War Eagle, everybody! It's always great to be an Auburn Tiger, but right now it's especially great. The Southeastern Conference is currently suffering a plague of departures, retirements, replacements and defections. Given the tempestuous year 2008 was for the Tigers, it's pretty amazing that Auburn now appears to be one of the more stable programs in the league. The Tigers have so far retained all of their coaching staff, and had no early entrants to the NFL draft. A promising season is newly over, and a host of talented young men are evidently headed for the Plains. Elsewhere, things aren't so rosy.
Many folks fear that the SEC has become a two team league, or perhaps even a Bama dynasty. I've heard that word tossed around by the Birmingham News quite a bit this week! Half of the league finished the regular season with 7-5 records, and with a pedestrian 6-4 record in bowl games, many pundits nationally feel that the league is on the downhill slide overall. The SEC still managed to finish third in conference bowl winning percentage, behind the Mountain West and the Big East. The last time the SEC went undefeated in bowls was 1996.
Lane Kiffin and other woes, after the jump!
No news this week in the SEC was bigger than Lane Kiffin's move to Southern California. There was the predictable outrage from many outlets, but coaches make moves all the time. After two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures in Knoxville, Kiffin's move back to California may not be that big of a surprise. Kiffin is making a bit of a questionable decision jumping into a Trojan program that may be headed for probation. But the real head scratching decision award HAS to go to the Southern California administration. I'm failing to see where Kiffin has demonstrated that he's head coaching material! Kiffin did have one good reason to leave Knoxville. He's left Tennessee arguably worse than he found it. The Vols will have to find a head coach, assemble a staff, try to hold some semblance of a recruiting class together, and prepare a ton of underclassmen for big roles on the field. With a new quarterback and big holes on both sides of the ball, it will be a shock if Tennessee doesn't struggle next season.
Florida has the dubious distinction of having even more losses to fill than Tennessee does. Schools all over the country have been raiding the Gator coaching staff. Head coach Urban Meyer resigned, then un-resigned, and may or may not be taking a leave of absence. The Gators lose possibly the best player in college football over the past 3 seasons, with the departure of Tim Tebow. In addition, several Gator stars are going out early for the draft. Florida should win fewer games in 2010, but will anyone in the East be able to catch them?
Georgia's Mark Richt's seat got a bit warm this season after fielding a porous defense and having the Bulldog faithful spend the holidays in Shreveport. Richt finally swung the ax at the end of the season, and fired most of his defensive staff. It's no secret that Richt wants Alabama's Kirby Smart to be his new coordinator, but that's looking like more and more of a long shot. It's a critical juncture. Richt can't afford to field another shaky defense. On the positive side of the ledger, Georgia does have a lot of talent, particularly on both lines of scrimmage. The Bulldog fans are getting restless, and want Richt to produce more titles.
Kentucky will have to deal with life under promoted head coach Joker Phillips, but Kentucky does have a decent amount of young talent returning. The Wildcats won't challenge for a title in 2010, but odds are that they'll go to their 5th straight bowl.
Under Steve Spurrier, the South Carolina Gamecocks have become synonymous with late-season swoons, and no-shows in bowl games. The Gamecocks were young in 2009, and quarterback Stephen Garcia will be one of the most experienced signal-callers in the league next fall. If South Carolina loses another 6 games in 2010, look for the old ball coach to hang it up.
Speaking of synonyms, most SEC people do equate "last place" with Vanderbilt. Having said that, I don't think anyone saw Vanderbilt's 2-10 record in 2009 coming. Bobby Johnson's squads had been inching forward towards a bowl win for quite some time, and it has to be disheartening to see the wheels come off after all that work. Can the Vandy psyche recover?
The seat in Baton Rouge has become warmer the past two seasons, too. The Bengal Tigers have been stigmatized with the "underachiever" label with their 17-9 record over the past two seasons. It's a come-down from the heady days of titles and BCS crowns. LSU is thought to be one of the most talented teams in the SEC, and the fans on the bayou expect to play up to that potential. Miles might be able to survive another 8-win season, but it's unlikely that offensive coordinator Gary Crowton will.
The Arkansas Razorbacks have had difficulty stopping folks since Bobby Petrino took over two years ago, and of late have had trouble running the ball. The Razorbacks got a huge boost, though, when quarterback Ryan Mallett announced that he is returning for 2010. If Petrino can teach Mallett to make the safe throws rather than going for the home run/difficult pass, Arkansas' deficiencies elsewhere may not matter. When the Razorback receivers are catching the ball, they can score on anyone.
One of the most patient fan bases in the league is in Starkville. Mississippi State Bulldog head coach Dan Mullen will get all the latitude he needs next season, and should benefit from being in the second year of his system. However, MSU still doesn't have as many players as the rest of the division's teams do. Again, the Bulldogs will be trying to steal a few wins from the big dogs.
Houston Nutt is in the unenviable position of having to replace about 99% of his offensive production, and he's having to do it at a school with Confederate flags and lyrics about the South rising again. The Rebels had difficulty scoring against the good teams WITH McCluster and Snead. Without them, things look bleak. Ole Miss should be tough on D again, though.
National champion Alabama is seeing the inevitable coach-poaching that comes with a BCS crystal, but has an enormously able team returning. There will be a few holes to fill, but coach Nick Saban's biggest chore will be finding a way to keep Tide players hungry. Following one title with another is feat only a very few have managed.
Auburn looks to augment a pretty good group of returning starters with an infusion of talent capable of playing immediately. 2010 looks to be the year to make hay while the sun shines. Auburn will suffer huge losses on the lines, and on defense after 2010. A stumble next fall, followed by a young team in 2011 could derail Gene Chizik's fortunes. Auburn does have the schedule to do well, next season. It's a slate that has neither Tennessee nor Florida on it. Auburn's most difficult road trip is to Tuscaloosa, and Auburn has LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas at home. We'll be keeping a watchful eye on the Tigers, and look forward to welcoming a great freshman class to the Plains in 2010! War Eagle!