Is your SEC team in better shape than it was a year ago?
With the 2017 regular season completed, it’s time to step back and see the big picture. We’re looking at each SEC program and asking a simple — but deceptively complicated — question. Is the team better or worse off than it was at the end of the 2016 regular season?
By our take, six programs are better off, three stand about the same as a year ago, and five have gotten worse. Here’s the breakdown:
Georgia: Going from 7-5 to the CFP? Definitely qualifies as better shape. Kirby Smart went from looking clueless and over his head to being one of the most highly regarded young coaches in the sport. UGA found the relevance it had been missing at least since 2012, but arguably since 1980.
Missouri: Speaking of coming back from the dead … how about a team that goes 4-8 in 2016, then starts this season 1-5 before winning its last six games? If not for Georgia, Mizzou would be the team that has improved its position the most. Barry Odom was legitimized, and the Tigers are back in a bowl for the first time since 2014.
Auburn: Sure, the Tigers didn’t win the SEC or nab a CFP spot. But a year ago, they were coming off a trio of seasons that ran 8-5, 7-6, 8-5. They were relevant in 2017, and Jarrett Stidham jump-started the passing game. They kept Gus, and there’s no reason not to feel good about their future.
LSU: Sure, the 9-3 campaign falls a little short of where LSU wanted to be. But the first full year of the Ed Orgeron experience, humbling loss to Troy aside, was fairly stable. A year ago, LSU was a house divided about whether Coach O was the right guy. That’s looking a little better this year.
South Carolina: Much like LSU, Carolina’s 8-4 season was validation that it went in the right direction. Will Muschamp won’t rest on his laurels, but going from scratching their way to 6-6 to finishing second in the East is progress.
Texas A&M: Admittedly, the Aggies’ 7-5 campaign isn’t a step up from a past three seasons of 7-5, 8-4 and 8-4. But moving to end the seven/eight win cycle by hiring a national title winning head coach is a positive. Bringing in Jimbo Fisher demonstrates that A&M is serious about narrowing the gap between itself and the West’s Big Three, instead of just treading water.
About the same
Alabama: A year ago, the Tide were headed to the CFP as the No. 1 seed, and this year, thanks to a loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, they’re the No. 4 seed. But it’s worth noting that they are a mild favorite over the alleged No. 1 seed, and they parlayed their success into the last Playoff spot despite a somewhat questionable resume. Good enough.
Kentucky: Well, record-wise, it’s the same. Kentucky’s 7-5 season felt like a missed opportunity, but it’s hard to be negative about the Wildcats’ first back-to-back .500 SEC seasons in this century. If UK didn’t advance as planned, at least they didn’t fall back.
Mississippi State: Sure, State went from 5-7 last season to 8-4 this season. But then it lost Dan Mullen, the architect who built up the program. Maybe Joe Moorhead can maintain the momentum from 2017, but some manner of leveling back to where the Bulldogs were a year ago — probably back to fighting for bowl eligibility — seems likely to be the immediate result.
Florida: Dan Mullen is a great hire. But a year ago, the Gators had just won their second division title in two seasons. Jim McElwain was ready to unleash Feliepe Franks — and recruit Malik Zaire — to jump start the rather ragged Gators offense. Instead, a 4-7 season later, he’s gone, and Florida finds itself starting from scratch. Hiring Dan Mullen makes this a less significant drop than it would be. But Florida has been passed by UGA in the East pecking order, and even if the program rebounds to second place, that’s a drop-off from a year ago.
Vanderbilt: It ended up being a move from 6-6 to 5-7, but Vandy is competing with such a razor-thin margin for error that it can’t afford to fall. With the exception of Tennessee and Florida, the rest of the East either held position or moved ahead. UT and Florida will have a quicker climb from the cellar than the Commodores.
Arkansas: Sure, the Chad Morris hire is a wise one and could pay dividends. But a year ago, Arkansas was coming off Bret Bielema’s second consecutive 7-5 regular season; this year, its streak of bowl appearances ended with a 4-8 record and last place finish in the West. Rebooting with Morris was the smart call, but it’s hard to say the program is in better shape already.
Mississippi: The win-loss mark would say otherwise, but a year ago, the Rebels were coming off a flukish 5-7 campaign with a highly regarded head coach. Sure, they went 6-6 with interim Matt Luke, but then they got hammered by the NCAA, are losing a ton of players, and couldn’t attract a home run hire to relegate Luke to being a historical afterthought. The Rebels will take the basement of the West next season (and possibly for seasons to come), and that’s a big drop.
Tennessee: From two straight 8-4 seasons to Armageddon, this is a big drop. Sure, Jeremy Pruitt is already at work fixing the ship, but it looks like a long way back to even 8-4. UT was the worst team in the SEC, and the Vols have the 0-8 conference record to prove it. Even if things are on the mend, there’s plenty to do.