping 3 games. The 2005 Alabama team proved to be the opposite of that. Sort of.
The 2004 Alabama season was nothing to write home about. A 3-0 start was spoiled by a 3-6 finish following the season-ending injury to quarterback Brodie Croyle. Alabama had the worst passing attack in Power 5 with a whopping 141.6 yards and 0.9 touchdown passes per game. Woof.
On top of that, the schedule looked daunting as the SEC began its emergence as the unquestioned premier conference. Alabama had matchups against preseason No. 3 Tennessee, No. 5 LSU, No. 10 Florida and No. 16 Auburn, which was fresh off its undefeated 2004 season. In 2 years of the Mike Shula era, which began with major NCAA sanctions after nearly getting the death penalty, Alabama had yet to finish ranked (the irony being that the 10 wins from 2005 were vacated because of another NCAA violation).
Still, Alabama was actually a borderline Top 25 team. In fact, Alabama started at No. 24 in the Coaches Poll. The Crimson Tide returned loads of talent from the nation’s No. 7 defense (DeMeco Ryans and Roman Harper were among the notables), and with a healthy Croyle, there was at least some optimism that Alabama could contend.
Why they were better than we thought they’d be — It helps when you have the No. 1 defense in America. A lot. It covers up a rather pedestrian offense. Alabama was 6-0 when it reached 19 points in a game, and it won 9 of its 10 games by holding teams to 14 points or fewer.
Also, other than the career-ending injury to Tyrone Prothro, Alabama avoided major health issues, which wasn’t the case in 2004. But of course before Prothro went down against Florida, he delivered one of the most incredible catches in college football history:
Croyle stayed healthy and played mistake-free football. Alabama had the fewest turnovers of any Power 5 team and it had 47 penalty yards per game (No. 20 in FBS). It also helped that a team that went 0-3 in 1-score games in 2004 flipped that into a 4-1 mark in 2005.
While Alabama’s win against first-year Florida coach Urban Meyer held strong, the Crimson Tide beat a Tennessee team that was arguably the most disappointing of any SEC squad in the 21st century after going from preseason No. 3 to 5 wins (it’s not every day you win a game without scoring a touchdown). The Crimson Tide’s lone losses came to Auburn and LSU, both of whom were picked to finish ahead of Alabama in the West.
Still, it was arguably the program’s best year in a decade, and it came on the heels of a 6-win season.
Why we thought they wouldn’t be good — Well, let’s be clear. We thought Auburn would be good. We just didn’t think Auburn would be undefeated national champs good.
In our defense, we were talking about an Auburn team that had lost 5 of its last 6 SEC games. Cam Newton was highly touted as a former Florida quarterback and No. 3 JUCO recruit, but he was still an unknown as a Power 5 starter. Bleacher Report did a preseason ranking of the SEC quarterbacks and Newton was No. 6. Who were the 5 quarterbacks were ranked ahead of Newton, you ask? Jordan Jefferson, John Brantley, Greg McElroy, Stephen Garcia and Ryan Mallett.
Ah, what a time to be alive.
And let’s also not forget that this wasn’t a team with NFL talent. Even after Auburn’s 2010 season happened, Newton, Nick Fairley and 7th-rounder Zach Clayton were the team’s only 3 draft picks the following year. That’s stunning for a team that didn’t lose a game.
On top of the unproven talent in Auburn’s locker room, Gene Chizik was an unproven head coach who had yet to have a winning conference record at Iowa State or in Year 1 at Auburn. A 3-5 SEC season didn’t set the bar very high entering 2010.
Auburn started ranked No. 22, but it had been ranked higher in 6 of the previous 7 preseason polls. On top of that, you had Alabama coming off a national title with loads of talent back on that 2010 team. Alabama was one of 3 SEC West teams ranked ahead of Auburn in the preseason poll.
But there was at least some buzz that Auburn could have a magical season. Kirk Herbstreit went on record that August and said that the Iron Bowl would decide the SEC West and that “the sky was the limit” for Newton.
Little did he know how prophetic those words turned out to be.
Why they were better than we thought they’d be — Cameron Newton.
The best 1-year wonder in college football history happened. Chizik would have halftimes where he’d just decide, yeah, let’s let No. 2 carry us. It worked. Always. The combination of Newton in Gus Malzahn’s spread, no-huddle offense proved to be a revelation. Nobody had an answer for Newton and the Tigers.
It also helped that on the other side of the ball, Fairley had one of the best defensive seasons of any college player in the 21st century (not enough is made about his 24 tackles for loss). People forget that Chizik’s defense was No. 9 against the run, and when things got tight, it locked in. Auburn was 7-0 in 1-score games that year. A super disciplined team — Georgia was the only SEC team that had fewer penalty yards — plowed its way through the SEC in historic fashion.
Newton’s season will forever be remembered as one of the all-time best, for sure. That’s what happens when you win the Heisman en route to an undefeated season. But Newton took the sport by storm because he was a 1-year starter. He was the missing piece to Auburn’s puzzle to get past Alabama and move on to a national title.
Nobody could’ve seen coming:
Today in Auburn History:
2010 – #4 Auburn topped #6 LSU 24-17.
Cam Newton flashed his smile and his speed in what many consider his “Heisman Moment,” changing gears and speeding past All-American Patrick Peterson in the third quarter.#WarEagle pic.twitter.com/QR4ACfFm2S
— Clint Richardson (@Clintau24) October 23, 2019
2012 TEXAS A&M
Why we thought they wouldn’t be good — This was A&M’s Year 1 in the SEC in a time when the conference was in the midst of 7 consecutive national titles. Yeah, that’s daunting. Entering the SEC after losing a 1st round quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) with an entirely new coaching staff was even more daunting.
A&M was coming off a 7-win season in the Big 12, which didn’t turn any heads in the SEC. The Aggies joined a division that featured the 2 teams that played in “the game of the century” in 2011. On top of being behind No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 LSU, Arkansas started at No. 10 and Auburn began at No. 25 (more on that later). A&M was picked to finish 5th in the division, and it was one of 6 SEC teams that didn’t receive a single vote to win the conference.
On the surface, that might have made sense. Besides being the new kid on the block, Kevin Sumlin didn’t have Power 5 head coaching experience and a team that ranked No. 109 in pass defense didn’t return a starter in the secondary. A&M was unranked in the AP, but it was essentially No. 30 in the Coaches Poll.
In other words, let’s see what you’ve got, new guy.
Why they were better than we thought they’d be — Jonathan Manziel.
Nobody saw the relatively undersized redshirt freshman becoming arguably the most polarizing player in college football history. Even as A&M fans got more excited about what he did in the offseason to earn the starting job, nobody in their right mind would have predicted Manziel to beat Alabama en route to becoming the first redshirt freshman to ever win the Heisman.
Manziel stuns Bama 🔥
Johnny Football puts up 345 yards and 2 TDs as A&M (+405 ML) beats Alabama as 13-point underdogs pic.twitter.com/xgvdr3DoHJ
— br_betting (@br_betting) May 9, 2020
It’s easy to forget that as much as the Alabama win did for Manziel’s career, he entered that game on pace to set the SEC’s yards from scrimmage record. That put the exclamation point on his Heisman campaign, and it showed why there might not have been a team in the country that could have beaten A&M once November hit.
The trio of Manziel, Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury were a match made in heaven that season. Why else did A&M take off? That offense entered 2012 with 8 returning starters … and Manziel and Mike Evans weren’t part of that group. Evans turned into a superstar to complement the ever-reliable Ryan Swope, who should have gotten more preseason attention after his 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown season as a junior. A&M was also loaded on the offensive line with future top-5 picks Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews.
And as A&M fans would tell you, that defense was clutch in 2012. Mark Snyder made all the right adjustments. Whether that was moving Spencer Nealy to nose guard to line up on Barrett Jones in the Alabama game or confusing veteran quarterbacks like Landry Jones in the Cotton Bowl, Snyder probably doesn’t get enough credit for what he did in that first season in College Station.
There’s no doubt in my mind that A&M was one of at least 3 SEC teams that could have throttled Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship (there might have been 4 or 5). But hey, a No. 5 finish was the ultimate “we belong in the SEC” statement.
Why we thought they wouldn’t be good — Speaking of “we belong in the SEC” statements, the experts didn’t expect that from Mizzou in 2013. While A&M proved that a newbie could walk into the SEC and take the league by storm, Mizzou floundered to a 5-win season in 2012. The Tigers weren’t the obvious SEC fit to begin with, and that 2-6 mark in league play confirmed what many thought — Mizzou was in over its head.
In that 2012 season, they dealt with a rash of injuries. Quarterback James Franklin had a shoulder injury while top tailback Henry Josey suffered a devastating knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2012.
Mizzou didn’t exactly build buzz by signing the SEC’s worst-ranked recruiting class in 2013. It wasn’t surprising to see the Tigers picked to finish 6th in the East. Perhaps equally alarming was that cornerback E.J. Gaines was the team’s only preseason All-SEC selection … and he was a 3rd-teamer.
To say that expectations outside of Columbia were pedestrian would have been an understatement.
Why they were better than we thought they’d be — This breaks down to 1 simple thing — Gary Pinkel’s foundation was wildly underestimated.
We were content to write off Mizzou after its bad opening year in the SEC while ignoring the fact that Pinkel had 8-plus wins in each of the 6 seasons before that. He averaged 9.3 wins during that stretch. How? He had the underrated Craig Kuligowski, AKA Coach Kool, coaching up that staple of talent on the defensive line. That unit had SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam and future 2nd-round pick Kony Ealy.
The Tigers didn’t have a suffocating defense, but they consistently got in the backfield and made those key plays. They were No. 1 in the SEC in tackles for loss with Sam and Ealy.
On top of that, a (mostly) healthy Franklin and Josey were just what the doctor ordered. They returned to form and delivered for a Mizzou offense that returned more production than most realized. The Tigers got through a month without Franklin thanks to Maty Mauk, who redshirted in 2012.
Mizzou had the season it did because it stayed healthy, and it was loaded with proven veterans. It’s crazy to think that the Tigers were a 24-yard field goal off the uprights against South Carolina from having a perfect regular season. The Tigers went from being picked to finish 6th in the East to clinching a division title against Manziel. Josey’s 57-yard run to win it will go down as one of the top moments in Mizzou history:
Watch: #Mizzou RB Henry Josey breaks free for a 57-yard TD against Texas A&M to clinch the SEC East title. MU fans rushed the field and the Tigers were headed to the SEC championship for the first time in school history.
Where will this rank in our Top 10 stories of the decade? pic.twitter.com/YUH3cTtnEc
— Andrew Kauffman (@AndrewABC17) December 27, 2019
Even though Mizzou lost to Auburn in the SEC Championship, a No. 5 finish certainly put that squad in the running to win this title.
Speaking of 2013 Auburn …
Why we thought they wouldn’t be good — Well when you go 0-8 in SEC play the previous year, it doesn’t exactly make one believe a national championship berth is coming. The program had its worst season in 60 years in 2012. Chizik, who was the program’s most successful coach ever through 3 years, was fired after Year 4.
In stepped Malzahn, who was respected because of what he did as Auburn’s offensive coordinator during the 2010 national title season, but had just 1 year of FBS head coaching experience. He was only 8 years removed from coaching high school football.
On top of that unknown, the SEC was in peak form. A league with 7 consecutive national titles had all sorts of candidates to make it No. 8. Alabama was in search of a 3-peat and its 4th title in 5 years. Georgia returned senior Aaron Murray and freshman sensation Todd Gurley for No. 5 Georgia while No. 7 A&M was coming off the aforementioned surprise 2012 season with Manziel back after his historic Heisman season. You also had the highly anticipated encore of Jadeveon Clowney with preseason No. 6 South Carolina, as well as No. 12 LSU with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
The conference was absolutely loaded. Not surprisingly, Auburn was picked to finish 5th in the West. SB Nation’s Jason Kirk even had the Tigers finishing dead last in the division, which wasn’t that crazy.
Crazy was suggesting that Auburn, with all of those aforementioned teams ahead of them, would pull off the most dramatic year-to-year turnaround in college football history.
Why they were better than we thought they’d be — This might sound a bit too much like revisionist history, but I think the situation that Malzahn inherited was much better than what that 0-8 SEC mark suggested. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying everyone should have assumed that Auburn would turn 3 wins into an SEC Championship and a BCS National Championship berth.
But I go back to what Auburn defensive lineman Jeff Whitaker, who was there in 2012 and 2013, told me about that team’s turnaround:
“You don’t rebuild in a year. It’s impossible,” Whitaker said. “From us going from a third-world country to the Taj Mahal, it happened in a year, but there were some key ingredients that we had that coach Chizik and some of that staff that help lay that groundwork before the 2013 season … 2012 is so important for the 2013 success.”
It’s no secret that Chizik’s team struggled mightily without Malzahn that 1 year, and it also struggled without a quarterback. When Nick Marshall took over in 2013, it was clear. He was the perfect fit with Malzahn.
Say what you want about the miracle endings of that season, and not just the Prayer at Jordan-Hare and the Kick-6 —everyone always forgets about the A&M game with Evans’ drop in the end zone and the non-call when Manziel was horse-collared at the end of that game — but Auburn did some incredibly impressive things that year. Putting up 59 points and running all over that established Mizzou defense in the SEC Championship was impressive, as was pushing that historically good Florida State team to the brink in the title game.
Tre Mason was already a special back who needed the right quarterback to work alongside. An Auburn team that recruited a pair of top-6 recruiting classes in 2010 and 2011 didn’t truly take off until that 2013 season, but again, the foundation was there.
Either way, few teams in college football history surprised us in the way that 2013 Auburn did.
Why we thought they wouldn’t be good — I know, I know. There were plenty of people who thought that the dumpster fire 2017 season ended Jim McElwain’s time in Gainesville was a one-off. That is, a Florida team who returned 19 starters would be back competing in the East in no time with Dan Mullen.
Here’s the thing, though. That Florida team was still picked to finish behind South Carolina and Georgia in the East. The Dawgs were fresh off a national championship berth. There were questions about how Feleipe Franks would fit in Mullen’s offense, and again, Florida was coming off a 4-win season.
Sure, the Gators were essentially No. 27 in both polls (2nd in the “receiving votes” category), but look at the reactions when CBS Sports’ Brian Jones picked Florida to make the Playoff:
.@JonesN4mo‘s College Football Playoff predictions:
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) August 16, 2018
Speaking of reactions, I was admittedly annoyed that Florida immediately jumped into the AP Top 25 after a Week 1 win against FCS Charleston Southern. Dating to the middle of the 2017 season, the Gators had lost their lost 6 games against Power 5 competition. And that number increased to 7 when Florida fell to Kentucky the following week, which ended a 31-year winning streak against the Wildcats.
That was a pretty strong argument to make as to why Florida was destined for mediocrity in 2018.
Why they were better than we thought they’d be — Hand up. I did not see Florida responding to that Kentucky loss by ripping off a double-digit win season and earning a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory. To go from 4 wins to No. 7 in the country is impressive.
I was there when the Gators beat LSU in The Swamp, and it totally changed my perception of what Mullen had rolling.
His ability to put Franks in the right spots was huge. Did it help that Florida returned 19 starters? Absolutely. I’d argue it also helped that he had several veteran pass-rushers who were perfect fits in Todd Grantham’s blitz-heavy defense.
That 2017 team, had it not had the infamous “Credit Card 9” drama in August and the mid-season McElwain fiasco, would have been much better than a 4-win team. As Whitaker said, you don’t rebuild in 1 year. There was a pretty solid foundation for Mullen, though he obviously did an admirable job getting all of that talent on the same page.
The worst take you can have about this debate
“I knew this team would be good.”
As I always say, this is about the consensus opinion, not what Jeff from Tupelo thought. Even if there’s 1 person on the face of the earth who thought 2010 Auburn would win a national title, it doesn’t necessarily negate how big of a surprise it was. No opinion in this sport is ever unanimous. That’s why there’s so much to argue about.
Also, it’s different to say “I knew this team would be good” than “we should’ve known this team would be good.” That’s important to note. There could be things that click when we look back on a team, but even if someone is considered a possible preseason sleeper, this is still about a consensus opinion.
Sorry, Jeff from Tupelo.
The thing I didn’t know/forgot about until researching this
In the last 2 months, I rewatched 3 Manziel-era games in their entirety. I watched both Alabama games and 2013 Mizzou for our “It Just Meant More” series on The Saturday Down South Podcast (shameless plug).
I say that because even as someone who did that, I totally forgot about how lukewarm expectations were for A&M entering 2012.
There were certain elements that I understand. We’re talking about a 7-win team in a new, better conference. A first-year coach with a new starting quarterback doesn’t exactly scream “preseason hype,” especially not in a division that was loaded. And the fact that A&M hadn’t finished in the top 10 since 1994 certainly didn’t suggest it was worthy of a top 15 ranking to start the year.
I get that. And I get why a 3-star redshirt freshman quarterback wasn’t supposed to fuel universal preseason hype.
But Sumlin was coming off a year in which he had an unbeaten regular season at Houston with Case Keenum, who set 9 NCAA passing records. Sumlin definitely wasn’t getting Tom Herman-level hype following his shift from Houston to a bigger Texas school.
What was overlooked on that team was that A&M returned so much veteran talent in the trenches. The Aggies weren’t going to get pushed around in the SEC, no matter who their Tannehill replacement was. With Sumlin and Kingsbury, it had the right coaches to maximize that young offensive skill position talent … who fit in pretty well with those 8 returning offensive starters.
A&M didn’t turn heads as a 7-win Big 12 team, but what if the Aggies had been a 9-win team? Five of their 6 losses in 2011 were by 7 points or fewer. That was for a team that started at No. 8 in the country, so it wasn’t like the Aggies lacked talent. And as good as Tannehill was, he was A&M’s only non-kicker drafted in the first 5 rounds in 2012.
Hindsight is easy with stuff like this. I’m not saying I called for the Aggies to take down Alabama and finish No. 5, but it’s fair to say the newness of A&M might have created some blind spots in the preseason outlook.
Where I stand on this debate
Don’t worry. I’m not picking 2005 Alabama or 2018 Florida, who nearly started as Top 25 teams. They both had really solid seasons, but they aren’t No. 1 on this list. If I’m doing a ranking, 2014 MSU and 2018 Kentucky are both ahead of them.
It’s much more tempting to go with one of the Auburn teams, 2012 A&M or 2013 Mizzou.
I’ll put 2010 Auburn at No. 4 on the list because while there were the unknowns of Newton and Year 2 of Chizik, I don’t immediately think of that group as the surprise team because it started off ranked. It was surprising that Newton was that good, but when you have experts like Herbstreit saying “the sky is the limit,” that’s not setting the bar that low in the preseason.
I’d have 2012 A&M at No. 3 because the Aggies were overlooked, but at least they were still getting top-25 consideration before the start of the season. It’d be different if they went on to win a national title, though like I said, I’m not sure there was a better team in America during the latter half of the season. Manziel would probably win the award as the top surprise player the SEC had in the 21st century.
For me, this comes down to 2013 Mizzou vs. 2013 Auburn. How fitting. The 2 teams that faced off in the SEC Championship check so many of the same boxes. They went from teams that missed bowl games to top-5 teams in a year. And to do that in 2013, when it seemed like half the SEC had offseason national buzz? Incredible. That’s a surprise.
But I’ll give the slight edge to 2013 Auburn for a couple of reasons.
While I think nationally Mizzou was absolutely written off following the 5-win season, Tigers fans were smart enough to know that they’d surpass those low preseason expectations. Because of all those injuries, Mizzou fans who were paying attention knew that they had a solid chance to get back to that 8-win mark. They might not have thought that team was about to win an East title, but they at least thought, “see, I told you that we weren’t getting enough respect.”
Picture being an Auburn fan, though. You just watched your team put up a goose egg in SEC play. Even worse, you watched your 2 biggest rivals (Alabama and Georgia) throttle your team by a combined score of 87-0 and then play in a de-facto semifinal game. Both finished in the top 5, and both returned decorated senior quarterbacks to preseason top-5 teams. Alabama, of course, was getting preseason buzz to 3-peat and win its 4th title in 5 years. That gap, even for the most optimistic Auburn fan, couldn’t have looked bigger.
And you mean to tell me that the following season, that Auburn team would beat Georgia AND Alabama en route to an SEC Championship and then earn a spot in the BCS National Championship?
That takes the cake.
I know we should never say “never” in sports, but I’ll be stunned if anybody in the near future pulls off that kind of turnaround. We don’t see turnarounds like that because the way Auburn did it was essentially the only path one can follow. That is, have a better foundation than what an 0-8 conference record suggests and then when you need a miracle, get 2.
Easy enough, right? My guess is that it’ll take a long time for someone to repeat what 2013 Auburn did.
Then again, if the 2020s taught us anything so far, it’s expect the unexpected.