For many southerners, the expression, “I Am Third,” is more than just an acclaimed autobiography by Gale Sayers. It is also an assertion often made by several football programs of the Southeastern Conference and their respective fans.
These teams and their followers agree that Alabama ranks first among the conference’s dozen schools in terms of greatest football history. Few would argue Tennessee follows the Crimson Tide at a distant second.
However, who ranks third all time in success and achievement?
The debate has been going on for years.
The rich football histories of Auburn, Georgia, and LSU all have had valid arguments as the third-best program in history for quite some time. With Florida emerging as college football’s most accomplished team the last two decades, the Gators too have legitimate reason to make this claim.
All 12 teams in the SEC have been playing football for at least 103 seasons. This longevity and the illustrious gridiron histories of the schools, when combined, are difficult, if not impossible, to match by any other conference.
Of these tremendous football traditions, which of the current SEC teams, besides Alabama and Tennessee, has the most distinguished history?
Using eight different measurements, I will attempt to settle the debate while revealing some historical facts about the conference.
Each category is followed by the four SEC programs vying for the third position, ranked accordingly.
Entering the 2009 football season, all but one of the 12 SEC teams (Miss. State) had an all-time overall record over .500.
However, with its 2-10 mark last season, Vanderbilt dropped its record to 556-557-50, joining the Bulldogs as conference teams with more losses than victories. Unfortunately for South Carolina (536-532-44) and Kentucky (567-556-44), they’re just a bad season or two away from joining the club.
Ranked by all-time winning percentage: Georgia 64.6, LSU 64.1, Florida 63.1, Auburn 62.7
While South Carolina and Arkansas are relatively new to the SEC, joining in 1992, the other 10 teams were part of the conference’s first season of 1933.
While SEC records were taken into account for this study, South Carolina and Arkansas’ previous conference records were also considered. The Gamecocks were part of the Southern Conference from 1933-1952 and ACC from 1953-1970. Arkansas was a long-time member of the Southwest Conference from 1914-1991.
By conference winning percentage: Georgia 60.2, Florida 58.3, LSU 57.3, Auburn 55.8
Teams were awarded two points for each bowl win and one point for every other bowl appearance. Ole Miss’ 63.6 winning percentage in bowls (21-12 record) is tops in the conference and third best in all of college football, behind only Penn State (66.7) and USC (66.7).
By bowl points: Georgia 71, LSU 62, Auburn and Florida 55
AP Poll rankings:
Since the first AP college football poll was released on October 19, 1936, there have been a total of 1,005 sets of rankings.
Alabama has been remarkably ranked in 645 of the AP polls, or 64 percent—tops in the SEC and eighth in college football. Ohio State ranks first of all teams, appearing in 77 percent of the polls.
SEC squads were evaluated on their AP Poll appearance percentage, the number of times finishing in the top 25, and top 10 finishes.
Listed with poll appearance percentage—top 25 finishes—top 10 finishes: LSU 48-33-19, Georgia 48-32-19, Auburn 48-34-16, Florida 51-28-16
Points were given for all conference titles won. This included shared titles and championships with previous conferences prior to joining the SEC.
It is uncommonly known that Vanderbilt has actually won or shared 13 conference or association championships in its history. Granted, all were earned in the now-defunct S.I.A.A. (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association) or Southern Conference and occurred between the 1897 and 1923 seasons.
By total conference titles, outright and shared (SEC titles in parenthesis): Georgia 14 (12), LSU 13 (10), Auburn 10 (6), Florida 8 (8)
National title points:
Teams were awarded points for finishing number one in any of the polls recognized by the NCAA. For some seasons, the number of these acknowledged polls was more than 20.
Obviously, more points were awarded for consensus and unanimous national championships. Some mock Alabama for taking credit for winning 13 national titles when it should probably claim a few less. Notwithstanding, the Crimson Tide has actually finished atop at least one recognized NCAA poll in 17 seasons.
By total national titles (consensus titles, as recognized by the NCAA, in parenthesis): LSU 7(3), Florida 5 (3), Georgia 5 (1), Auburn 4 (1)
Although not weighed as heavily as the previous six team categories, individual honors are also important in measuring the SEC’s all-time rankings. In this case, the number of consensus All-Americans is considered.
Florida’s 29 ranks tied for third with Georgia, behind Alabama and Tennessee; however, its 22 consensus All-Americans since 1988 are five more than any other member of the conference during the same time period.
By consensus All-Americans: Florida and Georgia 29, Auburn 26, LSU 25
Heisman Trophy points:
Surprisingly, Tennessee has never had a Heisman Trophy winner, although four of its players have finished runner-up. Alabama had 16 players finish in the trophy’s top 10 before finally having its first winner last season in Mark Ingram. Conference members have had 91 Heisman finishers, 10 of which won the trophy.
In this analysis, teams received points for all individuals finishing in the trophy’s voting (the top ten, for most seasons, since the award’s inception in 1935). Of course, the higher the finish, the more points received.
Listed with total number of players in Heisman voting (number of winners in parenthesis): Florida 13 (3), Georgia 13 (2), Auburn 10 (2), LSU 7 (1)
All eight categories were calculated and weighed appropriately. In figuring the 12 SEC football programs of all time according to historical achievement, the following rankings resulted:
1. ALABAMA, 98.9
2. TENNESSEE, 74.7
3. GEORGIA , 68.0
4. FLORIDA, 63.8
5. LSU, 63.7
6. AUBURN, 57.9
7. ARKANSAS, 50.6
8. OLE MISS, 46.2
9. KENTUCKY, 26.8
10. SOUTH CAROLINA, 26.1
11. MISS. STATE, 23.1
12. VANDERBILT, 22.5
Note: If a team was to finish ranked first in all eight measurements, as Alabama nearly did, a perfect score of 100 would be the end result. The Crimson Tide finished first in all categories but one, ranking third in Heisman Trophy points, behind Florida and Georgia.
A few years ago, the UGA athletic department started an “I Am Georgia” movement for its football program, selling merchandise with the slogan, having scoreboard displays, etc. It never really caught on among Georgia fans.
Although the Bulldog faithful rejected that idea, they can accept the notion of being one of the top programs in SEC history and instead declare, “I am third,” at least, according to my rankings.
Florida edges out LSU for fourth by the slimmest of margins while Auburn is a distant sixth. In fact, Georgia is closer to Tennessee at second place than to Auburn, who was anticipated to rival the Bulldogs for the cherished third spot.
There appears to be a four-team log jam towards the bottom. Thus, a more substantial debate might not necessarily be who’s third but who’s the worst , historically speaking, of the SEC’s current football programs.