The timing in college football during the rivalry week/Thanksgiving combination in late November always tends to throw things off but there was a moment this year that was a little more jarring than most.
In the middle of the biggest edition of “The Game” between Ohio State and Michigan in decades — one that could very well wind up being between two College Football Playoff teams when all is said and done — there was LSU announcing its next head coach in a press conference most saw only in the brief few moments where halftime overlapped with it.
It was a perfectly fitting end to a bizarre process that led Ed Orgeron taking over full time in Baton Rouge. The school let Les Miles go a season too late and paid the price by having to let him go mid-year. What ensued was weeks upon weeks of speculation about Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Houston’s Tom Herman and half a dozen others who could take the job.
In the end it was Orgeron who was the choice through a strange combination of those two other big names saying no, and the eclectic head coach’s personality seemingly being a perfect fit for the flagship school of his native state. Who knows how the hire of Orgeron, who went 11-4 over two recent interim stints at LSU and USC, will ultimately be judged. That’s for another time with much more hindsight. After all, it would shock nobody if the relentless recruiter hires a top-notch offensive coordinator and turns into the Cajun version of Dabo Swinney.
What we do know now though, is one of the powerhouses in the SEC (and a top five or 10 job nationally) had months to conduct a national search but wound up with an interim coach who still has a 10-25 mark on his record from a disastrous stint at Ole Miss. Hiring Orgeron is by no means a bad decision but, when viewed in the context of Saturday’s games and a season of floundering results outside of Tuscaloosa, it begs the question if the most feared conference in all of college football is doing no more than just riding Nick Saban’s coat tails.
Because no matter how you slice it, the league has fallen behind. And while the dearth of good quarterbacks is undoubtedly playing a big role, so too has been the rather lackluster hiring practices from some of the SEC’s major powers.
Just think back four years ago to the 2012 season. Six SEC teams were in the top 10 of the final BCS standings, ranging from typical powers like Alabama, Georgia and LSU but also teams like newcomer Texas A&M and perennial underachiever South Carolina. Just three Big Ten teams even made the rankings, the highest being Nebraska at No. 16 (undefeated Ohio State was ineligible).
Flash forward to today and the script has been flipped. Saban and Alabama still lord over the sport like they did back in the day but the makeup of elite teams in college football has shifted considerably in recent years. The Big Ten has undergone the biggest metamorphosis and has four teams in the top 10 of the latest AP Poll, and six overall. The SEC? Just one in the top 10 and four overall.
How has the league once written off and laughed at by its southern counterparts done this? The B1G has out-hired the SEC and that is particularly true at the historical powers in the league.
Ohio State brought Urban Meyer home in 2012. He’s brought a national title and a 61-5 record since then. Michigan landed the biggest fish in the coaching pond back in 2015 with Jim Harbaugh and he’s turned the ship around in Ann Arbor quicker than imagined. The Wolverines doubled their win total in his first year and may have been inches away from a semifinal berth on Saturday at the Horseshoe.
But it’s not just the Big Ten’s traditional big two that have hired well. Many questioned James Franklin’s credentials after two lackluster years in Happy Valley, not realizing the toll scholarship reductions can have down the road. One doesn’t win nine games at Vanderbilt (twice) without being a good coach though, and that was evident this year as he has Penn State on the doorstep of a Big Ten title. His opponent on Saturday night, Paul Chryst, may not be the flashiest head coach in the country but the program’s native son is 20-5 leading Wisconsin.
Elsewhere around the league, there have been a number of good coaching jobs done by recent additions Tracy Claeys, Mike Riley (9-3 at Nebraska this year) and DJ Durkin. The jury will likely be out for some time on Lovie Smith’s tenure at Illinois but it should at least say something that the school moved quickly to hire a name of that caliber after being so dreadful the past few years.
The bottom line is those hires — especially at the blue bloods — have paid off for a league that has reinvented itself in a short time. This sport has certainly proven to be a cyclical one but helping move the process along like some of the athletic directors around the conference have done helps lead us to this point.
And what of the SEC, a group that could have an entire division full of five-loss teams? The conference’s past five hires alone include two interim coaches elevated to the full-time gig and three former Saban assistants. That’s not exactly living up to expectations when it comes to 14 choice jobs most in the coaching industry would kill for.
The SEC East in particular has had a fascination with replicating Saban’s “Process” at Alabama — only with less talent, sub-par facilities and without the key ingredient: Saban himself. The big-time anchor schools haven’t pulled their weight either if you look at the search processes at LSU and Georgia in particular.
Stretching back even further in time, only Bret Bielema at Arkansas has entered the league with previous head coaching experience at a Power Five school if you don’t count Will Muschamp’s re-entry at South Carolina. That’s not to say there aren’t good coaches (Jim McElwain getting to the SEC title game twice with tackling dummies for a quarterback is still impressive) but for all the high salaries and top recruiting classes that have become common place, the results have not come through between the lines in 2016.
After Saturday’s results and the realization that one of the best jobs in the country couldn’t land a big name, it’s become increasingly clear that hiring the right coach just means a little more north of the Mason-Dixon Line the past few seasons. That’s why there’s talk of two Big Ten teams in the playoff. That’s why there’s talk that the only team capable of knocking off the Tide resides in the North, not the South.
And that’s why, when all is said and done, Big Ten fans can head into the postseason this year far happier than their counterparts to the South.
Stat of the Week
In the month of November, Navy punted just twice and Alabama didn’t allow a single touchdown.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Week
Best player(s): Adoree’ Jackson (USC), Derrius Guice (LSU)
Heisman five: 1. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 2. Dede Westbrook (Oklahoma), 3. Jake Browning (Washington), 4. D’Onta Foreman (Texas), 5. Adoree’ Jackson (USC)
Team of the week: Miami (Ohio)
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Butch Jones, Tennessee
Quote of the week: Jim Harbaugh has professed his love of milk several times this season. After beating him, Urban Meyer picked up a call from his wife during his press conference and then deadpanned: "She said bring a gallon of milk home."
Play of the Week
And in the same game, the rarest of unicorns:
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 14.
2. Ohio State
7. Penn State
11. Florida State
12. Oklahoma State
13. West Virginia
14. Western Michigan
Best of the rest: Louisville, Virginia Tech, USF, Stanford, Auburn, Pitt, Temple, Houston, Iowa
Colorado vs. Washington (Santa Clara, Calif.)
I know a lot of folks wanted to see a rematch between the Huskies and USC in the Pac-12 title game but sign me up for this one between a pair of top-10 teams. If you can’t get excited about Colorado’s extremely stingy secondary trying to contain Jake Browning, John Ross and company, you’re not a real college football fan. Washington ends up winning on Friday night after a slow start to clinch a playoff berth however.
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
Bedlam for all the marbles, just how the Big 12 drew things up even if a championship game is a year away for the league. Expect a shootout to develop given the offensive playmakers involved in this one, including two terrific quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph. Both defenses are a tad better than the numbers suggest and each team is playing really well right now. The Sooners are at home however and it’s tough to see them falling in Norman to their rivals up the road.
Wisconsin vs. Penn State (Indianapolis)
The Big Ten Championship Game has produced some classics over the years and there’s little reason to think that this matchup won’t give us another good one. Both squads have injury questions on offense that will be a key thing to pay attention to with Nittany Lions tailback Saquon Barkley (ankle) and Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook (chest) both banged up. Each should play but and whoever can have the better day against these defenses should come out with the trophy. We’ll lean Wisconsin by a field goal in a close game.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Ed Orgeron photo courtesy of Getty Images)