It's finally here, the race to determine which SEC team will become the fifth consecutive national champion to emerge from the conference.
Could a darkhorse -- Arkansas or Georgia -- win a title from the SEC and become the fourth different team to emerge from the league, or will this be the third consecutive season that ends in an Alabama-Florida SEC title game, the rubber match to decide all rubber matches? In the end, 2010 is going to look an awful lot like 2008 and 2009. For the second consecutive time, Alabama will win the SEC title and ascend to the 2010 national championship game. But first, an observation that isn't attracting much attention: the SEC's coaching lineup is remarkably unproven once you get past these two teams. In fact, read on and I'm going to point out that Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are actually underpaid relative to their skill set.
In the meantime, Meyer and Saban have already cemented themselves as top 10 coaches in SEC history, but outside of those two, who else is a great coach in this league? In other words, if you needed a coach for one game and couldn't select Meyer or Saban, who would you pick and feel certain that your pick could match wits with the greatest coaches in the rest of the country?
The third best coach in the SEC isn't an easy choice, right? And it's not because there are so many great options. It's because there are so few.
Lost amid the hubbub of the conference's reign is this fact: the SEC has become a duopoly. Florida and Alabama are a combined 52-4 the past two seasons, and two of those four losses have come against each other. The rest of the mighty SEC has gone a combined 1-16 the past two years against Alabama and Florida. The only team to beat either program these years? Ole Miss by a single point, 31-30 in 2008.
Put plainly, while Bama and Florida have been dominant, the rest of the league has not come close to matching the performance. Indeed, the exact opposite is true. Last year, only three teams finished with winning records in conference play. That third team? A mediocre LSU, which managed to get to 5-3. Otherwise, the middle and bottom of the league, teams 3-12, have never been closer or, potentially, more mediocre.
Given that the SEC had the most draft picks in league history last year with 49, you can argue the talent pool has never been deeper. But look into those numbers and you see that the distribution isn't even at all. Five teams combined for 33 of those 49 picks. The remaining seven teams in conference had just 16 picks. Florida and Alabama, not coincidentally the two teams with the most players selected at the draft, combined for 16 picks, nine and seven respectively.
Putting that into even greater detail, Florida had the same number of players drafted in 2010 as South Carolina, Mississippi State, Auburn, Arkansas and Vanderbilt combined. Dive into the numbers and the top-to-bottom argument begins to look pretty shallow.
Taken in this context, it's not just that Alabama and Florida have raised their respective profiles, it's that the rest of the traditional SEC powers -- Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and Auburn -- have all fallen. The gap in the conference is widening, not because Florida and Alabama are simply taking their teams to another level. It's that and the rest of the upper tier of the SEC plummeting. The result? A bunching of mediocrity in the league that offers opportunity to the typical cellar dwelling Kentuckys and Mississippi States of the world.
This comparative mediocrity also raises an intriguing question. Have Alabama and Florida created the greatest difference between themselves and the rest of the league since divisional play began?
I think so.
Barring departure or retirement of Meyer and Saban, who can consistently challenge these teams? I'm not sure anyone can. Which brings me back to my original question: who is the third best head coach in the SEC?
Is there any consensus at all? Put it this way, is there anyone you'd risk a mortgage payment if it came down to one game against, say, Frank Beamer? As the 2010 SEC season commences, I want to toss out an idea and see if y'all agree. The best college coaches, counter to everything you read, are underpaid. But coaches as a whole may well be overpaid. Let me explain. Alabama was castigated by many for paying Nick Saban $4 million a year to leave the Dolphins. Three years later, I think everyone would agree that criticism was a joke. Saban has outperformed his salary by multiples of 10. The best college football coaches in America are literally worth their weight in gold.
Put it this way, is there any top 25 college program in the country that Urban Meyer or Nick Saban wouldn't win a national championship coaching at if they were given eight years at their schools? I don't think so.
Now, they might not be as successful at Michigan or UCLA, say, as at Florida or Alabama, but both men would win a national championship there. That's because both men's talents are so rare that they deserve a premium, an astronomical rock star, superstar bonus in pay that is far above everyone else. These men are the Warren Buffetts of coaching.
But does multimillionaire Les Miles deserve to be in the same category?
Of course not.
Which leads to a pretty interesting observation: Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are so good at what they do that SEC schools forced to compete with them are driving up the salaries of the men they toss out to coach against them. Not because these coaches are deserving of their salaries for their own individual talents, but because Saban and Meyer are so good at what they do that schools feel compelled to throw money at the problem.
How does a college athletic director prove that he's serious about competing against LSU and Alabama?
He pays his coaches as much as he possibly can.
The coaching arm's race, then, actually exists because the rock star coaches are underpaid. Most of Miles' salary, for example, really should be going to two men he coaches against every year, Meyer and Saban, instead of to him. Coaching salaries are on such a trajectory because every program tries to pay the same salaries to coaches that don't deserve the salary premium.
All of this leads us to this clear conclusion: 21st century college football boils down to head coaches more than any sport in the modern era. As we enter the 2010 season, instead of merely predicting the order of team finish, which I'll do at the end of this piece, I think it's time to consider the relative state of the programs as seen through the men at the helm of the program ship.
After all, if your coach isn't tops in the league, the relative status of your program doesn't matter a bit. Eventually your team is going to fail. One way of looking at the SEC's descent to mediocrity is to see how weak the coaching bench behind Saban and Meyer is.
Without further ado, the rankings:
1. Urban Meyer
There can be a true debate about who should rank No. 1 between Saban and Meyer, but Meyer wins that debate because he's younger and because in 2006 he turned in the best coaching job in the 21st century. It's only in retrospect that you can really appreciate Meyer's ability to win a championship while running a pro-style offense with a mediocre college quarterback in Chris Leak. Keep in mind Meyer arrived in Gainesville as an adherent of the spread offense. Then he completely adjusted his coaching philosophy to fit the talent he had on the team.
Ask Rich Rodriguez up at Michigan how difficult that is to accomplish. In fact, Rodriguez's absolute inability to adjust his coaching to his talent is why his team is 8-16 in two seasons.
Not only did Meyer change offenses, but he won a national championship in only his second year at Florida. That trumps what Saban has accomplished.
2. Nick Saban
The best argument for Nick Saban as best coach in the SEC that doesn't include his own two national championships? He left LSU in such good shape that Les flippin' Miles could win a national title.
3. Mark Richt
Georgia fans are angry because Mark Richt's season narratives all have pretty much the same script. Eventually the Bulldogs are going to lose to Florida and there's always going to be a coordinator that isn't quite up to the job. It's why I've been arguing for a couple of years that Richt is a latter day Phil Fulmer. Eventually, Richt is going to be forced out not because of a lack of a wins, but because the losses keep coming the same way.
Richt also suffers because he doesn't have Miles' good luck. Miles can win a national championship with two SEC losses. Twice Richt has put his team into position to play for a national championship and been undone by the vagaries of the BCS process.
Looking at the recent decline, it would seem that Georgia's chances of being an elite national champion team have passed for the next couple of years. Having said that, with two SEC titles to his name, the first for the Bulldogs since 1982, Georgia fans have short memories. Do the names Ray Goff and Jim Donnan mean nothing to them?
Right now Richt is still the third best coach in the SEC. He's just not, and never will be, on the level of Saban or Meyer.
4. Houston Nutt
Exhibit A for how weak the coaching roster is in the SEC. Houston Nutt is 51-45 in the SEC after 12 years in the league. He's never won a league title and he's only won his division once.
Yet back-to-back nine-win seasons at Ole Miss combined with Cotton Bowl victories puts him at the fourth-best coach in the SEC right now.
Yeah, I'm shocked, too.
5. Dan Mullen
SEC success has to be earned, not given. So this is probably a bit high for Mullen. He's also coaching at the weakest program in the SEC. (Yes, even weaker than Vanderbilt when you consider athletic department revenues and location.) But write this down: Mullen is going to be the next stud coach to come out of this conference.
He's got the right mix of swagger, brains and youth. Unfortunately for Mississippi State, if Mullen stays in the conference, one of the big six programs is going to throw gobs of money at him and his best successes are going to come elsewhere. In the meantime, ring your cowbells with pride State fans.
6. Bobby Petrino
I know, I know, Petrino built something at Louisville. I have no doubt he's a good coach when he's matching wits with Big East foes. But he's nowhere near Meyer or Saban. After two years in Arkansas, Petrino is 5-11 in the SEC. What's more, his recruiting classes stink. If Michigan doesn't completely bungle the hiring process and run off Ryan Mallett, how good is Arkansas coming into this season?
If Petrino wins 10 games or more this season and stays at Arkansas, I'll bump him up to No. 4 in the conference. But so far there's nothing to suggest that Petrino is a rock star level coach in the SEC. More ominously for Hog fans, there's also nothing to suggest Petrino would stay in Arkansas if he wins 10 games.
7. Steve Spurrier
If Steve Spurrier retires at the end of the 2001 season and never coaches in the SEC again, he goes down in history as the second greatest head coach in league history behind Bear Bryant at Alabama. Instead, Spurrier came back at South Carolina and has slowly become a shadow of himself. Spurrier's Fun and Gun Gator offense went 87-14 in the SEC at Florida. His league record in five full seasons at South Carolina?
Yep, he's already lost eight more conference games at Carolina than he lost in his entire career at Florida. As if that wasn't bad enough, Spurrier's best success at South Carolina came in his first two years with the Gamecocks. (And he's won a single bowl game, the Liberty Bowl in 2006. To return a famous dig, you can't even spell Citrus with USC. Even though the letters are there, too.) Since then he's been getting worse.
What's more, the way he's won has proven that the game has passed him by. South Carolina's defense dominates every victory.
8. Gene Chizik
At some point, Auburn's dysfunctional athletic department is going to attempt to replace Chizik with his offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn. Until that happens, Chizik can be content being the front man for a great coaching staff that has proven to be outstanding recruiters.
But Chizik is a paper suit. A paper suit with the easiest schedule in the SEC this fall. Seriously, how is it possible that Auburn gets Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Kentucky all on the road this year combined with eight home games? That's almost criminal.
9. Les Miles
This says it all: LSU fans, the ones who know him best, think I've overrated Miles.
10. Derek Dooley
With nine minutes left in the 2007 SEC championship game, Phil Fulmer's Vols took possession of the football nursing a 14-13 fourth quarter lead against eventual national champion LSU. A half minute later, senior quarterback Erik Ainge threw a pick-six. Almost three years later, the Vols still haven't recovered.
In the past 26 games since that SEC championship, the Vols are 13-13.
In the wake of Lane Kiffin's disastrous one-year tenure, UT now finds itself having replaced an icon who went 152-52 with a national title with an unproven 17-20 career head coach at Louisiana Tech.
Worst of all, he was the school's fifth choice to replace Kiffin.
Dooley may succeed, but it's going to be several years before it's even fair to judge him. That's how bad of a state the program is in.
11. Joker Phillips
He's recruited well early, but come September he'll be standing on the sideline as a head coach for the first time anywhere. It's premature to rank him at all -- an N/A would probably be better -- but no one in the SEC is going to be thinking about that when Kentucky rolls into town.
12. Robbie Caldwell
First in war, first in peace, first in the art of turkey insemination.
Like Phillips, he's unproven as a head coach. Unlike Phillips, he faces the single toughest schedule in the SEC this fall. Good luck, you're going to need it.
And Finally, Some Predictions
Here's how it will all shake out in 2010. When all is said and done, Auburn will join Alabama and Florida as the only schools with a winning record in conference.
1. Alabama 13-1 (8-1 in the SEC)
2. Auburn 9-3 (5-3)
3. Arkansas 8-4 (4-4)
4. LSU 7-5 (4-4)
5. Ole Miss 6-6 (3-5)
6. Miss. State 6-6 (3-5)
1. Florida 10-3 (7-2)
2. South Carolina 8-4 (4-4)
3. Georgia 8-4 (4-4)
4. Tennessee 6-6 (3-5)
5. Kentucky 6-6 (3-5)
6. Vanderbilt 2-10 (1-7)