In 2016, the SEC failed to establish itself as the clear top conference.
Which conference has been best this year is up for debate depending on how you define “best.” The Big Ten has four teams in top ten of the latest College Football Playoff rankings, and few would argue that any other league has more top programs. The ACC has five representatives in the CFP top 25, the same as the SEC, and it has three teams appear before the SEC’s second one does. Those two conferences have claims to being superior to the SEC this year.
For what it’s worth, the SEC can claim a slight edge for top-to-bottom strength. The league’s average team rank in the current F/+ ratings is 42.9, compared to 44.6 for the ACC and 53.7 for the Big Ten. In the Sagarin ratings, the SEC comes out on top again with an average rank of 39. The ACC’s is 43.9 in Sagarin, while the Big Ten’s is 50.4.
The SEC may be lacking its usual heavy presence at the top of the polls, but it doesn’t have any downright dreadful teams this year. The Big Ten has Illinois, Purdue, and Rutgers as giant boat anchors weighing its averages down. The ACC has Syracuse, Virginia, and Boston College doing the same, albeit to a lesser degree. The only SEC team to rank below the 70s is South Carolina, but it’s only that low in the F/+ and not in Sagarin.
A natural culprit for the SEC’s less-than-stellar year is quarterbacking. The conference had only one regular starting signal caller break the passing efficiency threshold of 150, Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs. It’s the fewest the conference has had since none hit the mark in 2011.
A lack of good quarterbacks explains some of the deficiency relative to the ACC. That conference had five quarterbacks break the 150 level, and a sixth finished above the SEC’s No. 2 guy, Chad Kelly.
It doesn’t explain much relative to the Big Ten, which also had only one quarterback break 150—and only just, as Penn State’s Trace McSorley is at 150.9. He could fall below 150 after facing Wisconsin’s fearsome defense in the Big Ten title game. Furthermore, the SEC had only one quarterback above 150 in 2004, the year the SEC began to assert itself as the nation’s best conference. It also had only one in 2007, and the league didn’t experience a perception hit that year.
Another natural place to look is coaching. Has the SEC’s collection of head coaches gone downhill?
Let’s look at things now versus five years ago in 2011—and yes, I know that Mizzou and Texas A&M weren’t in the SEC back then. Two programs are about even in the head coaching department. Alabama and Mississippi State have the same guys they had back then, and there’s no sign of a decline there. Dan Mullen may have had a rough 2016, but that can happen at MSU when losing key players as he did. His Bulldogs won 19 games combined in the two prior years. He didn’t forget how to coach last offseason.
Two more programs are too early in their coaches’ tenures to tell where they’re at. Kirby Smart and Barry Odom are downgrades from 2011-vintage Mark Richt and Gary Pinkel, but they could grow into upgrades. It’s bad timing that programs which won four of the last six East titles are concurrently trying out rookie head coaches, but we can’t judge them fully yet.
By my estimation, four programs downgraded with their head coaches. Bret Bielema is no Bobby Petrino. Will Muschamp can’t hold up to Steve Spurrier back when the Head Ball Coach was still fully engaged in his job. Derek Mason is improving, but he’s not as good as James Franklin. Les Miles declined from 2011 to 2016, and Ed Orgeron as an interim wasn’t what Miles was in 2011.
That leaves six teams that improved their head coaching situations. Butch Jones, Mark Stoops, and Hugh Freeze have been clear upgrades over Derek Dooley, Joker Phillips, and Houston Nutt. Gus Malzahn and Jim McElwain are solidly better than Gene Chizik and Muschamp. It’s close, but I’d say Kevin Sumlin is an upgrade over Mike Sherman.
The issue: Though Jones, Malzahn, McElwain, and Sumlin are better than their predecessors, they’re not consistently living up to the expectations of their programs. “Better than Derek Dooley” is the lowest bar a Tennessee coach has to clear. Provided all four of those guys are back next year in their current jobs, only McElwain won’t appear on any hot seat lists. Even then, plenty of Florida fans will gripe about the continued mediocrity of his offense.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the SEC this year is the collapse of some defenses. Tough defenses used to be the calling card of the conference, but the league has come up short this year.
Taking out sacks, nine SEC defenses allowed at least five yards per carry in 2016. By comparison, nine allowed that many yards per carry in a season over the previous two years combined.
Arkansas was the worst offender in this regard. The Razorbacks allowed more than 5.5 yards per carry (excluding sacks) against every Power Five opponent except Florida. Their overall average was 7.6 yards per carry against Power Five teams, which is horrendous. The Hogs weren’t alone, though. Ole Miss and Missouri each came within a tenth of a yard of allowing six yards per carry on the year. Tennessee, thanks in no small part to an injury plague, was fourth from the bottom at 5.8 yards per rush allowed.
The SEC may not stay in its present rut for long. This may have been the worst year for passing since 2011, but just two years after that, the conference had its best passing year in recent history in 2013.
Jalen Hurts, Jacob Eason, Jake Bentley, and Shea Patterson showed promise as true freshmen. After slow starts, sophomores Nick Fitzgerald, Kyle Shurmur, and Drew Lock played their best ball in November. Auburn and Florida muddled through with older players while redshirting highly rated true freshman Woody Barrett and Feleipe Franks. Better quarterback play appears to be coming in the near future, potentially boosting the league.
Or, things could get worse. Orgeron is a third big question mark as a coach to go along with Smart and Odom. Jones and Sumlin might be in real trouble next year if their replacements for Dobbs and Trevor Knight don’t impress, potentially tossing their programs into upheaval. Ole Miss is also facing the results of its pending NCAA investigation.
One thing is for certain: College football is a cyclical sport. Whether the SEC is down for one year or several, it will come back. There is too much talent in its footprint, too much support from its fans, and too much money in its programs not to recover in relatively short order.
If still having the best average team rating and potentially the national champion counts as a down year, you can bet SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey will take it.