What happened to traditional SEC powers LSU, Florida and Tennessee?
Take it easy on your friends from rival schools at the next tailgate this season.
It could be you.
For the first time since 2002 on Saturday, LSU, Tennessee and Florida will each take the field unranked with little to no relevance nationally.
Times are tough in Knoxville, Gainesville and Baton Rouge, once powerful SEC cities that housed elite programs now starving for success in 2014.
It’s not too bad at LSU yet, but the conditions are ripe to finish — at worst — seventh in the West after four consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins.
With Arkansas on the rise and the horrors of inexperience beginning to show in key areas, Les Miles would have to commence a majestic turnaround to make meaningful noise.
Cut from a similar mold with problems up front and spotty quarterback play, Butch Jones at Tennessee likes you to think the Vols are improving ‘brick by brick’ despite a record that reflects otherwise.
Tennessee’s had chances to win each of its first two conference games, but has failed to execute at crucial times in both.
Progress? Not much.
And then there’s Florida, still holding onto its glory days under Urban Meyer when the BCS spotlight centered on Ben Hill Griffin Stadium what seemed like every other weekend.
It appears Will Muschamp’s regime is circling the drain after the program’s worst campaign in more than three decades has been followed up by an underwhelming start and a recent off-the-field issue that has damaged public perception.
What’s happened to these traditional SEC powers?
Division rivals have improved greatly: The biggest issue facing the Tigers, Vols and Gators is that division championships no longer run through their respective programs. Alabama and most recently Auburn, have taken control of the West and it now appears the Magnolia State’s staking its claim near the top of the divisional pecking order.
LSU’s lost just nine games since the start of the 2010 season, but five of those setbacks have come to Auburn or the Crimson Tide. The Tigers, 2007 national champs, no longer strike fear in their neighboring rivals.
Much is the same for Florida and Tennessee, once considered admirable opponents in the minds of players at Georgia, Mizzou and South Carolina now deemed as winnable. The shield of respect’s been penetrated for these two programs and it takes more than a couple SEC wins to secure that breach.
We haven’t even mentioned the recruiting angle as Texas A&M, the SEC’s new bully, is expected to sign its third straight Top 10 class in 2015 according to 247Sports. Now fighting for the same players as Alabama, Auburn and LSU, the Aggies have made it more difficult on the Tigers.
The coaching edge is no longer noticeable: Miles is certainly the most impressive of this group with two SEC titles and a national championship since taking over at LSU in 2005, but the other two currents — Jones and Muschamp — leave a lot to be desired.
Jones has just two wins in 10 conference games since leaving Cincinnati for Tennessee after the 2012 season and has a much different personality than player favorite and Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer, the Vols’ second-winningest coach all-time behind Robert Neyland. Jones is still cleaning up three years worth of Derek Dooley’s mess, one of the worst hires of the last decade in the FBS ranks, that left a near permanent stain on the program that’s been difficult to erase.
Muschamp’s in a tough spot as a fierce defensive coordinator whose first leading man position came at a place with high expectations. After going 11-2 in Year 2, the Gators have floundered since and athletic director Jeremy Foley’s patience is running thin. He’s the same guy who hired co-failure Ron Zook, so he deserves some of the blame as well.
Expectations have dropped significantly: Bowl eligibility was never the goal at Tennessee and Florida in the 1990s and early ’00s. Two former elites that averaged double-digit win totals under Fulmer and Steve Spurrier during that stretch. Championships were. The Vols and Gators combined for 11 SEC Championship Game appearances and seven titles from 1992 to 2004, but have only won two since (Gators, 2006 and 2008) in three chances.
Tennessee’s been particularly mired in tough times, averaging just 5.5 wins per season since last winning 10 in 2007. Current high school seniors were in the fifth grade the last time the Vols finished a season ranked in the AP Top 25.
LSU has done the best job staying relevant despite heavy early-exit personnel losses to the NFL. Miles has won 48 games since the start of the 2010 season. Only Nick Saban’s won more (50) in the SEC.
Facilities are no more impressive than the next: All three of the home venues at these programs have been renovated since 2008, but the additions are no more meaningful than current projects at Alabama, Texas A&M and several other elites around college football including torchbearer Oregon.
Keeping up in the multi-million dollar arms race is essential to recruiting success and is often a leading factor in how programs are viewed by outsiders. Others are beginning to catch up and Florida — most of all — can’t afford slippage in that regard.