The SEC's 10 most disappointing teams (relative to preseason expectations) of the Playoff era
It’s preseason hype season.
What does that mean? A few teams will inevitably come up short of living up to the high expectations that have been set for them.
As we know, that’s happened once or twice to SEC teams in the Playoff era. Maybe there are national title hopes. Maybe it’s just getting to a conference championship. But whatever it is, the seasons mentioned here come well short of a play here or a play there from reaching that desired destination.
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Here are the 10 most disappointing seasons of the Playoff era relative to their preseason expectations:
10. 2016 Georgia
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 18
Final AP Ranking: Unranked (8-5 overall, 4-4 vs. SEC)
Yes, Kirby Smart was new in town. But with Jacob Eason arriving on campus to compliment the wealth of talent that the Dawgs returned in the running game and on defense, there was hope that Year 1 of the Smart era would include a trip to Atlanta. Instead, a 2-4 start to SEC play that included a devastating Hail Mary loss to Tennessee and a deflating home loss to Vanderbilt made many question the firing of Mark Richt. A 4-1 finish salvaged what could’ve been an even worse start to Smart’s Georgia tenure.
9. 2018 Auburn
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 9
Final AP Ranking: Unranked (8-5 overall, 3-5 vs. SEC)
Even though Gus Malzahn claimed his team had “the toughest schedule in America,” there were still some relatively high expectations for Auburn coming off that 2017 Iron Bowl win and West title. But Malzahn’s offense sputtered, Jarrett Stidham didn’t live up to the Heisman Trophy hype and despite Auburn’s impressive opening week win against Washington, the Tigers only beat 1 Power 5 team with a winning record after that. Malzahn went from the $49 million man to the man fighting for his job in a matter of months.
8. 2017 Tennessee
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 25
Final AP Ranking: Unranked (4-8 overall, 0-8 vs. SEC)
Obviously there were cracks in the foundation. Having Butch Jones — and not having guys like Derek Barnett and Josh Dobbs anymore — made many skeptical of the Vols’ 2017 outlook, but there was still a belief that they could compete in what looked like a relatively open East. Some believed Tennessee could reach the 8-win mark and finish as a top-25 team. You know what happened after that. The worst season in program history ensued and Jones was fired in the second week of November. Even with the lowest preseason expectations on this list, that’s still an epic level of disappointment. And when your rallying cry is a trash can, well, you’re in trouble.
Butch Jones using a trash can on his sideline for whatever reason is quite ironic pic.twitter.com/DnlpTTXE4O
— Jack McGuire (@JackMacCFB) September 5, 2017
7. 2014 Auburn
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 6
Final AP Ranking: No. 22 (8-5 overall, 4-4 vs. SEC)
The Tigers are a frequent visitor on this list, which probably speaks to the frustration that fans have with Malzahn. Perhaps it was naive to think that Auburn would win the SEC again after the fairytale that was 2013. But in Year 2 of the Malzahn era with Nick Marshall and 17 returning starters back, expectations were high. Crazy enough, Auburn was actually sitting at No. 3 in November after an impressive win at No. 4 Ole Miss. But after that? The wheels fell off. A 1-4 finish to the season ruined any thought of a repeat conference title, thanks in large part to the Tigers’ woeful defense. A year after engineering the Kick Six, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was fired to cap a strange season on The Plains.
6. 2016 LSU
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 5
Final AP Ranking: No. 13 (8-4 overall, 5-3 vs. SEC)
Before you criticize this having a spot on the list because LSU only finished 8 spots below where it started, consider this. Leonard Fournette was an overwhelming preseason Heisman favorite, and he only played half a season because of injuries. Even worse, Les Miles went from getting carried off the field to end the 2015 regular season and somehow keeping his job despite strong the sentiment that he wouldn’t, to not making it to October of 2016 after a 2-2 start. That in itself is extremely disappointing for a team that entered the year with national title goals.
5. 2017 Florida
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 17
Final AP Ranking: Unranked (4-7 overall, 3-5 vs. SEC)
Here’s the thing. The 2017 offseason was a disaster for Florida. You had the Jim McElwain shark photo go viral and you had the credit card fraud scandal that resulted in the suspension of 9 Florida players. Still, coming off a pair of division titles and with the transfer of Malik Zaire, there was hope that the Gators could find a way to 3-peat in the West (it was almost split between Georgia and Florida to win the division). Yeah … about that. A nightmare 4-win season saw McElwain get fired after making up death threats. That happened following a blowout loss to Georgia, who went on to not only win the division but also play for a national title. It was Florida’s second losing season since 1979, and ultimately, 2017 was one of the more bizarre calendar years we’ve ever seen from an SEC program.
4. 2016 Tennessee
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 9
Final AP Ranking: No. 22 (9-4 overall, 4-4 vs. SEC)
The Vols entered 2016 with the expectation that they would make their first SEC Championship appearance since 2005. It was a somewhat trendy preseason Playoff pick, with many picking them to win double digit games and have the “we’re back” year that fans had been hoping for. For crying out loud, FPI gave Tennessee a 59% chance (!) to beat Alabama in 2016:
.@ESPNStatsInfo's FPI flip flops on Tennessee after last night's win vs. Appalachian State pic.twitter.com/orhEdkKUQo
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) September 2, 2016
Tennessee got off to a wild 5-0 start, but it was downhill from there. A 3-4 finish to the regular season included the odd midseason departure of starting tailback Jalen Hurd, an embarrassing home loss to Vanderbilt and a 39-point blowout loss to Alabama that reminded Tennessee fans how far away it still was from competing for an SEC crown. The Music City Bowl win over Nebraska salvaged a spot in the final AP poll.
3. 2016 Ole Miss
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 11
Final AP Ranking: Unranked (5-7 overall, 2-6 vs. SEC)
We probably should’ve known that Ole Miss’ 2016 season was doomed when the Laremy Tunsil video hit the airwaves. With the threat of NCAA sanctions looming, Ole Miss still had reason to be excited with the most hyped recruiting class in program history, highlighted by 5-star quarterback Shea Patterson. Things were looking good for Ole Miss in the opener when it held a 15-point halftime lead against No. 4 Florida State in Orlando. But a defensive collapse — something that would become all too familiar in at Ole Miss — spoiled the opener. The Rebels were all but eliminated from West contention after a mid-October loss to Arkansas. It was well before Chad Kelly’s season-ending injury in November that the Rebels’ season was deemed a disappointment. As it turned out, that was Hugh Freeze’s last year in Oxford … but not because of how disappointing 2016 was.
2. 2014 South Carolina
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 9
Final AP Ranking: Unranked (7-6 overall, 3-5 vs. SEC)
In what turned out to be the last chance for romance for Steve Spurrier, the 2014 team entered the season fresh off the program’s highest final AP ranking (No. 4) ever. The Gamecocks had 3 straight 11-win seasons with bowl victories that yielded top-8 finishes. So why not expect the same in 2014? Dylan Thompson actually set the single-season passing record, but he was much more mistake-prone. It didn’t help that South Carolina went from No. 12 to No. 93 in scoring defense in the first year of the post-Jadeveon Clowney era. It ultimately wound up being the beginning of the end of the Spurrier era.
1. 2015 Auburn
Preseason AP Ranking: No. 6
Final AP Ranking: Unranked (7-5 overall, 2-6 vs. SEC)
Y’all remember the Jeremy Johnson Heisman hype? Of course you do because it was all you heard about in the preseason. It was fueled by Johnson’s blue-chip recruit status and his 2013 opener performance against Arkansas while Nick Marshall served his suspension. Johnson, unfortunately, was a microcosm for Auburn’s letdown of a 2015 season. Somewhere between the Jacksonville State game and the Georgia loss, tweets like this became the norm:
Remember when Jeremy Johnson was a Heisman contender? He and Sean White combined for 27 passing yards vs. Georgia over three quarters. 27!
— SI College Football (@si_ncaafb) November 14, 2015
The strange thing was, the previously-listed 2014 season ended so horribly, yet the Tigers with new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp still got preseason Playoff consideration. Instead, they crawled to a 2-6 record in conference play. And thus, the Malzahn divide was formed. “Disappointing” was an understatement for that group.