With the SEC’s exceptionally unusual amount of turnover in the coaching ranks, it only stands to reason that the dang SEC West got even wilder than it’s been over the past few seasons.
Remember in 2013 when Bret Bielema came into the league? This was a guy that had taken Wisconsin to Rose Bowl after Rose Bowl, controlling the Big Ten for the most part in Ohio State’s relative down years. It was a universally-praised move, but life’s different in the SEC.
Either way, that was a league that had Bielema joining the likes of already-established coaches like Saban and Miles, Spurrier and Richt, and even up-and-comers like Will Muschamp (fresh off a 12-win season), Gus Malzahn (who’d take that team to the championship), and Kevin Sumlin (who’d coached a Heisman winner in his first SEC year).
We were sure — sure — that the league would be a grinder, eating itself before collapsing like a deflated balloon, too drunk to taste this chicken after a war each and every week. There wouldn’t be enough bye weeks wherein teams could feast on the ULMs, Mercers, Lafayettes, FIUs, and Lipscombs of the world before returning to the center of the ring for another round.
That’s what this season’s going to be like in the SEC West. Let’s run down the new kids in school.
TEXAS A&M AGGIES - JIMBO FISHER
Essentially Texas A&M got the Cam Newton of coaching transfers, except Jimbo had the ability to skip the JUCO route and go straight to another D1 school. Let’s not pretend that Jimbo’s not a fantastic coach that didn’t build a veritable juggernaut at Florida State. True, he didn’t have quite the competition he’ll face in his new division when he was in the ACC, but he did deal with his own version of Alabama in the Clemson Tigers. And more often than not, he beat the Dabos.
What did Jimbo in was what happened behind the scenes in Tallahassee. We don’t exactly know what that was, and may never get all the details, but a boatload of Texas oil money was too enticing for him to stay amongst the palms.
I don’t believe Florida State would’ve been the top five team that many predicted even if Deondre Francois hadn’t been injured in the opener, and a lot of that belief falls on the BBQ Buddy style of coaching that we saw with Tuberville. Jimbo was loyal -- to a fault — to his assistants. There are a ton of guys that should’ve been gone from that Seminole staff a long time ago, but loyalty kept them around. For real, some of the names are old SEC throwbacks that we haven’t heard from in quite awhile. Randy Sanders, Jay Graham, Tim Brewster, Rick Trickett. The list goes on.
FSU’s offensive line has been an issue since they won the national title, and the offensive isn’t quite as imaginative as it could’ve been. Without a quarterback, Jimbo’s been neutered a bit, and so we’ll have to see who he goes with in College Station. They’ve got to come to Auburn next season, late in the year when they’re usually starting to fade. It’ll be our best opportunity to beat them on the Plains. If we tack a fourth or fifth loss on them when we do it, watch that $75 million contract begin to weigh heavy.
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS - JOE MOORHEAD
This one’s the gamble that we’ll have to wait to see how it pays off. There’s quite a list of things currently sitting in the way of Moorhead being successful in Starkville.
It’s his first big head coaching job since he was the head man at Fordham. I really don’t care about the whole “three of the playoff coaches this year are in their first stops as head coach” stat being thrown out. Dabo had nearly unlimited time to build up the beast he’s got at Clemson, Lincoln Riley took over a team handed to him on a silver platter, and Kirby Smart took over one of the most talent-rich teams that won ten games the year before he came to town (and they play in the SEC East). Moorhead’s not stepping into any of those situations. He may have as much time as necessary, but he’s not going to be in the fertile crescent of recruiting that Clemson’s in.
He’s in Starkville. It’s not exactly one of the most desirable places to go. Those people who claim we paid Cam Newton have obviously never been to Starkville. It would take roughly $180,000 to make most people consider moving there.
Moorhead’s also never spent any appreciable time in the Southeast. His coaching stints have been at Fordham, Akron, Pittsburgh, Georgetown, UConn, and Penn State. He’s not going to have the inroads that will be necessary to keep up with the rest of the recruiters in the SEC. It largely depends on his staff, and grabbing guys who do know the area, but we haven’t seen if he’s been able to do that yet.
We’ve got to go to Starkville next year at the beginning of October, but even with Dan Mullen we’ve whipped the Bulldogs the past two seasons. Moorhead’s the great unknown in the West at the moment.
ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS - CHAD MORRIS
Here’s a guy that will bring the Dabo Swinney hurry-up spread to Fayetteville. It’ll be the third or fourth different offense that we’ve seen at Arkansas. Houston Nutt’s deal, the Petrino pro-style attack, John L. Smith’s good try, and Bielema’s smashmouth style have all come and failed in their own rights.
Now, we should see something fairly similar to what Gus runs. Depending on the players, Chad Morris will have a lot of the same principles in his attack that we do. The only problem is that he won’t have the team to run that kind of offense.
I think Arkansas will be better (it’ll be difficult for them not to be), but there should be a transition from what they’ve been doing to what they’re doing in 2018. Who’s going to be the dynamic quarterback? Do they have a tailback? An offensive line? A defense? Chad Morris is the newest hire of the bunch, and so I haven’t even seen what kind of a staff he’s going to put together, but he’s got a lot of work ahead of him. The Pigs come to Auburn next season, and I don’t expect it to look much different than what we’ve done to them the past two seasons.
Now, those three guys are the new arrivals, but the SEC West should be as salty as ever. Still on the schedule for Auburn, we’ve got two of the best motivators around and the God-King himself.
Ed Orgeron was able to pull his team out of a 20-0 hole to come back and beat us this year at home. They should’ve laid down and died, but they didn’t, and that’s a really impressive job from da Coach O. Those players will run through a brick wall for him, much like they would’ve done for Les Miles. Our hope is that he never finds a guy to run a really killer offense for him. LSU seems like it’s kind of put points together piecemeal over the past few seasons, so let’s keep it that way.
Matt Luke’s going to make Ole Miss competitive, simply because he cares more about Oxford and the Rebels than anyone else they could’ve gotten to coach there. Yeah, the Rebs won’t be a player on the national scene for the next couple of seasons thanks to the penalties they just got handed, but that means Matt Luke will be treating every game like it’s a Super Bowl.
Then there’s Nick Saban. He looked tired and worn before and after we beat Alabama up and down the field a few weeks ago. and so I think his days are numbered. Somewhat. Who knows what kind of a shelf-life he’s got in Tuscaloosa? He’s still got the most talented team in the country at his disposal, but he’s built up the standard so high that any season not resulting in a championship even brings forth the whispers about how it might be time to move on. Let’s not mistake this, however. He’ll die on that field. It’s to our advantage that Gus absolutely knows how to coach against him, and when we’ve got a healthy team, we’re every bit of an equal squad to the Tide. Just hit them with a couple more body blows and we’ll see how quickly Jeremy Pruitt jumps to be the next head man in Tuscaloosa.