SEC 360: Alabama is the best program in SEC history. But who's No. 2?
Editor’s note: Welcome to SEC 360, where each week Senior Writer Al Blanton will take a big-picture view of SEC football.
Five contenders sit nervously in a cold courtroom, waiting to present their case.
They come from different areas of the South, from the grey rolling hills to the plains and bayous. They are the titans of autumn, the reason hundreds of thousands of spectators fill large coliseums from early September to the advent of winter. Their programs have lionized countless men, ushering them to the forefront of a nation’s consciousness. And today, their representatives will stand and make an argument at their school’s behest.
As they wait on the arrival of the judge and jury, the contenders leaf through their notes, poring over their speeches one last time. For today, the question of “Who’s No. 2 in SEC history?” will be argued, but perhaps not settled.
With all due respect to the contenders seated here this morning, there is little doubt who stands at No. 1 — that’s Alabama. But a compelling case can be made for each of the contenders waiting to make their arguments to the jury. They, too, have fielded great teams over the course of their history, and they, too, have established a fine football heritage throughout the years.
Finally, the judge arrives and takes a seat on the bench. “Please be seated,” the judge says, the creases in the black robe descending like cataracts.
Holding a sheet of paper and adjusting a pair of glasses, the judge says, “Calling the case of Southeastern Conference No. 2. Are all contenders ready?”
“We are,” the five contenders say in unison.
“For over a hundred years,” the judge began, “the game of football has been a source of pride for people of the South. It has made legends, given us something to celebrate, and, when our teams are winning, furnished a joyful break from the monotony of our lives.”
The courtroom fills with laughter.
“I believe we all agree that the Southeastern Conference, also known as the SEC, is the most powerful conference in college football. One team, Alabama, whose representative is not here today, has arguably been the most successful program in the history of college sports. And although we recognize Alabama’s accomplishments, we are not here today to celebrate the greatness of the Crimson Tide. Rather, we are here to adjudicate the next best team in SEC history. And may I emphasize that I don’t mean the next best team currently!
“Today, five representatives from five schools are in attendance, and I will introduce them at this time. They are:
“Tennessee. Auburn. Georgia. Florida. LSU.
“We will now hear arguments from all schools,” the judge says. “Tennessee, you are up first.”
The Case for Tennessee
Greetings your honor and members of the jury. Given the last few years, many of you may be wondering how we made it here today. Well, forasmuch discord and disappointment as there has been in Knoxville, Tennessee, recently, if you wipe the decade of dust off of our program, you will uncover a history of winning and a team robust with tradition and pride.
Names like Johnny Majors, Peyton Manning, Reggie White, Eric Berry, Jamal Lewis, Al Wilson and General Robert Neyland immediately come to mind when you think about Tennessee. Though Alabama was gathering a bouquet of Pasadena roses and sending the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave, we were every bit as much the gold standard in the SEC until the 1960s. To that end, we might mention that when Bryant arrived at Alabama in 1958, Tennessee had won 6 conference championships to Alabama’s 5! (Even after Bryant arrived, it still took him 3 years to beat us!)
Though our tradition began in 1891 and flourished before the war, in many ways, the 1950s were our decade. During that stretch, we brought home the school’s first national title in 1951, and coach Neyland also guided his teams to 10-win seasons in 1950 and 1956, including 2 SEC crowns.
“But who cares about the 1950s?” you say.
OK, fine. Let’s talk about Tennessee of the 1990s, without question our best decade. Included were 4 10-win seasons, a national title in 1998 with a perfect 13-0 record, and the biggest bowl win in school history: a 23-16 victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. And though Florida dominated us in head-to-head matchups, we won 98 games, 6 bowls and had 6 top 10 finishes. Not too shabby.
Head-to-head, we hold an overall edge with most SEC schools, including LSU (20-10-3) and Arkansas (13-5), and overall we are tied with Georgia at a 23-23-2 mark. Outside of the SEC, we have defeated the illustrious programs of Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Penn State, among others.
We recognize that our current demise has rendered us the laughingstock of the SEC to many fans, and rival schools revel in the implosion that’s occurred in Knoxville. But why?
Peel back the layers of this hilarity and you will discover that we have been good — very good — in the past. Had our program have been mediocre all these years, no one would feel the need to comment or laugh at our decline. So in ways it’s actually a testament to how good we have been.
Consider this: We claim 6 national titles — 1938, 1940, 1950, 1951, 1967, 1998 — overall and 2 AP. We are tied with Georgia for second in overall Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships with 13. Out of the 5 schools vying for second place, we have the most overall wins with 838, most Consensus All-Americans (40) and most members of the College Football Hall of Fame (24). Our 28 bowl wins and 6 SEC East division titles are more than a subtle nod to our great football heritage.
Laugh at that.
The Case for Auburn
Your Honor. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury. I represent Auburn University, a land grant institution located in a fertile patch of Alabama, 55 miles east of Montgomery. Largely because of the other program in our state — the name of which we won’t mention today — we are perhaps the most underrated and unappreciated team in this courtroom and in all of the SEC.
Auburn symbolizes resilience. We are one the most resilient programs in SEC history.
Our program has been to death’s door on several occasions, but we always seem to find a renaissance, a way to climb up from the canvas. That normally comes from the hiring of a great coach, or the recruitment of a great player. After a trying decade in the 1970s, we made a wild card hire in Pat Dye, who eventually brought us Bo Jackson, one of the greatest athletes of all time. Then, after a tough 2009 season, we found Cam Newton, who led us to our second national title in 2010.
Although we won’t mention it by name, against the other school in our state, we have the 2nd-best winning percentage (.440) of all other SEC schools, and we have defeated them 36 times, second only to Tennessee.
Three Heisman winners — Bo, Cam Newton and Pat Sullivan — went to Auburn, which ties us with the University of Florida for most in the SEC.
Head to head, we have an overall winning record against SEC opponents Tennessee (28-22-3), Florida (43-38-2), and Arkansas (16-11-1), and also have an overall winning record against Georgia Tech and Clemson.
Outside of the SEC, we are a program that has beaten Nebraska, Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Texas and Southern Cal at one time during our storied history. We have the 2nd-best bowl winning percentage (.581) of all 5 contenders and trail only Florida and LSU in national titles.
Coaching-wise, we boast that one of the most famous football men of all time, John Heisman, was once an Auburn man. Heisman coached at Auburn from 1895-99. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention a quote on coach Heisman from the book Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football, by Wiley Lee Umphlett. “Over a 5-year coaching tenure at Auburn, Heisman’s achievements on the football field would go a long way in helping to establish the school’s long-standing athletic reputation as well as a name for himself. A concomitant result was a strong sense of community identity for the school,” Umphlett wrote.
Our winningest coach, however, is Shug Jordan, a war hero and gentleman who notched 176 wins over 25 seasons and was a 4-time winner of SEC Coach of the Year. Coach Jordan joins Dye, Heisman, and Mike Donahue as Auburn coaches who are inductees of the College Football Hall of Fame.
From 1987-1989, coach Dye won 3 consecutive SEC titles, an accomplishment
matched only by a pantheon of greats: Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Vince Dooley and Bear Bryant.
Since the inauguration of conference divisions, Auburn has represented the West in the SEC Championship Game on 6 occasions, second only to Alabama. On 3 occasions, we have won them.
We won national titles in 1957 and 2010, but also posted 2 undefeated seasons (1993, 2003) in which we did not have an opportunity to win a title due to probation. Since 1950, we have more undefeated seasons (5) than Florida (0), Georgia (1), LSU (1) and Tennessee (1).
Our best years have come over the past half-century. Over a 56-year haul, from 1955-2010, we had the 9th-best winning percentage of all college football programs (69.08 percent), trailing Southern Cal (8th) and Alabama (7th).
In sum, a strong case for Auburn can be made, and we hope that the jury will appreciate the success we’ve had despite the difficulties of having sharing real estate with the nameless team across our state.
The Case for Georgia
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, our argument is simple. And it’s spelled C-O-N-S-I-S-T-E-N-C-Y.
We are the most consistent program here today. While other teams have struggled mightily in certain eras — to give you an example, LSU in the 1990s and Tennessee from 2008-present — our program has not posted a bad decade since the advent of the Korean War. Since 1960, we have had only 8 losing seasons, contrasted to Auburn’s 11, LSU’s 11 and Tennessee’s 13.
But our argument is not about losing; it’s about winning. Let’s talk about the years 1980-83, our “Golden Age.” In those 4 seasons, we went 43-4. Let me repeat that. Forty-three and four! During this time, Herschel Walker, considered by many as the greatest college football player to ever suit up, won the Heisman Trophy. We won the national championship on the biggest stage, against arguably the most historically significant program in all of college football, Notre Dame.
Overall, we have the most 10-win seasons (24) and the most bowl wins (31) of the all contenders here today.
Since Y2K, we have been one of the top SEC teams, posting 12 10-win seasons and winning the conference title on 3 occasions. Twice, during that stretch, we have won 13 games, and we are the only team among the 5 to make the College Football Playoff since the inception of 4 teams.
Vince Dooley, our all-time winningest coach, achieved 201 wins against 77 losses in his 25-year career.
Overall, we are tied with the Volunteers with 13 SEC championships, good for 2nd place behind Alabama.
Out of the 5 schools, we have had the best success in bowl games, winning .591 of our postseason contests. Two Heisman Trophy recipients, Walker and the legendary Charley Trippi, call Georgia home. Our program further enriched by the greatest announcer in history, Larry Munson, our lovable mascot, UGA, and a stadium atmosphere famously known as playing “Between the Hedges.”
Last thing I’ll say is this: Hunker down you hairy jury. Hunker down!
The Case for Florida
Good morning. The first thing I’d like to do is to clear up a misconception. Whenever you hear an argument about Florida football, dissenters will say that our program was nothing before Steve Spurrier. Not true.
How about this stat for the naysayers: If you go all the way back to 1955, we have the 10th-best winning percentage (68.5%) in all of college football. Spurrier arrived in Gainesville in 1990, so you’re saying we had 35 disastrous years before then? I think not.
And how about this: Since 1961, we have the fewest losing seasons (5) of any of the 5 contenders. Sure, our program was terrible for a long while, but we got all of our terribleness out before 1960.
The reality is that Steve Spurrier did arrive as our coach, and since that great hire we have brought home 3 national titles to Gainesville, 2 Heismans and 8 conference titles. We are the university of Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Danny Wuerffel, Rex Grossman, Wilber Marshall, Cris Collinsworth, Fred Taylor and Emmitt Smith!
And just look at the unmatched television success of our former players, Tebow and Jesse Palmer. Not to mention that we coined the phrase “Ol’ Ball Coach” and brought Gatorade to your homes.
Consider this when reviewing our record: We are the only other school besides Alabama to win 4 consecutive SEC championships, which we did under coach Spurrier from 1993-96.
In a 25-year stretch from 1986-2010, we had the 4th-best winning percentage (75%) of all Division I schools, trailing only Miami, Nebraska and Florida State.
You cannot mention the 1990s or the 2000s without mentioning the Gators; it was a time when the fabric of college football was dyed permanently with blue and orange.
So this is us in a nutshell. Oh, and one last thing, “Go Gators.”
The Case for LSU
Ladies and gentlemen, a movie was made about one of our players. That’s right. Dennis Quaid starred in the fictional Hollywood film, Everybody’s All-American, but most folks knew that it was based on the life of LSU’s Billy Cannon.
The Tiger tradition began in 1893, when LSU football suited up for the first time. Since then, we have won 797 games, 3 AP national titles, 11 SEC titles, and have posted 15 10-win seasons. We have 26 bowl wins and an overall winning percentage (.530) in postseason play. Thirty-five Tigers were consensus All-Americans, including the aforementioned Billy Cannon, who captured the Heisman.
We have had great coaches in Baton Rouge. From the legendary Paul Dietzel to “Cholly Mac” McClendon to Nick Saban to Les Miles, Baton Rouge has been a popular stop for talented men.
It means something to be part of the LSU program. There is a standard of excellence that comes with it. That foundation was laid in the 1950s under Paul Dietzel and cemented in the 2000s by Saban and Miles.
LSU has been one of the most dominant programs in the 21 st century. Since 2000 (that’s 19 years) the Tigers have posted an overall record is 170-59 (8.9 wins per season), 10 seasons with 10-plus wins, and have secured 12 bowl wins. In addition, national championships were won in 2003 and 2007.
Overall, we have 11 SEC titles, 35 consensus All-Americans, 797 overall wins, a bowl winning percentage of .530 and 26 bowl wins. Eleven Tigers are members of the College Football Hall of Fame. And Baton Rouge is home to stars like Charles Alexander, Leonard Fournette, Tyrann Mathieu, Tommy Casanova, Glenn Dorsey, LaRon Landry, Patrick Peterson, Kevin Faulk and Marcus Spears.
And without question, we have the loudest, best and most intimidating stadium in all of the SEC. With so many casualties throughout the years, there’s no wonder why they refer to it as “Death Valley.”
Hold that Ti-gah!
As the LSU representative makes his way back to his seat, the judge addresses the courtroom.
“So there you have it, jury,” the judge says. “What say you?”