Perhaps 2013 will merely serve as an outlier in the SEC, a parity-laced speed bump due to excessive injuries and strange one-game outcomes in intense environments. Or maybe this is a turning point of sorts, a sign of things to come.
Behind Alabama, there is chaos in the Southeastern Conference. The standings having seemingly been turned upside down more than halfway through the season, and unexpected outcomes have painted a much different overall picture.
Teams like Auburn and Missouri have been brought back from the dead, while Tennessee and Kentucky have put themselves in favorable positions going forward with exceptional early recruiting.
Short-term results (and upsets) have provided weekly entertainment, and the long-term outlook suddenly has a much different feel given recent trends. The assumption is the quality in the conference has gone down, although perhaps the reasoning for this change is the opposite: Teams are catching up.
The cannibalization was expected in many ways. But it might be ahead of schedule.
One Wild Afternoon and What it All Means
Week 8 of the 2013 season could prove to be a window into the future—a small, chaotic sample size that will eventually morph into the norm.
Outside of Alabama—and this will be a theme going forward—every underdog in the SEC won its matchup. Ole Miss clipped LSU, Auburn edged Texas A&M, Tennessee clipped South Carolina, Vanderbilt bested Georgia, and Missouri clobbered Florida.
Those are teams that aren't used to losing many games, let alone all at once in the same stretch.
Auburn’s upset road victory over Texas A&M was a wakeup call of sorts, serving as the weekend’s most surprising outcome. Tennessee’s win against South Carolina was generated through home momentum, stout play up front, and a handful of key plays that decided the game.
Injuries played a role with Georgia and Florida—two teams that have been hit harder with losses than perhaps any other team in the country—but Week 8 was more than just excuses and exceptions. It was an eight-hour showcase of just how competitive this conference has (and will) become.
An entire product shouldn’t be judged by one bizarre day, but there’s something more at work here. At the very least, it shows the bottom half of the conference is no longer a stepping stool, and there is more to the “S-E-C” chants than a few trophy programs.
With more talent yet to arrive, the programs that have padded win columns for some time are no longer layup victories. And those that have struggled could soon have more than one quality win for the trophy case.
The Inevitability of Spectacular Recruiting
All 14 SEC teams are currently ranked in the top 40 of 247Sports’ 2014 team recruiting rankings. Think about that for a moment. Nearly half of the nation’s top classes come from one conference—the entire conference at that—and the surplus of talent takes a jarring trend to yet another level.
While there is ample time before national signing day rolls along in February and this all becomes official, don’t expect this to change much. While teams will move around plenty, the majority of these schools won't be moving far.
The SEC’s dominance in recruiting is no longer reserved for the elite. Teams like Kentucky and Tennessee have made enormous strides on the recruiting trail, and the payoffs could be enormous. Key victories, such as Tennessee's over South Carolina, could only amplify this trend even more.
Auburn and Ole Miss have ridden historically impressive recruiting classes into impressive 2013 seasons, and the ripple effects won’t stop in 2013. The on-field success, however, has come early.
Since 2005, the conference has seen a gradual uptick in recruiting presence. This run certainly coincides with the conference’s stranglehold on the national title, but it has expanded to include more teams with a recent run in hires.
While a spot in this group by no means guarantees immediate success, there’s talent flocking to schools well beyond the traditional powers. The result is a better overall product, program momentum and weekly competition for teams that have not had to worry about particular matchups for some time.
This youth infusion has created program momentum for schools that have yet to truly see the talent flourish. It will, and perhaps that is what's most notable about where these teams are and where they could be headed.
Offense is Everywhere
Since 2008, there have been three teams in the SEC to average more than 40 points per game in a season. In 2013, there are currently four teams—Texas A&M, Missouri, Alabama and LSU.
Two others, Auburn and Georgia, are averaging more than 35 points per game and could seemingly hit this mark with a strong finish.
Of course, the SEC isn’t the only conference in the midst of this offensive renaissance. The Pac-12 has grown accustomed to posting basketball scores, and good defensive teams are being put on the endangered species list with unique offenses moving the ball at will.
Recent SEC head coaching hires such as Hugh Freeze, Kevin Sumlin, Butch Jones and Gus Malzahn have placed more of an emphasis on offense, tempo and scoring points in obscene amounts. Gary Pinkel has also found offensive success in his second year in the SEC, while Vanderbilt has watched its points per game skyrocket from 16.9 in 2010 to 32.1 in 2013.
Scoring points doesn’t automatically mean more wins, although the correlation isn’t far off. As teams adjust to new systems and more plays, the end result has been increased parity. Unexpected wins aren’t simply a product of more touchdowns, but the recent uptick in scoreboard production doesn't hurt.
Stopping teams from finding the end zone has become more difficult for just about everyone, and the latest records show just how dangerous this can be in a given afternoon.
The Elephant in the Room, and the Constant Preventing It All
The constant through it all, of course, is Alabama: unbeaten, seemingly improving week to week like some sort of state-of-the-art football robot, and poised for yet another visit to title town. Since barely edging Texas A&M early on, Alabama has outscored its opponents 246-26, making this domination look easy.
A loss before the national championship game, however, would almost certainly mean the end of the SEC’s streak of seven consecutive titles. And as impressive as Nick Saban's team has been, this won’t be a cakewalk. Alabama will be a significant favorite in every game it plays going forward, although LSU, Auburn and a potential trip to the SEC Championship Game are on deck.
Has the SEC finally cannibalized itself?
In a year when the unexpected has arrived weekly, an Alabama loss before January would be a fitting way for the conference to end its impressive run. Yet if there’s any team immune to the cannibalization that has rocked the conference, it’s the team that has helped shape this picture of dominance.
By no means should the SEC be considered “down.” Even with a surplus of talent departing yearly, the assembly line to restock future NFL stars with more future NFL stars is now on autopilot.
What is changing, however, is this is no longer the case at just a handful of resource-rich programs. Competition is on the rise thanks to outstanding recruiting and an offensive mindset that is paying off early. The result is a much more competitive conference from the top down, a trend that could only be avoided for so long.
With the talent pouring in and new coaches still getting through their orientations, there’s no reason to believe this trend will end anytime soon. At some point, things had to give, and 2013 could shape the most competitive conference in college football moving forward.
Don't tell that to Alabama, though. It won't listen.