It’s a little harder to proclaim the Southeastern Conference as the best football league in the nation now that the streak of winning BCS National Championships has come an end. The SEC still is the best conference, even without a title to prop up this year, because of its depth.
Seven teams finished in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll. Three teams finished in the top 5, including Auburn, South Carolina and Missouri. A total of four teams finished in the top seven, absolutely amazing when you think about it. Two other teams — Ole Miss being one — finished with votes received in the final poll.
Essentially, the Rebels finished 33rd in the country if you count the teams in order. Ole Miss was ranked during the season, which should also be noted, as was Georgia, the other team that received votes in the final poll. The Bulldogs had a rash of injuries and were without their starting quarterback, Aaron Murray, in the Gator Bowl. I think a lot of people, myself included, believe Georiga wins that game if he plays.
The SEC sent 10 teams to bowl games this year, going 7-3 in the process. The .700 winning percentage was the second best only behind the Sun Belt, which had two teams make it to a bowl and both won. Only one other conference — the Pac 12 — had a percentage above .500 and the Pac 12 was 6-3, good for .667. So, even without an eighth straight title to end the BCS era, the SEC had another strong year, impressive enough to claim that it was the best in the nation.
None of these facts and figures are shocking for us to read about here in Oxford, or in the state of Mississippi where two of the 14 teams reside. We all know how good this league is, year in and year out, so touting the strength of the conference against other conferences to fans who attend games or even watch SEC games every Saturday isn’t a stretch. It’s not quite pointless, but it’s a preacher-choir idiom.
This wrap-up column was purposely delayed due to Vanderbilt’s James Franklin and Penn State’s interest in him. Of course we all know he’s now taken the PSU job, leaving a head coaching vacancy at one of the SEC schools that finished the year ranked in the Top 25. Franklin’s departure looks to be favorable for Ole Miss in the sense that he was doing a great job with the Commodores.
Him leaving opens a void in recruiting and continuity, at least for the short term. But it’s also conceviable that Franklin’s exit could open the door up for an even better coach to come in and take his spot. Vanderbilt made a great hire with Franklin, I think we all can agree on that, and the job is that much more attractive three years later because of what Franklin has been able to accomplish. If Vanderbilt can hire a coach that can be just as productive as Franklin, then it’s very likely for the SEC to be just as strong and competitive as it has been.
Franklin’s replacement is as important to Mike Slive as it is to Hugh Freeze, of course for much different reasons. Slive has to want to see a great head coach come in there to keep a program that had been the doormat in the SEC as competitive as the Commodores have become. When you play a team every year and recruit against a team like Ole Miss has done with Vanderbilt, knowing who the replacement will be is important. I’m sure Freeze isn’t going to stay up and lose sleep over who Vanderbilt will pick, but it’s important to him, just as it’s important to Will Muschamp and Butch Jones and Mark Richt and all of the coaches in the SEC East.
While I’m sure no coach thinks the SEC is ever going to be easy, it’s hard to believe that any of those names are hoping for the league to get much harder. We’ve already established how good the league was this year and how good it’s been the past handful of seasons. The SEC being even more competitive will be tougher to accomplish, but
it’s possible, it’s possible just because the Vanderbilt job is better, which has made the league so much better.
Vanderbilt being to three straight bowls is why Franklin is so respected and why Penn State made him their number one target, over one of its former players in Al Golden. Vanderbilt’s loss may end up being a gain in the long run. The initial names circulated to fill the spot are impressive, much more so than they would have been if Franklin hadn’t done what he was able to do. The SEC is stronger because of the job Franklin did.
Ole Miss is stronger, as a program, today because of the way Franklin handled former coach Houston Nutt in 2011. The loss to the Commodores was the beginning of the end for Nutt. Freeze is a better coach for having matched wits with Franklin the past two years and I’m sure he appreciated the competition for players in recruiting.
The league is in good shape, better shape, because it’s former worst team finished ranked in the Top 25. Other programs like Tennessee and Arkansas appear to be on the cusp of being better, which would make the SEC even more formidable. But Vanderbilt’s next hire is really as key as anything heading into 2014 season.
The Commodores have the pieces in place to stay competitive in this unforgiving landscape. How good they remain is only answered with time, but it’s important for us all, those that cover the SEC or love it just from a fan standpoint, to keep up with how the next week or weeks sort out in the Music City. (January 12, 2014)