Happy fans, happy coach: How many wins will it take for each SEC team to be happy in 2017?
Because of the diversity of expectations across the SEC, an eight-win season to some teams and fan bases might be reason to celebrate, while another coach could be fired for the same result.
Or, in the case of LSU, for example, a national championship and seven double-digit win seasons doesn’t buy much equity if its followed by three average seasons. At several other schools, particularly in the SEC East, such success could be reason to rename the stadium and offer a lifetime contract.
So here is a breakdown of the state of each program, and what it faces in the near future to make as many happy as possible:
Alabama: The Crimson Tide have won at least 10 games each season since 2008. In all but the 2010 season, they reached at least the Sugar Bowl, and in most years the BCS Championship or College Football Playoff. In five of the past seven seasons, they’ve started the season ranked in the top 3 in the Associated Press poll. So given that backdrop, nothing short of the Playoff would be acceptable, or expected, for the fan base and national perspective. And truthfully, at least reaching the title game is the Saban standard.
Arkansas: Bret Bielema enters his fifth season following rough 2016, including an unsettling collapse/loss in the Belk Bowl. The Razorbacks have largely landed 7- to 9-wins in the past 20 years, though Houston Nutt had one 10-win campaign, and Bobby Petrino had a 10-win and an 11-win season. Given the current state of the SEC West, anything above 8 wins should keep the natives content.
Auburn: The Tigers have four double-digit wins seasons since Terry Bowden’s final 10-win season 1997. But by and large, they’ve mostly registered between 7 and 9 wins. While Gus Malzahn has the equity of a national championship appearance, he’s also dropped three times from a top 8 ranking. To be safe, Malzahn likely needs a 10-win season, though he could buy some time with 9 wins, or a trump card of a win or two over Alabama.
Florida: Speaking of equity, Jim McElwain has two SEC East titles, but he’s also lost two top 10 AP rankings. With it being his third season, the roster shift is nearly complete from the Will Muschamp era, and McElwain’s recruiting must start paying dividends. Beyond wins, McElwain could keep the critics at bay by registering fewer than four losses. After all, Urban Meyer had just one four-loss season at Florida, while McElwain already has two.
Nine wins should be the minimum, but McElwain could gain back some goodwill by lifting it to 10 or 11 wins this season.
Georgia: The honeymoon on display during the “93K” spring game attendance last year has waned for Kirby Smart. But he helped his stock by landing the No. 3 recruiting class, which some have compared to the best in program history. Given Georgia’s history with Mark Richt having 10 double-digit win seasons, Smart’s task is winning the big games without losing to Vanderbilt on homecoming, for example. Still, 10 wins is the minimum for the trendy favorite to win the East. Otherwise, the Richt supporters in the fan base will grow more vocal.
Kentucky: Mark Stoops stemmed the second-half meltdowns last year that colored the first three seasons of his tenure in Lexington. He has upgraded recruiting efforts in Ohio and found multiple options at quarterback, not to mention a deep and talented stable of running backs. If Stoops can get the program back to consistent 7-win seasons that lead to bowl games, something it did for five consecutive seasons under Rich Brooks, he should be fine. Mix in an 8 or 9-win campaign and that’s just gravy on the biscuit.
LSU: It’s difficult to find a higher bar than at LSU, where former coach Les Miles had seven double-digit win seasons and a national title. Nick Saban only had two 10-win seasons (and one title) in five seasons in Baton Rouge, and Gerry DiNardo and Mike Archer had just one 10-win season each in their tenures. Truthfully, if Ed Orgeron can’t beat Alabama at least once or twice, and win 10 games regularly, he won’t be around long term.
Mississippi State: Dan Mullen is already part of nearly half of the program’s 19 bowl appearances, and appears to have found a quarterback for the future. A remade defense is next on the docket after some staff turnover. Though he has five wins over the rival Rebels, Mullen also has dropped three games to the “school up north.” As long as he consistently wins the Egg Bowl and reaches 9 wins regularly, the natives should be comfortable.
Missouri: The second half of Gary Pinkel’s tenure with the Tigers revealed what the program can do. He registered five double-digit win seasons, and of course, two appearances in the SEC Championship Game. He was also consistently ranked, most notably No. 5 in the AP poll in the 12-2 season in 2013. Given that backdrop, Barry Odom’s expectations should be to return to the 9-win level, and regularly be in the mix to win the SEC East. He has a long way to go. Will he win enough, soon enough, to get there?
Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze built some quick equity by winning key rivalry games, but now he’s dealing with the cloud of an NCAA recruiting investigation as his win total dropped in half in 2016. While he has a 10-win season on his resume with the Rebels — only the second in program history since 1971 — he’ll be expected to reverse that trend and get the program steered back toward nine and 10 win seasons with consistent wins over Mississippi State and at least an occasional upset of other SEC West rivals.
South Carolina: While Gamecock fans are known to be among the most loyal around, the question here is how much the 11-2 golden years under Steve Spurrier are expected to be an ongoing reality. The truth is over the scope of the program’s history, the Gamecocks have struggled to regularly top 8 wins. But reaching 8 wins regularly, and 9 occasionally, along with beating Clemson at least every couple years, should make the fans happy.
Tennessee: If only Butch Jones could be judged on motivational slogans, he might be the Vols coach for life — or champion of life, as it were. But the Music City, Outback and TaxSlayer bowls are not what many in the Vols’ fan base expect for the storied program. Though they are an upgrade over what Jones inherited.
Phil Fulmer had eight double-digit win seasons, which came with regular appearances in Atlanta and in the national picture. So Jones not only needs to get back to the 10-win mark, he needs to also consistently beat division rivals Georgia and Florida, which in turn would lead to a return to Atlanta.
Texas A&M: After a blazing start to SEC membership with 11 and 9-win seasons, Kevin Sumlin has plateaued with three consecutive 8-win campaigns. That’s simply not acceptable longterm in College Station.
Yet Sumlin has one of the two double-digit win seasons in Aggieland since 1997, still, the back-to-back bowl losses don’t help. While the Aggies have been ranked in the AP top 10 in every season under Sumlin, sustaining momentum has been a problem. A&M needs to reach at least 9 wins, and more than likely 10 or more by making noise in the rough and tumble SEC West to have a comfortable future.
Vanderbilt: This is another case where the coaching predecessor re-tooled expectations. Of Vanderbilt’s eight bowl appearances, four have come since 2011 and three were under James Franklin. And despite a 6-7 campaign, the Tennessee and Georgia wins go a long way to building margin and equity for Derek Mason with the fan base. He probably doesn’t have to reach the back-to-back 9-4 seasons of Franklin, but getting to 8 would help, especially if he mixed in upset wins over SEC East rivals on a regular basis.