It’s no secret that there’s been turmoil galore in the SEC this season. In our article the morning after the Iron Bowl talking about the Nick Saban effect and how that’s helped to lead Auburn into its most prosperous (and up-and-down) era in the school’s football history, we talked about how Nick Saban has forced every other school’s hand in making the move to try and be ultra-competitive in college football.
There have been dominant coaches going on epic runs in SEC history before. Even Bear Bryant had down years. Pat Dye’s first and last seasons were losing ones. Phil Fulmer and Steve Spurrier each had years where they got whacked around a bit. It happens. With regularity. Except that with Saban at Alabama, they’ve made a dedication that other schools haven’t been able to match. Spurrier brought in a revolutionary offense, Pat Dye took over at the end of Bryant’s run and simply wasn’t afraid of his old boss, and guys like Vince Dooley didn’t have the instate competition that others had.
Now, however, there’s a much more visible need to win 10+ games pretty early or you’re labeled a bust. It was easier when Alabama was struggling to reach bowl eligibility, or winning ten games, but you knew it was because they’d blatantly cheated to get there. If you didn’t crack ten wins in your first couple of seasons, it was fine. You were building a roster, and a rapport in what was likely a new recruiting ground.
Time’s not a luxury anymore.
Ouch. That’s rough. For some of those schools, it’s a new coach every two years. Of course Arkansas and Tennessee haven’t been successful. How can they be with such turnaround?
There are only two new head coaches in the SEC East, but they’re important ones, and so below we begin our look at the SEC’s newest yearbook with those two.
FLORIDA GATORS - DAN MULLEN
We’re familiar with Dan Mullen. Auburn’s faced off against the Randy Quaid of the SEC since Gene Chizik was roaming the sidelines on the Plains. Mullen left Florida fresh off a national championship under Urban Meyer, running his offenses with Tim Tebow under center, and took the head job in Starkville.
To be honest, this is probably a slam dunk hire for the Gators. If for some reason Meyer’s “health problems” had happened a year earlier, and he’d retired after the 2008 season, Mullen would’ve been the guy and it would’ve been lauded as a fantastic hire. Now, he gets to go back to a place where he can recruit the speedy guys that he once had in Percy Harvin and company. And Florida’s about an easy a place to recruit to as anywhere in the country. There are a lot of perks in Gainesville that Starkville didn’t quite have.
In short, it’ll be much more difficult to beat Dan Mullen moving forward, but he’ll probably need a little time to get himself a few things to play with — namely, a quarterback and some offensive skill. Unfortunately, we’ll be getting back in the swing of things with the Gators after he gets his feet set a little bit. Auburn meets Florida in Gainesville sometime in 2019 after seven seasons apart.
TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS - JEREMY PRUITT
Alright, there are two ways to look at this one. Either Pruitt’s a Kirby Smart clone, and he’ll turn Tennessee into the power it once was pretty quickly, or he’s going to crack under the pressure and turn to the once forbidden-veggie of asparagus for warmth and comfort.
The pressure may not be his fault, either. Who knows what kind of timeline he’ll be given in Knoxville? Maybe Phil Fulmer’s tenure as AD will calm the Volunteer fans who want success immediately, or maybe there’s been too much turmoil and the Vols want to see the results now. With what Kirby Smart’s done at Georgia, the latter may be more of what Tennessee’s expecting. Pruitt’s an excellent recruiter, and he’s worked on some really special teams from Florida State’s championship team, to Georgia, to Alabama.
Now, sleeper-cell-status TBD, if he can make Tennessee into a legitimate contender, it’s a good thing for Auburn. Tennessee has been a relative automatic win for Alabama over the past decade or so, and giving the Tide an extra tuneup isn’t desirable.
It’s also a shrewd move by Phil Fulmer as well. For the guy that turned Bama in, this move is akin to Michael Corleone explaining something his father taught him.
“Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”
Fulmer’s bringing in a guy that knows pretty much everything that’s gone on with the Alabama program over the past couple of seasons. It can’t hurt to learn whatever you can from your enemies. I really don’t know how Pruitt will fare as head coach, or how quickly he’ll leap to Tuscaloosa should Saban retire someday soon, but this is a fantastic drama waiting to happen.
I think it’s safe to say that the SEC East has improved for sure, with Mullen a much more offensively-minded guy (which is what they want in Gainesville), and Pruitt at least a guy that seems like he hates to lose as much as his former boss.
With the Gators and Vols upgrading, you just add the improvement to the following list of accomplishments:
- Kirby Smart took Georgia to the Playoff in his second season. Auburn has to play them every year. Shit.
- Will Muschamp had South Carolina at 8-4 in the regular season, and a stingy team at home at that.
- Mark Stoops has done the job that he’s required to do in Lexington, which is not lose ten games a year. This will be the second-straight winning season for Kentucky, which is about as much as the Wildcats can hope for on the football field. At the very least, they’re not an automatic out.
- Missouri made a remarkable turnaround in the middle of the year under Barry Odom. At SEC Media Days, he looked like a coach that was lost completely, and it certainly seemed that way when Auburn went to CoMo and drubbed the Tigers easily. Then, all of a sudden, his quarterback’s setting SEC records and his offensive staff is getting plucked for head coaching jobs elsewhere. Turns out Barry might have started to figure it out. He is leading a team that’s won the SEC East a third of the time they’ve been in the league.
- And then there’s Derek Mason at Vanderbilt. No, Vandy probably won’t ever reach higher than they did under James Franklin, and that’s alright. Every conference has a punching bag, but this one’s at least a little more hardened than some of the bottom-feeders in other leagues. Vandy’s been pretty good defensively, and again, with 4, 6, and 5 wins in the past three seasons, isn’t a totally automatic out.
So, might we be sensing a bit of a shift from the power center in the conference from West to East? After Georgia won the SEC Championship, giving the East it’s first title since 2008, it’s certainly seemed that way. But maybe we’ll wait until we can run down the rest of the coaches that joined the league. There’s a reason they call it the Wild Wild West.