Thursday, July 9, 2009

impossible task, like always

A realization hit me recently: this decade is nearly over.

How is that even possible? Weren't we just fretting about the dangers of Y2K a few months ago? Didn't Sept. 11, 2001 happen last week? How did we get here?

Unfortunately, I'm no philosopher, as my latest column will attest. But I am a pretty devoted follower of SEC football, something that tends to manifest itself in really odd ways. Like ... as in, what you're about to read.

It occurred to me the other day that I might be able to jump on the "Team of the Decade" subject in the SEC, at least give my own feeble attempt before more capable bloggers and columnists take over the subject. Obviously, this is a subjective thing, and was a lot closer than I'd originally believed, as you'll see below.

Looking back, the teams of the decade in the SEC appear to read as follows:
1990s: Florida. Conference titles in '91, '93, '94, '95, '96, with two other appearances in the title game AND a national championship. No wonder we all hated Steve Spurrier.
1980s: Auburn. A little less dominant, but still impressive: titles in '83, '87, '88 and '89. And they probably should've won a national title in '83.
1970s/1960s: Alabama. The root of all those "Bammers have unrealistic expectations!" jokes you've heard ever since coach Bryant died in '82: SEC titles in '61, '64, '65, '66, '71, '73, '74, '75, '77, '78 and '79. National titles in '61, '64, '65 (jobbed in '66), '73, '78 and '79. And also they had the greatest coach who ever lived, which counts for something.

(Note: You may be asking yourself, "Why doesn't he go back any further than that?" Answer: because I'm lazy and I want to get on with it. And also, I'm not nearly as much of a college football historian as I'd like to believe. So let's all build a bridge together.)

As far as this decade, we'll work backwards ...
Vanderbilt: 32-73 overall, 13-59 in-conference; one coach (Bobby Johnson); one bowl appearance (last year's Music City), 1-0. Best mark: 2008 — 7-6, 4-4.
Thoughts: Weirdly, the most stable program this decade, as well as the coach who wins the award for "SEC coach who looks most like a movie star" (in this case, Steve Martin). SEC fans like me don't think of Vandy as being so moribund, if only because they're always such a tough out for everybody. But in the end, they seem to be stuck in the role of "jobber": taunt the crowd, land a few moves, get the good guy on the ropes, then miss your finisher and ultimately fall apart. Somehow I don't see that one going away.
Mississippi State: 36-69 overall, 17-55 in-conference; three coaches (Jackie Sherrill, Sly Croom, Dan Mullen); two bowl appearances (2000 and 2007), 2-0. Best mark: 2007 — 8-5, 4-4.
Thoughts: Sometimes you know things are about to change for your program the moment something happens. For the Bullies, it happened in September 2001, when they lost at home to South Carolina on a Thursday night. That loss, coupled with the month that followed — a narrow loss to Auburn, a Homecoming loss to Troy, two nasty poundings against Florida and LSU — took away the customary swagger that had characterized Jackie Sherrill's squads from the late 1990s. State hasn't really been the same since, and even the giant leap they took for the rest of the SEC (hiring Sly Croom) ultimately crashed and burned. Whether Mullen can do anything with it remains to be seen; they're still a pretty scary team, as we've delineated earlier.
Kentucky: 43-64, 17-55; three head coaches (Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss, Rich Brooks); three bowl appearances ('06, '07, '08), 3-0. Best mark: 2006 — 8-5, 4-4.
Thoughts: As an Alabama fan, it's easy to forget how cruel this decade has been to fans of Kentucky football. First, Hal Mumme's out-and-out bizarre coaching philosophies — "we don't really practice the kicking game, you know" — and poor program management steered the ship into an NCAA cliff just as bad as what happened at Alabama (with worse results in the long term). Then the football gods chose to take away what would've been the biggest victory in the program's history (look away, UK fans, look away).

But, like State, UK football turned around in the blink of an eye in 2006, starting with a narrow win over (you got it) the Bullies, then an upset over Georgia. Since then, the 'Cats have evolved into a much tougher program, the sort of team that looks harmless enough until you're down 14 at their place and their (supposedly docile) fans are screaming their heads off. I'm actually looking forward to going up there in October.
(Important note: What would Kentucky be like in a different conference? Wouldn't they win the Big XII North? Or challenge Ohio State in the Big 10? What if they could play in the Big East with their friends from Louisville? I'm telling you, being a Kentucky fan is cruel.)
Ole Miss: 52-53, 29-43; three head coaches (David Cutcliffe, Ed Orgeron, Houston Nutt); four bowl appearances (2000, 2002, 2003, 2008), 3-1. Best mark: 2003 — 10-3, 7-1, share of the SEC West title.
Thoughts: Speaking of cruel, it's Ole Miss! They're averaging one 10-win season per Manning, which (I think) means they'll be right back in that thing whenever Peyton's or Eli's kids get old enough to have an impact. In all seriousness, Ole Miss had one shot this decade at Atlanta, and it was ruined by Nick Saban. That's just the way life works sometimes. Whether Houston Nutt will lead them back to the promised land isn't clear — his teams at Arkansas were erratic, to say the very least. But having him on the sidelines means other teams must take them seriously, something you couldn't say with coach O.
South Carolina: 59-47, 34-38; two head coaches (Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier); five bowl appearances (2000, '01, '05, '06, '08), 3-2. Best mark: 2001 — 9-3, 5-3.
Thoughts: There's absolutely no sensible explanation for why South Carolina's football program has never achieved greatly. They have all the prerequisites to being great: specifically, a rabid fan base, a tradition-steeped program and a number of rich boosters that can throw crazy amounts of money around to get what they want (read that head coaches' file again). And yet somehow they can't get over the hump. I know the high school football in South Carolina isn't great, but ... sheesh. There's something else going on here, clearly.
(Importante note: South Carolina APPEARED to be right on the precipice in 2007, starting out 6-1 and rising to the national top-10. Then they went and laid a big steaming egg AT HOME against Vanderbilt, and wound up losing out to close the season. You figure it out.)
Arkansas: 62-46, 34-38; two head coaches (Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino); six bowl appearances ('00, '01, '02, '03, '06, '07), 1-5. Best mark: 2006 — 10-4, 7-1, SEC West champs.
Thoughts: Few teams have had a weirder decade than the Hawgs, who somehow managed to participate in a 7-overtime game (against Ole Miss), a 6-overtime game (against Kentucky), and played multiple games that featured goofy endings (the 2002 LSU game comes to mind). Anytime your team played at Arkansas during the Houston Nutt era, you could count on at least one crazy sequence in which both teams fumbled or it started raining for no reason or — in one case forgotten by everybody except me — one team played 12 players on the game's biggest play and nobody on either side noticed.
(Important note: Everyone touting Houston Nutt's coaching acumen should remember that he was on the verge of being fired before 2006, after consecutive losing seasons, before the McFadden/Jones combo propelled his program back into the stratosphere. So how responsible was he for Arkansas' big turnaround? Hard to say.)
Alabama: 64-47, 38-34; five head coaches (Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price, Mike Shula, Nick Saban); six bowl appearances ('01, '04, '05, '06, '07, '08), 4-2. Best mark: 2008 — 12-2, 8-0, SEC West champs.
Thoughts: You don't want to read any more from me about this roller-coaster decade in Alabama football, but it's worth repeating: in a single decade, Alabama has suffered two losing seasons, two more non-winning seasons, endured a crippling NCAA probation and more leadership changes than your average Methodist church. In that same period Alabama has also seen three separate seasons with double-digit victories.
The good news: for whatever flings we've had with these other guys, we did wind up in bed with the right dude. Even if it took shelling out a ton of cash for a boob job and a completely new wardrobe.
Tennessee: 74-33, 47-25; two head coaches (Phil Fulmer, Lane Kiffin); seven bowl appearances ('00, '01, '02, '03, '04, '06, 07), 3-4. Best mark: 2001 — 10-2, 7-1, SEC East champs.
Thoughts: It's been kind of funny in the aftermath of the Phil Fulmer era listening to Tennessee fans talking themselves into the whole "Fulmer was a lousy coach and we've got the right guy now!" mantra. For whatever warts he has as a person, Fulmer won 10 games four times this decade, and went to the SEC Championship Game three of those seasons. Ultimately his teams never won the big game, however — he maintains an abysmal mark against Florida, and during the season that should've been his legacy (2001) the squad fell flat in Atlanta against a hungry LSU team. Now they're looking up at Alabama and every other team you're about to see on this list (save for one).
Auburn: 78-32, 49-23, 1 SEC title ('04); two head coaches (Tommy Tuberville, Gene Chizik); eight bowl appearances ('00-'07), 5-3. Best mark: 2004 — 13-0, 8-0, SEC Champs, 3d in the final BCS standings.
Thoughts: First things first, just so all my Auburn friends and family will leave me alone: I have no problem with saying that Auburn, 2004 (13-0) is the best team of this decade. Better than Florida last year, better than LSU two years ago. And the Teagles were among the SEC elite from '04-'06 — starting with the 10-9 win over LSU ('04) and ending with the home thrashing to UGA ('06).
Weirdly, however, Tuberville's era was marked by mediocrity outside of that run: the first half of this decade for Auburn was marked by being pretty good, and that's about it. Most famously, the 2003 team looked like a national-title contender, fell flat in its first two games and never recovered.
Now they're helmed by another of the great unknowns (Chizik) and complaining that their old coach didn't recruit. I don't get it, but whatever.
Georgia: 86-22, 53-19, 2 SEC titles ('02, '05); two head coaches (Jim Donna, Mark Richt); nine bowl appearances ('00-present), 7-2. Best mark: 2002 — 12-1, 7-1, SEC Champs, 6th in the final BCS standings.
Thoughts: I lived in Georgia two full years and have a kind of special affection for 'Dawg fans, even if they have a completely unfounded belief that their program's football tradition is as good as Notre Dame, Michigan and Alabama (it isn't even as good as Georgia Tech's in reality). In terms of pure numbers, this has been the best decade in UGA football history — their conference record is the best of the best, and their postseason mark is outstanding.
But it's been frustrating as well: Mark Richt has been soundly outcoached for the most part against Florida (career mark: 2-7) and UGA has watched while Auburn, LSU and the Gators stole their glory at season's end (in a truly torturous twist, UGA finally got over its Florida hump in '04, then was promptly drilled by Auburn). We'll see where it goes — everyone's kind of writing UGA off this season and that may be a mistake: they're still loaded with athletes and may surprise some people this fall.
(Gawd, I hate that cliche).
Florida: 85-26, 53-19, three SEC titles, 2 BCS NCs; three head coaches (Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer); nine bowl appearances ('00-present), 4-5. Best mark: 2008 — 13-1, 7-1, SEC Champs, BCS National Champs.
Thoughts: Assuming any Florida fans ever read this blog, they may be outraged they're not #1. I'm penalizing them for the inexcusable Ron Zook era — Florida could've had any coach it wanted after Steve Spurrier left, and somehow settled on that guy.
Beyond that, I can't find too much to nit-pick from Florida's decade — even during the Zook era, the worst they ever finished was 7-4, which a team like Vanderbilt would claim as its best season of the decade.
(Important note: after some deliberation, I decided to rank 2008 as the program's best season this decade only because of the sheer domination offensively, and also because of Tim Tebow. In fact, let's bask in the man's awesomeness once more while we're here.)

LSU: 86-24, 50-22, three SEC titles, 2 BCS NCs; two head coaches (Nick Saban, Les Miles); nine bowl appearances ('00-present), 7-2. Best mark: 2003 — 12-1, 7-1, SEC Champs, BCS National Champs.
Thoughts: For most of the history of the conference, LSU has been considered something of a sleeping giant: everyone knows how much talent is located in Louisiana, and the fear has always been that one day they'd get out of their own way and hire a coach capable of turning that talent into a lethal killing machine. Of course, that's basically what happened when LSU hired Nick Saban: within two seasons, that team was dismantling a pretty good Tennessee team for the SEC title, and two seasons after that was hoisting a crystal football (OK, so they shared it with USC, but you get the idea). Where they're headed the next few years is anybody's guess: Miles is still reeling in the talent, but it's up in the air as to whether he can actually win with his own guys (that '07 team could've coached itself to the national title and basically did). So we'll see.
If nothing else, perhaps Bengal Tiger fans will settle for being the DP's Team of the Decade.

No comments: