SEC 360: Ranking the Top 25 SEC teams of the decade
In 1991, the hair band Motley Crue released a greatest hits album fittingly entitled Decade of Decadence. The album was a tribute to the band’s unprecedented success from 1981-91, to the women and the booze, and included tracks like “Dr. Feelgood,” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” and “Kickstart My Heart.”
If ever there were a college football team that could release a greatest hits album spanning a decade, it would be the Alabama Crimson Tide from 2010-19. Winners of 123 games over that illustrious 10-year span, Alabama has truly enjoyed a Decade of Decadence of its own.
Truly, one cannot write a narrative about the SEC and about college football in general during this decade without including Alabama. For all of the Crimson Tide’s struggles this year, and despite the fact that LSU (and not Alabama) is the lone conference representative in the College Football Playoff in 2019, Alabama was and still is the main character in college football — similar to Michael Corleone in the Godfather Trilogy or Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. One does not simply erase what Nick Saban has done overnight. One cannot blot out the 100-year-old achievements of this, the most storied program in college football history. One cannot overstate the dominance and the year-by-year feast that Alabama has enjoyed this past decade like a Thanksgiving cornucopia overflowing with sweet potatoes, squash and maize.
How substantial is Alabama? Many of the rankings on this Top 25 list have to do with a team’s success against Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
How important is Alabama to the overall college football conversation? Very.
But that’s enough about Alabama for now. No need to lavish the kings any longer.
Bolstering conference might over the past decade was a very capable supporting cast, including Auburn, LSU, Florida and Georgia. Odd as it may seem, Auburn is the only other SEC team to win the national title this past decade, but many, including this year’s LSU team and the 2017 Georgia team, have been on the doorstep.
At times, teams like Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Arkansas, South Carolina and even Missouri threatened to ascend the conference caste system, but somehow could never establish long-term consistency to reside with the elites. Recent coaching turnover at Ole Miss, Arkansas and Missouri will be sure to test the mettle of these programs, and the conference narrative will be no less interesting as we turn the page to 2020.
What about 10-win seasons? While Alabama never won fewer than 10 games in any year of this decade, conversely the state of Tennessee did not witness a 10-win season within its borders, as neither Tennessee nor Vanderbilt eclipsed that coveted mark in the years 2010-19. That should change soon, as it appears that Jeremy Pruitt — at least for now — has the Vols headed in the right direction.
For a moment, let’s take a look at how the conference stacked up in regard to 10-win campaigns:
Most 10-win seasons (2010-19)
- Alabama – 10
- Georgia – 7
- LSU – 6
- Florida – 4
- Auburn – 3*
- South Carolina – 3
- Missouri – 3
- Arkansas – 2
- Kentucky – 1
- Mississippi State – 1
- Ole Miss – 1
- Texas A&M – 1
- Tennessee – 0
- Vanderbilt – 0
* — Auburn can secure another 10-win season if it wins its bowl game.
Now without further ado, let’s get to our list. Here are the Top 25 SEC teams of the decade:
No. 25: 2011 Arkansas (11-2)
It’s hard to believe how hard Arkansas has fallen and the drama that’s occurred in Fayetteville over the past few years, but only 8 seasons ago the Hogs posted an 11-win campaign under head coach Bobby Petrino. Wins against Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Kansas State were the highlights of this season, one in which the Razorbacks finished No. 5 in the country and 3rd in the SEC West behind behemoths Alabama and LSU.
No. 24: 2012 South Carolina (11-2)
Thinking retrospectively, it’s hard to believe that Steve Spurrier did anything quietly while he resided in Columbia, South Carolina, but honestly, his 3 consecutive 11-win seasons in the early part of the decade have quietly faded into the hinterland of our memories. Of these 11-win teams, the 2012 version was perhaps the best of the bunch, winning the Outback Bowl over Michigan and defeating No. 5 Georgia and No. 12 Clemson along the way.
No. 23: 2014 Missouri (11-3)
The “worser” of the 2 division champions (Mizzou also won the SEC East in 2013) this Tigers team was bopping along until it ran into a buzz-saw against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. For coach Gary Pinkel, it was a year that saw big wins at South Carolina and at Texas A&M, and against No. 25 Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl. All in all, the folks in Columbia had to be happy about the product Missouri put on the field in 2014.
No. 22: 2010 Alabama (10-3)
If there were an Alabama team to leave off the list, it would be the 2010 version. But, with the luxury of having Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram and Julio Jones on the roster, many claim this particular group was the most talented of all of Nick Saban’s teams. That year, Alabama lost 3 games — at South Carolina, at LSU, and against Auburn — and concluded the schedule with a painful reminder of how good it could have been with a 49-7 demolition of Michigan State in the Citrus Bowl. Reviewing the season, we might conclude that having most talent doesn’t always bring home a title. It’s how that talent meshes that makes all the difference.
No. 21. 2012 Florida (11-2)
Yes, Will Muschamp did do well in Gainesville, and an 11-2 mark in 2012 was evidence to prove it. Sadly, this season was the lone outlier of the Muschamp era, and he was gone just 2 seasons later.
This group fit the mold of a Muschamp-coached team: defense was its strong suit (allowing only 14.4 points and 287 yards per contest), while the offense was plagued with stretches of inconsistency. Wins over LSU, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida State brought joy to Gainesville, but losses to traditional rival Georgia and Louisville in the Sugar Bowl called for a bottle of Tums. Still, this squad rose to No. 3 and finished No. 9 in the country.
No. 20: 2014 Mississippi State (10-3)
On Nov. 15, 2014, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (can you believe it?) waddled into Bryant-Denny Stadium ranked No. 1 in the country. Led by quarterback Dak Prescott, MSU was enjoying its best season ever to that point, and it was all because the program had finally found a great coach in Dan Mullen. State wound up dropping 3 games that year, including the Alabama game, but 2014 was indeed a year to remember in Starkville.
No. 19: 2019 Georgia (11-2)
The 2019 Georgia defensive team is like the overall-wearing crooners in the TV show Hee Haw, perpetually singing to the offense, “Where, oh where, are you tonight … why did you leave me here all alone?”
If only Georgia had a good offense, folks will be saying about this team from here to eternity. Defensively, however, the Dawgs were impressive, allowing no more than 20 points in a game until the SEC Championship against LSU. Now if Georgia can finish the year at 12-2 with a win over Baylor in the Sugar Bowl, it can move up a few notches on our list. In the future, Kirby Smart is going to have to do what Ed Orgeron did two years ago: revamp and modernize a staid offense that could barely score on a defense anchored by “Golden Girls” legend, Rue McClanahan.
No. 18: 2013 Missouri (12-2)
Missouri wasn’t supposed to win a division title so fast. Yet here the Tigers were, in only the program’s 2nd season in the SEC, playing Auburn for the conference title. And although the Tigers lost 59-42, the program gained a measure of respect. This was the year of James Franklin (not the Penn State head coach; the Mizzou quarterback), Henry Josey, Dorial Green-Beckham and Michael Sam, and a 12-2 mark was nothing to sneeze at. The Tigers finished No. 5 in the country.
No. 17: 2012 Texas A&M (11-2)
How fun was it to watch Johnny Manziel in college? Well, it wasn’t if your team played him; it was more like watching the TV series The Purge, but you get the point.
When I think of the Manziel era, I think about how much havoc this fine footballer wreaked against Alabama on Nov. 10, 2012 in a 29-24 stunner at Bryant-Denny Stadium. No, this Manziel-led Aggie team did not win its division, but it was less than 2 touchdowns away from an undefeated season. It was a year in which A&M won its bowl game over Oklahoma, Manziel took home the Heisman Trophy and the Aggies finished No. 5 in the country. That’s very good bull, in my book.
No. 16: 2015 Ole Miss (10-3)
This was a very dangerous and talented Ole Miss squad that beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, ravaged LSU, threw Mississippi State around like a rag doll, bludgeoned Texas A&M and hide-strapped Oklahoma State to a pine rail in the Sugar Bowl. On the flip side of that coin, however, was a schizophrenic personality — one that lost to Memphis, got blown out by Florida and dropped an overtime thriller to 4-loss Arkansas. If the best Ole Miss team showed up — it rose to No. 3 that year — it was capable of beating anyone in the country, and this is the version that justifies the No. 15 ranking on our list.
No. 15: 2010 LSU (11-2)
Good gravy, this was a good team. Remember that time when Les Miles outsmarted Nick Saban? You know, when he called a reverse on 4th-and-1 when Jordan Jefferson pitched it to Stevan Ridley who hot-potatoed it to DeAngelo Peterson for a 1st down? Yeah, that was cool. If you’ll remember, LSU later stumbled against Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Nov. 27 but finished the season with a big win against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. And it was the same year Les Miles ate grass, which was tremendous.
No. 14: 2013 Alabama (11-2)
How good was this particular Alabama team? Well, you can say it was a Kick-6 from playing for a national title. Forget that Alabama lost to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl later that year — it’s doubtful the team cared much about a silly bowl game at that point. The Iron Bowl was what really mattered, and down on The Plains in Auburn, the Crimson Tide were up 21-7 and controlling the game (heck, it was 28-21 Alabama with under 1 minute to play!). Had Alabama beaten Auburn, then Alabama, and not its hated arch-rival, would have played Florida State in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. A national title would have been the 3rd in a row for the Crimson Tide, a feat that had not been accomplished since Minnesota won 3 straight from 1933-35. But, of course, you knew that.
No. 13: 2012 Georgia (12-2)
The last play of the 2012 SEC Championship Game was like a paper airplane with so much promise that took a nosedive and crashed to the floor. After an AJ McCarron-to-Amari Cooper bomb that put Alabama up 32-28 in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, the Georgia Bulldogs were driving with the record-setting Aaron Murray behind the wheel. Those who were in attendance that night say the crowd was about 75-to-25 in favor of Georgia, so 75 percent of in-stadium fans went home disappointed after Murray’s pass was deflected and time expired to extinguish the Bulldogs’ hope for a national title. Alabama went on to win the national championship over Notre Dame, while Georgia was stricken with the horrible disease known as the “what ifs?” Still, this team was plenty good (it finished No. 5 in the country), and that’s why it almost cracks our Top 10 list.
No. 12: 2014 Alabama (12-2)
The Tide were cruising. Up 21-6 over Ohio State, Alabama appeared to be taking control of the College Football Playoff semifinal, held at the Superdome in New Orleans. But Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott had other plans. Elliott romped for 230 yards on 20 carries, including an 85-yarder in the 4th quarter, as Ohio State came from behind to defeat Alabama 42-35. For any other program, a 12-2 year would be sufficient, but Saban had grown the Alabama program such that by this time, anything less than a national championship was viewed as a disappointment.
No. 11: 2013 Auburn (12-2)
Dominating Florida State in the BCS National Championship, the Auburn Tigers were one half from bringing home their 2nd national title in 4 seasons and bookending their nemesis, Alabama, which had won the championship in back-to-back seasons in 2011 and 2012. But with smiling elan, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston led the Seminoles back with a 4th-quarter scoring barrage that stamped 21 fresh points on the board, including the game-winner with 13 seconds to play. Take nothing away from Auburn, which gave 1st-year head coach Gus Malzahn reason to enjoy being back on The Plains.
No. 10: 2017 Georgia (13-2)
What was not to like about this Dawgs team that featured the 1-2 punch of running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb? Add in the wunderkind at quarterback, freshman Jake Fromm, and you had a recipe for greatness. Yes, this was the Georgia that fans had been pining for all along — and though it fell just short of a championship in Kirby Smart’s 2nd year at the helm, my, did this team impress. Victors at Notre Dame Stadium, SEC champions, winners of the College Football Playoff semifinal (below), and 2 downs from bringing home to Athens the 1st championship since 1980.
No. 9: 2018 Alabama (14-1)
Last year, everyone wanted to talk about the brutal whipping Alabama took in the National Championship Game against Clemson, but no one wanted to talk about the licks Alabama took to get there. I made a comment on my social media page before the title game that a “battle-tested” Bama would be more prepared than a Clemson team that essentially hadn’t played anybody. As it turns out, that November-January gauntlet hurt Alabama more than it helped the team’s causes. Couple that with a semi-crippled Tua Tagovailoa and you’ve got a 44-16 embarrassment at the hands of Trevor “Ivan Drago” Lawrence and his ruthless associate, Justyn Ross. Alabama was still very good, and I believe if the game had been played 2 months later, you see a different outcome.
No. 8: 2011 LSU (13-1)
Honey Badger. Odell Beckham. Rueben Randle. Jordan Jefferson. Jarrett Lee. Morris Claiborne. Eric Reid. This team was LOAD-ed and would have won the national title, but for one problem: Alabama was LOADED-er. After winning the “Game of the Century” in Tuscaloosa, LSU wiped out Ole Miss, Arkansas and Georgia in succession to move to 13-0 — but oh snap, we’ve got to face Bama again in the National Championship Game?
Correct. And too bad for LSU, as it would have defeated any other team in the country that night to take home the school’s 4th national title.
No. 7: 2016 Alabama (14-1)
When Jalen Hurts planted a cleat in the end zone with 2:07 left in the 4th quarter, you had to like Alabama’s chances of bringing home its 2nd national title in a row. But Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, not to be outdone, gallantly marched the Tigers down the field against a Bama defense that was still courageous but completely gassed. Save for a pick play with 0:01 remaining, we might be talking about Alabama winning 3 national titles in a row, but instead, Dabo Swinney had his 1st one.
No. 6: 2019 LSU (13-0)
Ed Orgeron’s 2019 LSU team is ranked No. 6 on our list for 2 reasons: This team has yet to finish its season and even if LSU does not win the national title, it is arguably the best SEC team of the past decade that came up just short. Think about what this team has done already. LSU has defeated 5 Top 10 teams (No. 9 Texas, No. 7 Florida, No. 9 Auburn, No. 3 Alabama and No. 4 Georgia); it boasts a shoo-in for the Heisman Trophy, quarterback Joe Burrow; it stopped an 8-game skid to Alabama; and it absolutely throttled a red-hot Georgia team in the SEC Championship Game last week. This LSU team is so good that if Orgeron and Joe Burrow can lead the Tigers to a championship in the College Football Playoff on January 13, this list will need to be rewritten to make room for a new No. 1.
No. 5: 2017 Alabama (13-1)
Down 13-0 to Georgia at halftime of the national championship, Alabama needed a spark. Well, more like a bonfire. Enter Tua Tagovailoa, a freshman from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, who promptly gunned Alabama to 20 2nd-half points plus 6 in overtime on a 2nd-and-26 walk-off dagger to receiver DeVonta Smith.
The 1-loss Tide had eked into the College Football Playoff with the No. 4 seed, and then quickly disposed of Clemson. Georgia, the SEC champion, defeated Oklahoma and its rootin’ tootin’ quarterback, Baker Mayfield, in the semis in Pasadena, which set up the all-SEC barnburner in Atlanta.
No. 4: 2015 Alabama (14-1)
Sometimes, it takes Ole Miss to get you mad. Just ask Tim Tebow.
For a moment, let’s go back to 2015 and take a screenshot of the scoreboard of the Ole Miss-Alabama game as it read Ole Miss 30, Alabama 10 late in the 3rd quarter. As incredulous as that might have been, and as incredulous as it was for Ole Miss to pull off its 2nd consecutive victory over Alabama, something within Alabama snapped after dropping a 43-37 loss at home to Hugh Freeze’s Rebels. For the rest of the season, much of Alabama’s angst was channeled through No. 2 for Alabama, Derrick Henry, who ran for an SEC-record 2,219 yards on 395 carries and brought home the Heisman Trophy by year’s end. But winning a national title would probably not have occurred without the play of 1st-year starting quarterback Jake Coker, who made big throws against Auburn and against Clemson in the national title game and had a propensity to lower his shoulder and run over anyone in his path.
No. 3: 2012 Alabama (13-1)
Alabama began the 2012 season in Jerryworld and ended it in Miami. Not a bad tour of America, if you ask me. After clapping Michigan’s ears in the Cowboys Classic on Sept. 1 in Arlington, Texas, the Crimson Tide ran off the next 8 straight, punctuated by a 21-17 win over LSU in Baton Rouge. The team’s lone blemish was a 29-24 loss to Texas A&M at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 10, when the aforementioned Johnny Manziel made his inaugural and only trip to Tuscaloosa. In the national title game, the Tide completely overpowered Notre Dame for the 3rd national title of the Saban era.
No. 2: 2010 Auburn (14-0)
The only undefeated championship team on our list, the 2010 Auburn Tigers were defined by the saga and sublime ability of Cam Newton. Like him or hate him, Newton posted one of the most splendid seasons in college football history, throwing for 2,854 yards and rushing for 1,473 more. He combined for 51 touchdowns (30 passing, 20 rushing, and just to show he could, 1 receiving). Auburn won its 2nd national title in school history and Newton gathered the bronze hardware.
No. 1: 2011 Alabama (12-1)
The 2011 Alabama team comes in at our top spot for this reason: No one beats this team the way it played on the night of Jan. 9, 2012.
In a rematch versus LSU, Alabama held the Tigers to 92 yards of total offense in one of the greatest defensive performances in the modern era. Ask any Crimson Tide fan about this game and the question will be the same, “How many times did LSU cross the 50?”
Coming into the game, there was a business-like ether surrounding the Alabama football team. LSU had felled the Crimson Tide earlier in the year, 9-6 in Tuscaloosa, and then paraded to an SEC championship with a 42-10 win over No. 12 Georgia. But Alabama kept lingering around at the top of the polls.
In Week 11, undefeated Stanford lost to Oregon, 53-30. The very next week, Oklahoma State, ranked 2nd in the BCS, fell to Iowa State, 37-31 in a double-overtime thriller in Ames.
That set up a rematch for the ages, which Alabama dominated with special teams and the stingiest of defenses. Forasmuch as Bama has been maligned for its kicking woes, on this night it was stellar, placekicker Jeremy Shelley splitting the uprights on 5 separate occasions.
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So there you have it, the Top 25 SEC teams of the decade. Feel free to begin your onslaught of opinion, your astute take on why this team should be ranked ahead of that team, or why this team was so egregiously left off the list. Take to Twitter, take to Facebook, take to Snapchat, take to the Message Boards, take to Christian Mingle. Do whatever you have to do, but never forget the decade that was, and that the SEC is the best dang football conference in all the land.