The SEC is on the hot seat. Not just one coach: Roughly half of the league.
The flames are fiercest under Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, who has taken a program that’s historically accustomed to competing for SEC East championships and told it to settle for Life championships, which are (a) not real and (b) awarded solely at Jones’s discretion. After following a 5-0 start to the 2016 campaign with a 4-4 finish and then limping to a 3-2 mark this fall, Jones is probably fortunate that he hasn’t been fired already. After all, it’s not just that his Volunteers are losing, but the way they’re doing it: In a 26-20 loss to Florida in Week 3 of this season, Tennessee allowed the Gators to complete a Hail Mary by lining up in a totally normal defensive alignment on a play when Florida needed to heave the ball deep; in a 41-0 shutout against Georgia last Saturday, the Vols were outgained 378 yards to 142. The last remaining pro-Jones holdouts came around to the idea of firing Jones after the Georgia blowout, which is why this article recapping Jones’s public speaking engagement on Monday is particularly fun to read.
But Tennessee is far from the only SEC program with coach problems. Texas A&M has lost only once in the 2017 season, but that should count for multiple losses: The Aggies blew a 34-point third-quarter lead in a 45-44 defeat to UCLA, a game in which A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin made a series of baffling strategic and game-management errors to leave the door open for quarterback Josh Rosen and the Bruins to come back. In spite of Sumlin’s reputation as a star recruiter—and the Swagcopter that he uses for recruiting purposes—the Aggies have steadily declined under his watch. He upset top-ranked Alabama 29-24 in his first season on the job in 2012; the Aggies enter Saturday’s home matchup with the Crimson Tide as 27-point underdogs. Just a few weeks ago, one of the people who could help fire Sumlin publicly ranted about how he believes that Sumlin should be fired.
Even LSU has turned on Ed Orgeron, who was hired in a full-time capacity less than a year ago. Who would have thought that hiring a head coach best known for having an endearing accent might backfire? The school fired his predecessor Les Miles last September in the hopes that a program that won the national title in 2007 could ascend back to those heights in short order; instead, it was rejected by every coaching candidate more successful than Miles, and Coach O’s tenure has begun poorly. The Tigers followed a 37-7 loss to Mississippi State in Week 3 with a 24-21 defeat to Troy—LSU’s first home nonconference loss in 17 years—two Saturdays later. Orgeron’s saving grace is the oversized buyout that the school included in his contract. LSU would need to fork over $12 million to fire Orgeron this year, and that’s on top of the roughly $10 million it still needs to pay Miles. The only thing worse than your favorite team having a coach you wish were fired is having a coach your team absolutely cannot fire.
These are the angriest fan bases, but I’d estimate more than half of the SEC is suffering from coaching angst, from the merely disappointed (Kentucky understands Mark Stoops is doing a decent job, but how do you become a Division I head coach without understanding the importance of defending opposing wide receivers?) to the actively upset (Florida realizes so-called offensive expert Jim McElwain is just as bad at coaching the unit on that side of the ball as offensive dunce Will Muschamp) to the seething (Tennessee, A&M, LSU, and Missouri).
No conference is prouder of the past decade in college football than the SEC: It boasted a streak of seven consecutive titles from 2006 to 2012, a stretch of dominance that sparked a stunning trend of fans celebrating wins over nonconference opponents by chanting ESS! EEE! SEE! Those days are long gone: This is now the Alabama conference, comprised of one unimpeachable giant towering over a field of misery.
The SEC’s 13 head coaches who are not Nick Saban have a combined record of 2-34 against the Crimson Tide. I didn’t believe this statistic could be real when I first saw it, but somehow it is. That record stood at a slightly more respectable 10-43 last year, but the two coaches with a proven history of beating Alabama—LSU’s Miles and Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze, who was fired in July for both breaking NCAA rules and being horny—are gone. Now the men tasked with toppling Bama have a track record of doing just that 5.6 percent of the time. No SEC East team has beaten Bama since Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore, and South Carolina did in 2010. The only reason to watch the SEC title game at this point is the halftime competition in which students throw footballs into oversized Dr Pepper cans. (Honestly, this is the best event of the year.)
You’ll remember the two times that an active SEC head coach has upended Saban’s juggernaut: Sumlin’s A&M squad beat the Tide in 2012, and Gus Malzahn and Auburn won the 2013 Iron Bowl on the Kick Six. That’s it. Neither victory is replicable in any way: One required the transformation of a 6-foot-nothing quarterback who received exactly one SEC scholarship offer into the mythical Johnny Football. The other was a miracle that will be talked about for as long as football is played.
And the gap between Saban and his conference counterparts is growing. In 2015, Bama’s average margin of victory over SEC foes was 16.6 points. Last year, it was 24.9. This year, the Tide have started off SEC play with 59- and 63-point wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, respectively, the two most lopsided conference victories of Saban’s tenure. Bama outgained the Commodores and Rebels by a combined total of 959 yards.
Alabama is getting better, a scary thought given that the program has won four of the past eight national titles. But it’s not only that. Bama’s greatness is also ruining its conference competition.
The SEC is not bad. Statistically, it’s still the best conference in football, although those S&P+ ratings are heavily buoyed by the world-beating tendencies of Bama.
But where there’s competition and intrigue in other leagues—the ACC has recently featured a compelling battle between Clemson and Florida State for conference supremacy and includes a thriving middle class; the Big Ten is led by an evenly matched triumvirate of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, with Wisconsin not far behind—there is none in the SEC. It would be one thing if Alabama merely won every year. But Alabama’s dominance has broken the rest of the league. It’s caused many teams to make many poor decisions in a futile attempt to compete.
The SEC’s current crop of head coaches is, to be frank, not good. There are the guys who can recruit, but don’t seem good at actually coaching football; Orgeron, Sumlin, and Jones all fall into this category. There are the Saban disciples, who worked as assistants under Saban but are clearly not Saban: Florida employed Saban’s former defensive coordinator, Muschamp, then turned to Saban’s former offensive coordinator, McElwain, when he failed; Muschamp now works as the head coach at South Carolina. At Arkansas, Bret Bielema is trying and failing to find success with a scheme built around his own beefy image. At Mizzou, Barry Odom has overseen the Tigers’ quick plummet from the team that won back-to-back SEC East championships in 2013 and ’14 to one that is the worst in the conference by several miles. The coaches named in this paragraph make up half of the league.
Some of the SEC’s programs are where they are directly because of Alabama—I mean, come on, Florida hired Muschamp and McElwain. Some, like A&M, have stuck to a blueprint that worked once, but was in no way sustainable. Some fired otherwise good coaches because they could not beat Bama; LSU and Georgia (who fired Mark Richt in 2015 to hire former Saban defensive coordinator Kirby Smart) are the best examples of that. Some are merely Alabama-adjacent, and miserable because of it.
There’s no end in sight here. The ESS! EEE! SEE! chants have disappeared. All that’s left is Alabama and sadness.