Which SEC Football Teams Are on the Rise or Decline Heading into 2012?

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Alabama looks to be in the national title hunt once again.

<p> SEC Football: Which Teams Are On The Rise or Decline?</p>

With kickoff to the 2012 college football season still weeks away, it's time to evaluate where each team is headed. This is essentially a checkup or a state of the program overview for each team in the conference. Are they on the rise or decline? What factors in the future could have an impact on success? 

SEC State of the Program: On the Rise or On the Decline?

Alabama

Record over the last 5 years: 55–12 (32–8 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 90–38 (51–29 SEC)

Alabama has re-emerged as a national power since Nick Saban took over the program in 2007. The Crimson Tide struggled a bit in Saban’s first season (7–6, 4–4 SEC in ’07) but are 48–6 overall and 28–4 in the SEC since, highlighted by national titles in 2009 and ‘11. Saban inherited a program that had struggled for most of the previous decade. In the seven seasons prior to his arrival, Alabama had a losing SEC record four times, went .500 in the league one time and had a winning record twice. Some of the struggles were due to NCAA sanctions. Others were due to poor coaching and a mediocre roster.

State of the Program: Holding Steady

Alabama can make the claim that it is currently the top program in college football. There are no weaknesses. The facilities are top notch. The fans are passionate — and there are a ton of them. The school is oozing with tradition. And the coach is as good as it gets in the collegiate game. Barring any unforeseen issues over the next decade — Saban’s departure and/or issues with the NCAA — it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Alabama is not contending for a national title on an annual basis.

 

Arkansas

Record over the last 5 years: 42–21 (21–19 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 79–47 (42–38 SEC)

Arkansas has proven it can compete with the elite in the SEC, but just hasn’t been able to do so on a consistent basis. Until 2010 and ’11, the final two years of the Bobby Petrino era, the Hogs had never had a winning record in the SEC in back-to-back seasons. Houston Nutt broke through with a 7–1 record in 2006 — thanks to a backfield that included three future NFL running backs — but followed up with a 4–4 record in 2007. Petrino went 5–7 overall in his first season, with Casey Dick at quarterback, but went 29–10 over the next three years, including a 10-win season in ’10 and an 11-win season in ’11.

State of the program: Incomplete

It’s tough to give Arkansas a grade going forward due to the uncertainty of the coaching situation. John L. Smith is the man in charge in 2012 but few believe he will be on the job beyond this season. Petrino had the program at its high point since it joined the SEC in 1991. The Razorbacks weren’t quite on par with Alabama and LSU, the league’s two superpowers, but weren’t far behind, either. Moving forward, it will be difficult for the next coach to keep this program at such a high level. Arkansas can be a consistent winner in the SEC and contend in the West every four or five years, but the school lacks some of the built-in advantages — specifically a fertile recruiting base — to be an elite program.
 

Auburn

Record over the last 5 years: 44–21 (22–18 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 94–35 (53–27 SEC)

Auburn was the league’s most consistent program in the early 2000s, with eight straight winning SEC seasons from 2000-07. The Tigers have gone undefeated twice in the past eight seasons, 13–0 in 2004 and 14–0 in 2010. Gene Chizik is 17–15 in the SEC in three seasons, and that includes a perfect 8–0 mark in ’10. Even with the recent national title on its resume, it’s fair to say that Auburn has slid down the SEC food chain a bit in the past five years.

State of the Program: Holding Steady

The only thing keeping Auburn from “slight decline” is a series of outstanding recruiting classes. The future appears to be bright, but the current product on the field is quite average. Last year, the Tigers were outgained in SEC games by an average of 92.9 yards per game and lost their four league games by an average of 31.3 points. Over the past four seasons, Auburn’s league record is 9–15 when Cam Newton, one of the top college football players of all time, is not under center. The challenge for Chizik is to prove he can win at a high level in the post-Newton era. The roster is loaded with talent. Will the wins follow?
 

Florida

Record over the last 5 years: 50–17 (27–13 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 95–36 (55–25 SEC)

Florida has hit a rough patch in recent years — 13–11 overall and 7–9 in the SEC the past two seasons — but this has clearly been one of the elite programs in the SEC over the past decade. The Gators won a national title in 2006 and 2008 and were one win shy from playing for another BCS crown in 2009. One stat is a bit surprising: Florida has only played in three BCS bowls in the past 10 years.

State of the Program: Slightly Declining

Even the best programs — no matter how nice the facilities or how fertile the recruiting area — need a good coach to compete at a championship level. Florida struggled under Ron Zook, losing an unthinkable 15 games in a three-year period. And the Gators struggled last year under Will Muschamp, limping to a 3–5 mark in the SEC — the program’s worst since 1986. So to evaluate the “state of program” you have to determine whether or not Muschamp is the right coach for Florida. And that’s difficult to do after one season. The sample size was small, but the results weren’t good. We will know a lot more about the future of Florida football after the 2012 season.

 

Georgia

Record over the last 5 years: 45–21 (26–­14 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 98–34 (55–25 SEC)

Georgia has failed to seriously challenge for a national title in the past decade, but the Bulldogs’ record dating back to the 2002 season is quite impressive. They have won at least six SEC games in seven of the 10 years and captured two league titles, in 2002 and ’05. They took a step back with a 7–9 SEC record in 2009-10 but bounced back to win the East with a 7–1 mark in ’11. To summarize: Georgia has been very, very good. Just not good enough for many Bulldog fans.

State of the Program: On the Rise

Georgia is well-positioned to remain one of the top programs in the SEC. It helps that the Bulldogs compete in the SEC East and do not have to contend with Alabama and LSU for the right to reach the league title game. Mark Richt continues to recruit at a high level, and he appears to have righted the ship after a few rocky years in the late 2000s. Don’t be surprised if Georgia wins a national title in the next 3-4 years.

 

Kentucky

Record over the last 5 years: 33–31 (12–28 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 57–66 (23–57 SEC)

Kentucky set a school record from ’06-10 by playing in a bowl game in five straight seasons. Previously, the Cats had appeared in a total of 10 bowl games, four of which came under Bear Bryant in the late ’40s and early ’50s. During this recent stretch, however, UK failed to produce a winning record in league play in any single season. Its high-water mark was 4–4 in ’06. Kentucky has feasted on soft nonconference schedules to pad its overall win total. The school’s “best” non-SEC regular-season win in the past decade is vs. a Louisville team in 2002 that went 7–6 under John L. Smith. 

State of the Program: Slight Decline

The Cats closed out the 2011 season with a huge victory, knocking off rival Tennessee for the first time since 1984. Still, the Wildcats enter ’12 with a lack of momentum. The talent level, especially on offense, is down significantly from the “glory years” of the Rich Brooks era, and attendance has been declining over the past few seasons. Third-year head coach Joker Phillips is a UK alum and is generally well-liked, but most believe that he needs to show significant improvement in ’12 to keep his job. And that might be hard to do with a team that is picked by most to finish last in the SEC East.

 

LSU

Record over the last 5 years: 53–14 (28–12 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 105–27 (59–21 SEC)

After several decades of surprising mediocrity, LSU has lived up to its vast potential over the past 10 years. The Tigers boast the league’s best record (in SEC games) during that span and have won two national championships. They’ve won at least eight games overall every year and have had only one losing SEC season (3–5 in 2008).

State of the Program: Holding Steady

Les Miles might be eccentric, and we might not always agree with some of his decisions. But the guy knows how to win games. LSU has enjoyed pockets of success over the years, but the program has never been healthier — at a time when the SEC has never been stronger. Alabama has to be considered the strongest program in the league, but LSU is a very close second. The Tigers will continue to thrive on the national scene.

 

Mississippi State

Record over the last 5 years: 33–30 (15–25 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 47–74 (20–60 SEC)

Mississippi State is one of three SEC programs (Kentucky and Vanderbilt are the others) that has not had a winning SEC record in any single season over the past decade. The Bulldogs went 4–4 in 2007 under Sylvester Croom and 4–4 in ’10 in the first year of the Dan Mullen era. The Dogs really struggled from ’02-06, with an overall mark of 14–44 and an SEC record of 5–35 (worst in the league during that stretch). The past five years have been much better, however, with three overall winning seasons (8–5 in ’07, 9–4 in ’10 and 7–6 in ’11) and a semi-respectable 15–25 record in the SEC.

State of the Program: Holding Steady

Mississippi State has improved under Mullen over the last three years, but the program is still in the bottom tier of the SEC. Consider the following: The Bulldogs are 9–15 in the league in that span, and 10 of the 15 losses have come by 10 points or more. Their SEC record under Mullen represents a two-game improvement from the final three years of the Sly Croom era (7–17 from ’06-08), but it’s hardly a sign of huge progress. The Bulldogs will continue to be solid with Mullen running the show, but it will be difficult for this program to elbow its way into the elite of the SEC West.

 

Missouri

Record over the last 5 years: 48–19 (27–14 Big 12)
Record over the last 10 years: 81–47 (44–37 Big 12)

Missouri made the leap from a solid Big 12 team to a very good Big 12 team over the past decade. The Tigers went 17–23 in the league from 2002-06 but have gone 27–14 since, and they have had seven straight non-losing Big 12 seasons. They failed to win a conference championship in this stretch but did tie for the Big 12 North title in 2007, ’08 and ’10. Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job in Columbia, especially over the past five seasons.

State of the Program: Slight Decline

It’s reasonable to expect Missouri to take a slight dip as it makes the move from the Big 12 to the SEC. The Tigers should be able to compete on a week-in and week-out basis in their new league, but it’s a bit of a stretch to believe they will continue to win at the same clip; remember, this program has won 65.9 percent of its league games over the past five seasons. Pinkel has done a nice job recruiting, and he always seems to have a quality quarterback running his attack, so it would be a surprise if Mizzou is anything less than a middle-of-the-pack SEC team over the next 5-10 years.

 

Ole Miss

Record over the last 5 years: 27–35 (10–30 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 55–67 (26­-54 SEC)

Ole Miss has been one of the most volatile programs in the league over the last decade: Three times the Rebels have won nine games or more in a season, and three times they have won three games or less. They went 7–1 in the league and shared the SEC West title in ’03 with Eli Manning running the show, but then won a total of six conference games over the next four seasons. Ole Miss has won 10 league games over the past four years, but nine of the 10 came in a two-year stretch (5–3 in ’08 and 4–4 in ’09). The school is the midst of a 14-game SEC losing streak that dates back to October 2010.

State of the Program: Slightly on the Rise

There is a new head coach (Hugh Freeze) and new energy in Oxford. Coming off what very well might be the worst two-year stretch in program history (six wins overall, one in the SEC), Freeze needs to show the Ole Miss faithful that there is some hope for the future. With a roster that lacks playmakers, the 2012 season figures to be a struggle, but the new staff is off to a solid start on the recruiting front and the talent level will increase in the next few years. The sample size is small and the level of competition is clearly not on par with the SEC, but Freeze won immediately in his two previous stops as a head coach — Arkansas State and Lambuth (NAIA).

 

South Carolina

Record over the last 5 years: 40–25 (21–19 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 71–54 (38–42 SEC)

It took a little longer than most South Carolina fans had hoped, but the Gamecocks have emerged as a significant player in the SEC. The folks in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge might not be overly impressed, but Carolina’s 11–5 league record over the last two seasons is clearly an indication that the program has turned the corner. Granted, the Gamecocks have taken advantage of an SEC East that is arguably at its weakest point since the league split to two divisions, but the Gamecocks aren’t simply feasting on the underbelly of the league. They are 6–0 in the past two seasons against their top three rivals in the division — Florida, Georgia and Tennessee — and beat Alabama at home in 2010.

State of the Program: Holding Steady

As mentioned above, South Carolina has improved its profile in the SEC and is showing no signs of surrendering its position on the food chain. There is always speculation that Steve Spurrier is on the verge of retiring, but the guess here is that he will be in Columbia for at least three or four more years. Recruiting is going well and he now believes he can win a national title at South Carolina.  

 

Tennessee

Record over the last 5 years: 33–31 (17–23 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 75–52 (43–37 SEC)

One the truly elite programs in the nation in the 1990s and early part of the 2000s, Tennessee has slipped into mediocrity over the past decade. The Volunteers went 18–6 in the SEC from 2002-04 but are 25–31 since. They’ve had a losing record in league play four times in the past seven years after having only two such seasons from 1965-2004. The coaching turnover — three coaches in the past five years — hasn’t helped, but these are not good times for Tennessee football.

State of the Program: Slightly on the Rise

The Vols are “slightly on the rise” simply because the program bottomed out in 2011 with a 1–7 SEC mark “highlighted” by an overtime win over Vanderbilt. Many are forecasting a big jump for Tennessee in ’12, but the Vols will have to show significant improvement in several areas — most notably in the running game — to approach the .500 mark in league play. Derek Dooley continues to recruit well, but he has yet to prove himself to be a quality head coach. He is 28–34 as a head coach (three years at Louisiana Tech, three at Tennessee) with only one winning season. Tennessee is still a program with great potential, but it doesn’t look like the Vols are on the verge of greatness anytime soon.

 

Texas A&M

Record over the last 5 years: 33–31 (19–22 Big 12)
Record over the last 10 years: 64–60 (37–44 Big 12)

Texas A&M has been consistent over the past decade — consistently average (or slightly below). The Aggies went 18–22 in the Big 12 from 2002-06 and 19–22 from ’07-11. Only twice in the past decade has A&M won more than seven games overall — the Aggies went 9–4 in both ’06 and ’10. The school has not won an outright league title since capturing the Big 12 title in 1998. That’s a very long drought for a program with so much history and so many resources.

State of the Program: Holding Steady

After underachieving for the past decade in the Big 12, are we to expect that Texas A&M will suddenly start living up to its potential as it moves to the mighty SEC West? New coach Kevin Sumlin should improve the product on the field, but it will be difficult for the Aggies to show significant improvement in the win column while competing with the likes of Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas on an annual basis. A&M will be a solid program in the SEC, but there is nothing in its recent history that suggests it will compete for championships.

 

Vanderbilt

Record over the last 5 years: 22–40 (9–31 SEC)
Record over the last 10 years: 37–83 (15–65 SEC)

Vanderbilt’s struggles competing in the SEC have been well-documented over the years. Dating back to 1992, the first season after league expansion, Vanderbilt has only won more than two SEC games in a season twice — the Commodores went 3–5 in ’05 with Jay Cutler under center and 4–4 in ’08. Last year, Vanderbilt went 2–6 in James Franklin’s debut, but four of the six losses came by six points or less. The low point of the last decade came in 2010, when Vanderbilt was outgained by a staggering 245.4 yards per game in SEC play under interim head coach Robbie Caldwell.

State of the Program: On the Rise

Franklin has done a tremendous job energizing the Vanderbilt program in a short period of time. The Commodores were one of the most improved teams in the nation last season, winning six games overall and advancing to a bowl game for only the second time since the early 1980s. The team did only win two games in league play, but as noted above, Vanderbilt was consistently competitive throughout the entire season. And when they did win, they usually did so in convincing fashion; five of their six victories came by 23 points or more, highlighted by a 38–8 win over Kentucky and a 41–7 bowl-clinching win at Wake Forest. The future also appears bright for Vanderbilt football. Franklin and his staff continue to recruit at a high level, and the school is finally making the necessary financial commitment to the football program.

by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)

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