There’s a fascinating question that rolls around whenever a head coach is replaced.

What’s the program’s ceiling?

In many ways, it’s a difficult question to answer. Are we talking about what’s the best they could ever be? Are we talking about what they are? Are we talking about what they once were?

Yes, yes and yes.

Modern context is important when tackling the “ceiling” question. Just because something happened 20 years ago doesn’t mean that’s still the ceiling. Tennessee fans know that all too well. Is a team the right head coach from getting it done? And how do we account for outlier seasons like Auburn in 2010 and perhaps even LSU in 2019?

Some of this is recruiting. Understanding that a team with only 2- and 3-star recruits can’t win a national title is key for knowing why a ceiling exists. Say what you want about recruiting rankings, but if you aren’t recruiting 5-star talent, you don’t really have a shot at winning it all. Not in this current model, wherein every national title winner in the Playoff era had at least 4 former 5-star recruits.

This question evolves on a seemingly yearly basis. Last year, what would we have said about A&M’s ceiling? It certainly looks different now.

So, given historical context and the current trajectory of SEC programs, let’s try to tackle the ceiling question (all rankings are AP Top 25):


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 1
Best finish — No. 1
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 15
The skinny — You’d have to go back to Year 1 of the Nick Saban era in 2007 to find an Alabama team that didn’t finish in the top 10, which is just silly. That was also the last time Alabama didn’t earn a No. 1 ranking at some point in the season. Alabama has the easiest ceiling to figure of anyone in the country. At its peak, the program is a dynasty unlike anything we’ve seen in college football history. I’d say 6 titles in a 12-year stretch takes care of that.

Let’s move along.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 3 (2011)
Best finish — No. 5 (2011)
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 3 (2006, 2010, 2011)
The skinny — I’m gonna make a comparison that some might not like, but I think it’s reality in Fayetteville. The ceiling for Arkansas is Iowa. If Sam Pittman becomes to Arkansas what Kirk Ferentz has been to Iowa, that’d be a win. A huge win. Arkansas will recruit a bit more talent than Iowa, especially once Pittman gets going. But the ceiling is to consistently win 8 games and occasionally have a New Year’s 6 bowl. Arkansas is in a brutal division, and competing with Texas A&M for recruits in Texas hasn’t been easy since the Aggies joined the conference (all of those 10-win seasons pre-dated A&M’s SEC arrival).

But Arkansas, which is on head coach No. 6 of the Saban era, needs stability. It’s not realistic to think the Hogs are about to compete for Playoff spots when they signed 1 5-star recruit in the last decade. I mean, Darren McFadden, the greatest player in program history, could only get the Hogs to 4-4 in SEC play in his final season. It takes heavy lifting to win in Fayetteville, but those early returns from Pittman are promising.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 1 (2010)
Best finish — No. 1
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 5
The skinny — I saw something that I thought was fascinating:

Yes, Auburn has shown that it can beat Alabama during the Saban era. That’s never been in question. But why have the Tigers had at last 4 losses in each season of the Playoff era? Well, that recruiting stat might have something to do with it. If you think Alabama spent a lot on recruiting, consider that Georgia spent $3.7 million on recruiting from 2018-19. Until that disparity changes, Auburn’s ceiling is 10 wins. Auburn hasn’t had consecutive top-15 seasons since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. Do I think that can happen? Sure, but doing that now with annual Alabama and Georgia matchups is different than it was in 2013.

Including Texas A&M and LSU, Auburn has 4 annual matchups against teams that spend and recruit at a different level. (Well, as long as we’re not talking about spending on buyouts.) That’s what’s currently preventing the sustained top-15 success.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 1
Best finish — No. 1
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 9
The skinny — I always find it interesting to see where each team ranks in 247sports’ annual team composite rankings. Basically, it’s how much talent is on your roster without factoring in yearly development and whatnot. I think you’ll find Florida’s annual team composite ranking, which 247sports started tracking in 2015, quite interesting:

  • 2015 — No. 15
  • 2016 — No. 16
  • 2017 — No. 17
  • 2018 — No. 12
  • 2019 – No. 15
  • 2020 — No. 7

Now keep in mind that every team that won a title during that stretch was at least No. 9 in terms of composite talent. That was 2016 Clemson, which had a generational quarterback and head coach. On average, the national champ is ranked No. 4 in that category. While it might’ve felt like that 2019 LSU team came out of nowhere, it still ranked No. 5 in composite talent with 7 5-star recruits. Florida had a total of 7 5-star recruits on its roster during the 3 years of the Dan Mullen era.

That’s my way of saying Florida’s ceiling isn’t there yet. Mullen’s ceiling is an SEC championship and a Playoff semifinal. It’d be different if Mullen was sitting on a top-5 recruiting class, but that hasn’t happened in Gainesville during the Playoff era even with the best in-state recruiting ground of anyone in the SEC (and perhaps anyone). Until that becomes the norm, annual non-Playoff New Year’s 6 Bowl appearances and perhaps the occasional SEC title/Playoff berth are the ceiling.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 1
Best finish — No. 2
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 13
The skinny — Let’s be honest. Nobody is going to be surprised when Georgia can finally put it together and win the big one. Georgia spends more on recruiting than anyone in America by a long shot, and as a result, it’s been in the top 4 of the 247sports talent composite rankings each of the last 4 years, and that’ll likely be the case again in 2021. When you’re a busted coverage away from winning a national title and you’ve got 4 consecutive top-7 finishes, it’s fair to say that a ring is the ceiling.

The better question is perhaps does Georgia have a ceiling comparable to Alabama’s decade of dominance. I’d argue that won’t happen. We forget that Saban started his run of dominance in 2009 when he was in Year 14 as an FBS head coach. Kirby Smart is entering Year 6. He doesn’t get to quietly make mistakes. There are things Saban had to learn about truly building a yearly title contender. Smart’s level of incoming talent and floor of a non-Playoff New Year’s 6 bowl suggests he’s next. But the ceiling is not “decade of dominance,” especially while Alabama is still performing at this level.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 8
Best finish — No. 12
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 1
The skinny — I said a years ago that Mark Stoops will be to Kentucky what Dan Mullen was to Mississippi State.

That means elevating the floor and the ceiling. Before 2018, Kentucky hadn’t had a winning season in SEC play since 1977. We’ve since seen Kentucky go into Florida and Tennessee and win for the first time in my 30 years on earth. That’s a sign that the ceiling is higher than what anyone would’ve said 10 years ago. The Cats’ ceiling did feel like 2018 in terms of a peak (that was the program’s only 10-win season of the 21st century).

But what’s comforting for Kentucky is that it has a head coach who appears to be in it for the long haul after turning down the Florida State job last year. It just produced a roster that ranked No. 26 in the 247sports talent composite rankings. Maximizing talent has never been an issue for Stoops, who had 7 players drafted in the last 2 years. Six of those players went in the first 4 rounds, too. Kentucky’s ceiling isn’t lining up and beating the SEC’s best on an annual basis, but it now has the foundation in place for annual 8-win expectations with the occasional top-15 season.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 1
Best finish — No. 1
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 11
The skinny — As much as 2019 was seen as this surprise run for the ages because of the Joe Burrow/Joe Brady combination, it’s worth remembering that LSU had already shown national championship upside, and more importantly, it had the No. 5 most talented roster in the 247sports composite rankings. Only Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State had more 5-star talent in 2019. That’s the good news if you’re an LSU fan even after this mess of a year. The talent in Baton Rouge isn’t fading. Ed Orgeron is closing in on his third consecutive top-5 class.

When you have a fan base, an in-game atmosphere and a solid recruiting state like LSU does, you expect to have a national championship ceiling. We’re still in the early stages of seeing LSU reap the benefits of its massive 2019 facilities upgrade. (Having toured that place, trust me when I say it’s even better than the pictures.) There’s still a national title ceiling when everything lines up perfectly like it did in 2019, though annual expectations should be to have a floor like Georgia’s. Yearly non-Playoff New Year’s 6 bowl appearances are expected when you spend and win like LSU.

Mississippi State

Best national rank 21st Century — No. 1
Best finish — No. 11
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 1
The skinny — We asked the “ceiling” question a lot last year when Mike Leach took over. That’s fair when his predecessor, Joe Moorhead, was fired after 2 seasons that netted Egg Bowl victories and bowl berths. MSU has 1 winning season in SEC play in the 21st century, and it happened with its best coach in program history and its best quarterback in program history. That felt like a “ceiling” year.

Leach wasn’t necessarily hired for his ceiling. He has 1 top-10 finish in 19 seasons as an FBS head coach. He was hired to elevate MSU’s floor and to give the program a national identity, which seems reasonable for someone with 12 seasons of 8-plus wins at the FBS level. Can MSU have the occasional season where it catches a top-10 team by surprise and it goes into November with division title hopes alive? Absolutely, especially if defensive coordinator Zach Arnett sticks around another few years. For now, though, let’s leave MSU’s ceiling at a 9-win season that entertains the masses in ways that only Leach can.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 1
Best finish — No. 4
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 5
The skinny — Do I think Mizzou has the same ceiling now that it had in the Gary Pinkel era? No, not when it has to recruit against the SEC. The Tigers’ $98 million stadium renovation will help, but there’s a reason we haven’t seen Mizzou crack the top 20 in the AP Poll in the last 6 seasons. It’s not a loaded state in terms of high school talent, and in a conference full of programs that spend more because they can, Mizzou’s ceiling is no longer an SEC East title. Florida and Georgia weren’t at their respective levels of sustainability when Mizzou repeated as East champs in 2013 and 2014.

Eli Drinkwitz did a tremendous job in Year 1, especially considering his roster ranked No. 50 in the 247sports talent composite. At its best, Mizzou would need everything (and then some) to bounce right to get to a New Year’s 6 bowl anytime in the near future. An Outback/Citrus Bowl ceiling seems more realistic.

Ole Miss

Best national rank 21st Century — No. 3
Best finish — No. 10
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 2
The skinny — This is a challenge to evaluate because if you think the ceiling should be related to those mid-2010s teams with Hugh Freeze, you’re probably ignoring that it took Level I violations in order to put that roster together. Granted, Ole Miss does have another coach who can scheme like few in the sport can. When you show you can hang with a historically dominant Alabama team like that, that changes things.

I could see a scenario in which Lane Kiffin puts together a team that finishes second or third in the West but gets to a New Year’s 6 bowl game with a 9-3 record. We still haven’t seen a full Kiffin roster that wasn’t impacted by NCAA sanctions. Kiffin is on the verge of signing a top-20 class in his first full cycle. After what his offense yielded in Year 1, there’s no limit to the potential on that side of the ball. Of course, the ceiling of the program is limited by an inept defense, which did at least play its best game of the year in the Outback Bowl. Kiffin needs his defense to flirt with mediocrity to make that New Year’s 6 bowl dream a reality.

South Carolina

Best national rank 21st Century — No. 3
Best finish — No. 4
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 3
The skinny — I don’t know which South Carolina fans need to hear this because it’s an extremely self-aware group, at least from what I’ve dealt with, but a repeat of the Steve Spurrier golden era isn’t the ceiling. Not anymore. Again, not with Florida, Georgia and Clemson playing at this rate. The talent disparity is far too great for South Carolina to expect to beat those teams in the near future. Shoot, throw A&M in there now (the Gamecocks didn’t score a touchdown on Mike Elko’s defense the last 2 meetings). Shane Beamer is walking into a situation that — even with the new $50 million football facility — has a limited ceiling.

And that’s from someone who thinks he’ll be a significant upgrade from the stubborn Will Muschamp. That’s why South Carolina’s ceiling is a fringe Top 25 team. The Gamecocks played 80 of their 86 games in the Playoff era as an unranked team, including each of the last 33 games. It’s no surprise that coincided directly with those aforementioned 4 annual South Carolina opponents increasing their talent level (and having the right long-term coach in place). That’s not changing anytime soon.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 2
Best finish — No. 4
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 4
The skinny — Ah, and herein lies the timeliness of this article. What is Tennessee’s ceiling, you ask? Let’s first get the obvious out there. When you haven’t beaten an AP Top 10 team since 2006 and you haven’t won a conference title since 1998, you don’t have a Playoff ceiling. You just don’t. Other SEC teams recruit nationally, other SEC teams have made significant facility upgrades and other SEC teams sell out their stadiums on a weekly basis. All 3 of Tennessee’s main rivals, who boast a combined record of 37-5 against the Vols since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, do that. This is no longer a program with a New Year’s 6 bowl ceiling. It’s a program that can maybe flirt with a top-15 finish that’s slightly better than the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

And for what it’s worth, this is long term. Like, when Tennessee escapes the NCAA cloud that’s about to follow because of these Level I violations. This isn’t the ceiling for next year, the year after that or maybe even the year after that. That short-term ceiling is competing late in the year for bowl eligibility, so long as it isn’t off the table. Josh Heupel’s ceiling at UCF was limited by poor defenses. In the SEC, that path to 10 wins is obviously a different ballgame when you struggle that much on 1 side of the ball. At the very least, though, at least Tennessee stands a chance at producing a high-octane offense. That’s a prerequisite to having any success in this era.

Texas A&M

Best national rank 21st Century — No. 4
Best finish — No. 4
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 1
The skinny — The pre-2020 version of myself would’ve taken this time to make fun of Jimbo Fisher’s fake national championship plaque that he was given upon arrival at Texas A&M. But 2020 changed things. A lot. A&M just had its best season of the 21st century. Actually, the Aggies just had their best finish in the AP Poll since 1939, which was before Paul “Bear” Bryant stepped foot in College Station. If that’s not a ceiling-elevated season, I don’t know what is.

The crazy thing is I don’t necessarily think we’ve seen the Aggies’ ceiling. A&M came into the year absolutely gutted at wide receiver and it adjusted to its personnel in remarkable fashion. The Aggies have steadily improved their 247sports composite ranking year by year under Fisher, yet they haven’t cracked the top 10. That’ll change in 2021 when Fisher boasts his third consecutive top-7 class.

A&M’s ceiling is a team that can pull off a Playoff semifinal upset and reach the national title game. They now have the foundation to be a “when everything hits just right” team that could still be a notch below an elite Alabama, Clemson or Georgia team. Like Georgia, though, the new A&M ceiling also includes yearly New Year’s 6 bowl expectations.


Best national rank 21st Century — No. 13
Best finish — No. 23
10-win seasons in 21st Century: 0
The skinny — Timing, timing, timing. James Franklin deserves so much credit for what he did to elevate the Commodores in his brief time in Nashville. But could he have done that today with Florida and Georgia being this good? Nope. Franklin, as great as he was, beat 1 ranked team (2013 Georgia). During the Playoff era and the booming TV rights era, Vandy has watched the rest of the SEC run circles around it in terms of facilities upgrades. Instead of capitalizing on Nashville’s boom, the Commodores’ ceiling got lower and lower after Franklin left.

Upgrading the locker rooms and talking about renovation plans is a start, but it doesn’t mean Vandy has the ceiling it did in the early 2010s. This is now a team with a 6-win ceiling, and maybe even that’s too high. Clark Lea inherited a major undertaking. This isn’t the same rebuild it was a decade ago, but perhaps Vandy could find a way to take advantage of Tennessee’s drama and combine that with Lea’s defensive acumen to yield teams that start significantly outproducing their talent level. Easier said than done.