Who will be the SEC Championship Game's next first-time winner? Ranking the candidates
They say there’s a first time for everything. Whoever coined that phrase might not have been referring to the SEC.
In 2021, it’ll mark 37 years since we last had a first-time winner in the SEC. That was Florida in 1984.
Notice that predates the inaugural SEC Championship. That means every team that won the SEC Championship previously won an SEC title.
This year will mark the 30th SEC Championship Game. Those 29 titles in the SEC Championship era were claimed by a total of 6 programs — Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee. That’s it. Those teams will not appear on this list today. We’re focusing on the other 8 SEC teams.
In case you were wondering, yes, I know that many of those 8 teams won SEC titles that predated the conference championship game. Ole Miss won 6, though all of those came while John F. Kennedy was alive (Ole Miss technically clinched its last SEC title 6 days before Kennedy was assassinated). Kentucky won 2 and MSU won 1, while the SEC’s 4 most recent additions (Arkansas, Mizzou, South Carolina and Texas A&M) have yet to win the league.
Oh, and Vandy is also looking for that first SEC crown.
The goal today is to focus on the teams that haven’t won an SEC Championship Game:
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
- Texas A&M
Those teams are a combined 0-7 in the SEC Championship. Arkansas is 0-3, Mizzou is 0-2 and South Carolina and MSU each lost in their only appearance.
So, let’s start with the least likely to become a first-time SEC champ and work our way down the list.
There’s not a lot of debate about this one. During Vanderbilt’s best 3-year stretch since The Vietnam War, how many ranked teams did the Commodores beat? One. As much credit as James Franklin deserved for the job he did in the early part of the 2010s, that 3-year peak involved 1 winning record in conference play. And since then, SEC teams have lapped Vandy 3 times over in terms of facility upgrades and recruiting.
That’s the issue for Clark Lea, who has a ton of ground to make up just to get Vandy back to bowl eligibility. It’s hard to envision a ceiling beyond that. You can be a Lea believer and still not hold your breath on him having Vandy in SEC contention in November anytime soon.
I’m as huge a Mark Stoops supporter as there is. I think he’s going to be for Kentucky what Dan Mullen was for MSU. That is, a coach who elevates the floor of that program for a long period of time. Stoops already did that, and as we saw in 2018, this isn’t your dad’s Kentucky anymore. It’s not even your older brother’s Kentucky. But having respectable seasons is different than winning an SEC title.
When Kentucky ripped off that 10-win season in 2018, it was the program’s first year with a winning SEC record since 1977. Kentucky essentially hosted a division title game against Georgia that year, and it still lost by 3 scores. The Wildcats haven’t beaten Georgia since 2009, and that was a year in which the Dawgs lost 5 regular-season games. (Excluding SEC Championships, they have 4 regular-season losses in the last 4 years under Kirby Smart.) This is also a Kentucky program that has 1 win against Florida in the last 34 seasons.
Even if Stoops stays at Kentucky for another decade, which he very well could given the nature of his contract, beating both of those programs in the same year seems next to impossible with the way they’re rolling now.
6. South Carolina
On one hand, you’d look at that new $50 million facility and think that this is a sleeping giant. You’d think, hey, the Gamecocks ripped off a trio of 11-win seasons in the 2010s, which is something that only Alabama and Georgia did in the SEC. In theory, one would think that with the loyalty of that fan base, South Carolina can hit it right at least once with Shane Beamer and find its way to an SEC Championship.
On the other hand, you’d look at a program that couldn’t win the SEC with Lou Holtz or Steve Spurrier. In fact, it reached the conference title game just once, and I’d argue that Florida and Georgia both failing to have winning SEC records that year played a part in a 3-loss South Carolina team getting that opportunity (Spurrier’s 3 best teams that followed didn’t make it to Atlanta). Florida and Georgia being at this level makes it hard to envision South Carolina breaking into that upper echelon and then taking down a West winner, especially without the in-state recruiting ground those 2 other programs have.
By the way, there’s also the fact that we’ve only seen 1 East winner since Nick Saban had Alabama up and running. Keep that in mind for any and all East teams as it relates to actually winning the SEC Championship (not just getting there).
Remember after the season-opener in Baton Rouge when we legitimately asked the question about MSU’s SEC title chances? It seemed like a fair thing to ponder given the fact that Mike Leach’s MSU debut was a record-setting performance against the defending national champs. Then reality set in and we got weekly reminders that Year 1 of Leach’s Air Raid is always a work in progress. Even with a likely Year 2 bump in store in Starkville, some historical hurdles are difficult to get past.
Like Kentucky, MSU has just 1 winning record in SEC play in the 21st century. That 2014 year, of course, still didn’t result in a trip to Atlanta. The most successful coach in program history, Mullen, was 6-34 against ranked opponents at MSU and half of those wins came in that 2014 season.
Now did Mullen leave a more favorable situation for his successors? Sure. But Alabama’s winning streak against MSU is at 13 games, and only twice did the Bulldogs score more than 10 points. That script isn’t flipping anytime soon even if Leach’s offense does click in Year 2. There’s also the fact that Leach, as accomplished as he is, is still searching for his first conference title in Year 20 as a head coach, 18 of which were spent in the Big 12 and Pac-12.
The more likely scenario is Leach having a 9-3 season in which he upsets a contender but is still a game or 2 away from winning the West.
I’ve gone on record saying I think we underestimated how difficult it was going to be to win at Arkansas once Texas A&M joined the SEC. That was before Jimbo Fisher got there. Now that he’s there, yes, there’s a decent chance that in addition to Alabama and LSU, it’s A&M that could continue to limit Arkansas’ potential to get blue-chippers out of Texas. I mean, Arkansas has reached 8 wins once in 9 seasons since A&M joined the league (it did that in 5 of the 6 seasons before the Aggies made the move). We’re talking about a program who is 4-30 against SEC competition the last 4 years. Why No. 4?
Well, Sam Pittman.
His ability to recruit nationally and elevate the level of incoming talent at Arkansas is going to make a major impact. He’ll never get enough credit for inheriting a recruiting class who ranked outside of the top 100 going into the 2020 Early Signing Period, and somehow landing the No. 30 class in America. That improved to No. 25 in the 2021 class, which featured 4-star recruits from Texas, Florida and Oklahoma.
On the field, Pittman nearly matched Arkansas’ number of SEC wins in the last 4 years (a blown call against Auburn prevented that). Alabama was also the only SEC West team who beat Arkansas by more than 11 points. Pittman made 2 savvy moves by getting Barry Odom and Kendal Briles, both of whom could be in Fayetteville for several years.
Maybe there isn’t SEC Championship-level upside, but how close a veteran-laden Arkansas team is to the contenders in Year 2 of the Pittman era will be telling.
To be fair, I’m not sure there’s a ton of separation between Nos. 3-7 on this list. You could probably make a case for a variety of these teams in this spot behind No. 1 and No. 2. But I’ll go with Mizzou for a few reasons.
Historically speaking, Mizzou went to a pair of SEC Championships in the 2010s. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU are the other teams that can claim that. Of course, getting to Atlanta was different against Will Muschamp and Mark Richt than getting there against Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart. That’s fair. But Mizzou is 4-5 against Florida since joining the league. The Tigers went into The Swamp in 2018 and blew out a Florida team that finished that year in the top 10.
The bigger issue is that Mizzou is riding a 7-game losing streak against Georgia. And again, the East’s only SEC champion in the last decade was 2017 Georgia.
In Year 1 of the Eli Drinkwitz era, we saw a Mizzou team go 5-5 in the SEC with a deck that was totally stacked against it. The Tigers had a (mostly) new coaching staff with a new starting quarterback in a new offense, and it had spring ball get wiped out. That was a team who was No. 50 in FBS in the talent composite rankings. That bodes well for the future of the Drinkwitz era.
Obviously, the talent level has to improve if Mizzou is going to ever win an SEC title. Since 247sports starting tracking talent composite rankings in 2015, each SEC champion ranked in the top 5 nationally. Mizzou isn’t touching that anytime soon, but Drinkwitz just signed Mizzou’s highest-ranked class in 6 years, and he’s off to a good start in 2022. On top of getting a $98 million renovation to Faurot Field, Mizzou has some legitimate momentum with a 37-year-old head coach who looks like he knows what he’s doing.
2. Ole Miss
In Year 1 with a new coaching staff, how many teams beat Ole Miss by more than 2 scores? None. Not even Alabama. By the way, scoring 48 points and pushing Alabama the way it did is a major reason that Lane Kiffin’s squad is No. 2 on this list. You have to be able to score against the big boys to actually win this league. Ole Miss can. Like, with this coaching staff and without some major influx of talent.
Was there much defense played in Oxford? Well, for the most part, no. That’s obviously going to limit the upside of the program in the near future. Here’s the FBS defensive ranking of the last 10 SEC champs:
- 2011 Alabama — No. 1
- 2012 Alabama — No. 1
- 2013 Auburn — No. 48
- 2014 Alabama — No. 6
- 2015 Alabama — No. 3
- 2016 Alabama — No. 1
- 2017 Georgia — No. 6
- 2018 Alabama — No. 12
- 2019 LSU — No. 32
- 2020 Alabama — No. 13
Does Ole Miss have to have a top 15 defense to win the SEC? Nope. Not with the way Kiffin’s offenses will scheme and score. But even in this era of high-flying offenses, you aren’t going to win this league unless you can reach defensive mediocrity. The good news for Ole Miss is that Kiffin just signed the No. 17 class, which is the program’s best in the post-Hugh Freeze era. Help is on the way on the defensive side of the ball.
Some might argue “Ole Miss couldn’t even win the West when it was cheating.” That’s true. What’s also true is that Kiffin appears to be on the verge of getting the program back to that level following sanctions and NCAA violations. Don’t rule out the possibility of a Kiffin-led Ole Miss team going 10-2 and getting to Atlanta sometime in the next few years.
1. Texas A&M
It has to be, right?
The Aggies are coming off their best AP Top 25 finish since 1939. They have a coach who has a ring, but more importantly, they have a coach who signed 3 consecutive top-7 classes. A&M is going to continue to rise in the 247sports roster talent composite rankings (it was No. 11 last year).
Would A&M’s odds of winning an SEC Championship soar if Saban announced his retirement tomorrow? Duh. That’s what prevented the Aggies from a Playoff berth in 2020 (along with some over-the-top love for Notre Dame from the selection committee). That’ll be the case until further notice. Jimbo Fisher is still trying to become the first Saban disciple to beat his former boss. The Aggies haven’t beaten Alabama in the post-Johnny Manziel era.
But in a way, this could be a 2019 LSU situation. No, no, no. I’m not predicting the Aggies are about to deliver the best season in college football history. What I mean by that is A&M could have a year in which it finally gets over the Alabama hump, and it goes into the SEC Championship with a favorable matchup against a lesser East foe.
A&M, more than any other team on this list, checks all the boxes necessary to win an SEC title. It feels like a matter of time before Fisher and Co. are covered in confetti in Atlanta.