The Southeastern Conference returned to the top of the College Football world last year when Alabama won another National Championship. This just a year after Bama was rolled in the national semi-finals by Ohio State. Already this season, the Crimson Tide have been labeled the preseason favorite in the Coaches Poll, and they’ll certainly be number one by the AP as well, but starting the season there, often means you don’t finish there. Remember, Ohio State started last year at number 1 and they didn’t win the Big-10 championship.
I enjoy going against the grain on these things. I likewise hate the perception that seems to exist within the borders of the State of Alabama that Alabama invented football. Sure they’ve had their share of success and great players and I’m not going to dispute that. But, college football was played a long time prior to Alabama signing up for it, and let’s remember that other than Bear Bryant’s sustained success, the one championship one by Gene Stallings, and the current success under Nick Saban, Alabama has had some rough times as well. Mike DuBose anyone? How about Mike Shula? And don’t forget Mike Price who was fired before he ever coached a game.
So with that in mind, my pick to win the SEC this season is another school whose seen its share of hard times, Tennessee. Let’s be honest, Tennessee is one of college football’s blue blood programs. It has a passionate fan base, a stadium that holds 102,000 plus people, and a pregame that frankly is one of the best I’ve ever seen. West Virginia’s is a VERY close second. But, to say that Tennessee football hasn’t been in a slump over the past decade or so, is to not be paying any attention. Tennessee last appeared in the SEC Championship game at the end of the 2007 season when they lost to LSU. Since 2008, the Volunteers overall record is just 49-51 and the program highlights are win in the Tax Slayer Bowl over unmotivated Iowa and a win over over-matched Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
It’s easy to lay blame for the dumpster fire that became Tennessee football in recent years right at the feet of former Coach Derek Dooley. Dooley, who is now the wide receiver’s coach for the Dallas Cowboys, still cashes monthly checks for about $110,000.00 as part of his contract buyout. He was just 18-21 in his three years, but frankly the reason Rocky Top became Rocky Flop can be attributed to two things. The first was the lack of effort Phillip Fulmer put into continuing to build the Volunteer program after a national championship and the second was the poor decision made by former athletic director Mike Hamilton to hire Lane Kiffin in 2009 after Fulmer was shown the door.
Fulmer’s demise was almost karmic really. Fulmer was a long-time offensive line coach and offensive coordinator on the staff of former coach Johnny Majors. Majors – a former Tennessee player – was the prodigal son called home in 1977 after winning a national title at Pittsburgh to restore Tennessee football to its former glory. Had Johnny Majors been coaching today, he would have never got the chance to do so. His first four teams were 21-23-1. That would get your fired today. Instead Majors was given time to do the job and thanks to recruiting players like speedy wide outs Willie Gault, and Carl Pickens, and dominate defensive players like Reggie White, his next 7 teams went 56=24=5 with an SEC Title in 1985. His 1988 team dipped to 5=6 after starting the year 0-6, but that was followed by his best year of 11-1 in 1989, 9-2-2 in 1990 and 9-3 in 1991. The prodigal son was a success. And then, his health changed the fate of the program.
Early in the 1992 season Majors had to have emergency heart surgery shelving him for the Vols first three games of the season. Fulmer took over as interim coach and went 3-0 including wins over Georgia and Florida. 1992 was the year the SEC expanded to 12 teams and split into divisions. Georgia and Florida were placed in the SEC East with Tennessee meaning that in order to play for an SEC title, they were going to have to beat those schools on annual basis. Fulmer’s success suddenly put him on the rising star list of assistant coaches and drew interest from other programs. When Majors returned and, after winning two games against Cincinnati and LSU, and then dropping three conference games in a row to Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina, the hand writing was on the wall.
To this day, Johnny Majors will tell you that several coaches on his staff betrayed him. I assume he means Fulmer among others, and the two have had at best a frosty relationship for over 25 years. Majors told me so in 1993 when I interviewed him at the Big East Media Days after he returned to Pitt as head coach. He also said that he left Tennessee with a program that was going to win a National Championship within a few years, and on that point he was correct.
There is no sugarcoating the success that Fulmer had as Tennessee’s head coach and he deserves credit for that success. In his tenure he went 152-52-1. By any objective measure that’s impressive. It did not hurt that he had Peyton Manning as his quarterback for 4 years, and it likewise didn’t hurt that he had David Cutcliffe calling the plays for him. Cutcliffe was the primary reason Manning came to Tennessee, and has long been respected as one of college football’s best offensive minds. Ole Miss hasn’t been consistently good since he was fired, and he’s winning games at Duke. From 1995 – 1998 Tennessee went 45-5 culminating with the first BCS National Championship in 1998. Manning was in his rookie year with the Indianapolis Colts when the Vols won the National Title having been replaced by Tee Martin. But, Martin’s role wasn’t as critical when you consider than on that team were Jamal Lewis – who played in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, and Defensive Players Al Wilson and Leonard Little who also played in the NFL.
Whether it was a case of becoming fat and happy or simply hoping success would carry him through, Fulmer did not continue to recruit the best players and as a result Tennessee football began a decline that culminated in his dismissal in 2008. Former Offensive Coordinator Randy Sanders once said in 2003 that there was maybe 1 player on that 2003 team that could have played in 1998. Not good. The decline of Tennessee football under Fulmer hit the bottom on homecoming Saturday in 2008 when Fulmer signed his own death warrant. His uninspired and frankly under talented team lost at home to Wyoming.
Needing a coach for the first time in 16 years, Hamilton who was in all candor a brilliant fund raiser, set his eyes immediately on Kiffin. Kiffin was the offensive coordinator at Southern California under Pete Carroll when the Trojans recruited the best players, scored points in bunches and became the best program in the country. Kiffin parlayed his part in that success to the head coaching job with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. He was neither prepared for the job nor qualified and shortly into his second year, Raiders owner Al Davis fired him. Kiffin – showing his true character – didn’t go quietly making a stink that Davis wouldn’t pay him the balance of his contract. Davis – who frankly was a crazy old man in his later years said Lane Kiffin had no character. I guess we can conclude Davis was right.
Kiffin, realizing the talent deficiencies at Tennessee went for the quick fix by recruiting players of considerable talent but questionable character. Among his recruits was David Oku – a talented running back out of Oklahoma who was immature and couldn’t handle adversity and left the program shortly after Kiffin left. Another Kiffin recruit Nukeese Richardson got into trouble with the law and eventually had to transfer to FCS Hampton. About the best thing Kiffin did was reclaim starting quarterback Johnathan Crompton off the scrap heap and turn him into a player that actually got a shot in an NFL camp. Kiffin showed his true character with a parade of secondary NCAA violations and in early January in the midst of the most critical recruiting time, Kiffin walked out on Tennessee to take the job at USC. In doing so, he presided over a bizarre press conference in which he refused to answer questions and initially refused to even take part if the local television stations insisted on recording it. Then after leaving Tennessee with a police escort he went home and started calling recruits who committed to Tennessee to see if they would come to USC.
Into all of this mess walked Derek Dooley, the son of legendary Georgia Coach Vince Dooley. Dooley had a roster that was a disaster and was forced to play players before they were even remotely ready. In all honestly, Dooley didn’t do himself any favors by taking a stand-offish attitude with the local media once going 4 whole months without even talking to them. He also alienated boosters and had a general air of elitism about him at times. He likewise pissed off the high school coaches in the state, who were thrilled to see him gone. I don’t believe Derek Dooley is as bad a coach as his record indicates. I believe he was simply in over his head and unprepared for one of the toughest jobs in college football. He was honestly about the 8th choice for the job as Hamilton – still on the job- couldn’t find anyone willing to take it. Dooley will forever have a legacy at Tennessee though creating the Vol for Life program and presiding over the design and construction of the team’s sparkling new football facility.
So, now comes the time that Tennessee is supposed to return to its former glory. Coach Butch Jones has shown that he can recruit with the best of them. In fact, I really believe that’s his only hobby. The talent is there particularly on defense, but Jones and his staff must show that they can coach as well as they can recruit and for his part Jones needs to win something other than two MAC titles at Central Michigan and a share of two Big East Championships at Cincinnati. He’s made some improvements on his staff changing both coordinators in the past two seasons getting rid of his buddies for some actual coaches with pedigree. If Jones can put all the pieces together there is no reason that Tennessee shouldn’t be in the SEC Championship Game. But, they first need to figure out how to beat Florida, something Tennessee hasn’t done since 2004. The offensive line is experienced, the two running backs particularly Jalen Hurd are studs, and Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBoard goes into games with a better plan than his predecessor ever though of having. Not all is perfect however. For as big a threat as Quarterback Josh Dobbs is running the ball, he’s woefully deficiency is his down field passing and Tennessee’s receivers need to be more consistent. At times, they’ll catch everything and at times it appears that they cannot catch the flu.
However, come the first Saturday in December I expect Tennessee to be playing for the SEC Title against…LSU. I have some hesitation on selecting LSU to win the SEC West since they cannot seem to find a quarterback worth a darn. But, they have the best running back in college football and remember last season when LSU wanted to fire Les Miles and then changed their minds at the very last minute. Well, Sports has a funny way of evening things out and this year just might be it.
SEC East – (1) Tennessee – for the reasons above, this is the Volunteers division to lose. The most critical game on the schedule is September 24th at home vs. Florida. They should be 3-0 going into that game (that includes a win over Virginia Tech in the what I called the “Bullshit at Bristol” and if they beat the Gators, then an SEC Title is closer than its been in a long time; (2) Florida – last year Head Coach Jim McElwain should have been the national coach of the year for winning an SEC East title in his first year while holding his team together with tape and super glue. He’ll probably have to do the same thing again, but over the next decade we may see a repeat of Tennessee and Florida battling every year for the SEC East Title and McElwain v. Jones replicating Spurrier v. Fulmer; (3) Georgia – New Coach in alum Kirby Smart, and a likely freshman starting quarterback equals losses to both Tennessee and Florida and a spot in the middle of the SEC East pack; (4) Kentucky – Head Coach Mark Stoops changed offensive coordinators again and last season’s starting quarterback is now at Boston College, but there is enough talent that Kentucky should at least bat .500 and earn a bowl game; (5) Missouri – New Head Coach in Barry Odom who moves up from defensive coordinator inherits a tough job in an athletic department in a complete mess. The AD went to Baylor (imagine Baylor being a better job than Missouri) and the interim AD went to North Texas. Missouri won the SEC East in its first two seasons in the league with a team that was made for the Big XII. I don’t see another division title coming anytime soon; (6) Vanderbilt – As a head coach Derek Mason is a great defensive coordinator and he will put another nasty defense on the field, but most of the time Mason appears to be a deer in the headlights and even at Vanderbilt the time for learning on the job is short; and (7) South Carolina – So, let’s get this straight. Steve Spurrier walks out in the middle of the season and his long time offensive assistant actually does a decent job getting the Gamecocks to play hard and hold it together and so what does the South Carolina administration do? Hire Will Muschamp who failed miserably as a head coach at Florida and figures to do the same in South Carolina. Give it three years at the bottom of the league and Muschamp will be back as a defensive coordinator and South Carolina, a school with a great stadium and even better fans, will be starting over again. Clemson is now the go-to school in South Carolina and Muschamp doesn’t have Spurrier’s charisma to woo the best recruits to Columbia.
SEC West – (1) LSU – call it a hunch, but never count out Les Miles. True, they have to find a quarterback that can actually throw to ease the pressure on the best running back in college football Lenoard Fournette, but Miles hired one of the best defensive coordinators in Dave Aranda from Wisconsin so I like LSU to surprise everyone; especially (2) Alabama – just not buying the fact that Bama can just line up and roll over people. The Tide are once again breaking in another first year quarterback and their entire starting lineup consists of NFL type players, but winning at a high level every year is just about impossible so I don’t expect a repeat of the SEC Title or the National Title; (3) Arkansas – Old school football at its finest. Line it up and pound it. Arkansas is big and physical and that’s good enough for me to see at least 9 wins; (4) Texas A&M – the Aggies have had real problems solving their quarterback riddle since one John Manziel left for a drunk induced alleged career in the NFL. Enter transfer Trevor Knight from Oklahoma. The reason I like Texas A&M to at least be competitive is on the defensive side of the ball where the Chief John Chavis enters his second year and will bring pressure at all times from all locations. Chavis is known for saving jobs – he almost single-handedly kept Phillip Fulmer employed for years and he’s going to have to work his magic to save Kevin Sumlin’s butt now. Sumlin was the hottest thing on the market a few years ago. A few years of struggles have changed that; (5) Ole Miss – I didn’t buy them last year and I’m not buying them this year. This is a program that is under scrutiny from the NCAA and had a player on NFL draft night all but admit getting money from an assistant in the program. Quarterback Chad Kelly had a great year last year, but has a history of being a head case. If he winds up being one again, then there may be a house cleaning coming in Oxford; (6) Mississippi State – Dan Mullen has done about as good a job as you can at Mississippi State, and should have taken the money from some other school and high tailed it out of town. Mississippi State is where good coaches go to die and without Dak Prescott running the team at quarterback, Mullen may be one step closing to joining a list of fine men like Slyvester Croom who couldn’t make long term success in Starkville possible. And finally, (7) Auburn – This is it for Gus Malzahn. He runs a tinker toy high school offense that the rest of the league has caught up to defending. His defense isn’t very good and he just kicked his top returning running back off the team. All of which is a recipe for disaster and most likely unemployment. Auburn fans and the administration in the loveliest little town on the plains are NUTS. Add another one to the list of former Auburn coaches. The only thing that can save Malzahn is if Auburn wins at least 7 and Gus kisses the rumps of the boosters who really run the show at Auburn. It might not hurt to kiss Pat Dye’s butt also. For some reason the former Auburn head coach remains revered at Auburn. I guess that’s why he stays in town instead of going to Florida with the rest of the geezers.
That’s just my view. Next up….ACC in a few days.