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Expect SEC Dominance of College Football to End in the Next Decade

Gerald BallCorrespondent IJanuary 25, 2010

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 07:  Head Coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts during the Citi BCS National Championship game against the Texas Longhorns at the Rose Bowl on January 7, 2010 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

It is clear: The SEC was the best conference in college football this past decade, and also of the last two decades taken together.

(Should the Big 8/Big 12 claim to be the best conference of the 1990s, I would not argue, especially considering how Nebraska destroyed Florida once and Tennessee twice in major bowl games during that era.)

Some of the things that went into the SEC being the best during this period—namely demographics, a Southern football culture, and the SEC's finally figuring out how to stay off probation—should continue, so the SEC won't completely fall off the map.

Quite the contrary: As the population shift from the North and West to the Southeast continues, and as public and private high school football factories continue to pop up in suburbs and exurbs across the south—even some of the rural and inner city high schools that have been the historical talent markets for SEC programs are seeing better coaching—in theory the SEC will be even more competitive.

Theory and practice, however, are different animals.

The truth is that the SEC's greatness these past two decades has been due partly to luck and partly to great coaching. The luck part has been primarily the failure of the SEC's main rivals—the ACC and the Big East—to get anything going consistently, and it helps that the Big Ten hasn't done that much during this time period either.

Miami did great during the 1980s but thereafter fell apart. FSU was very strong from the late '80s until the early part of this decade, but also fell apart. Other ACC and Big East schools like Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Virginia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson, Syracuse, etc. flirted with becoming contenders but were unable—and in some instances unwilling—to do what it took to take the next step.

Now not only do SEC schools regularly play ACC and Big East schools out of conference during the regular season and bowl games, but those schools are also the SEC's primary competition in recruiting. But particularly since FSU, Miami, and Clemson fell apart, the SEC has been basically getting whoever they want, not only from the Southeast but cleaning up with guys from the Northeast and Midwest who want to head south as well.

It's relatively easy to point out guys who starred for LSU, Alabama, and Florida (plus Auburn, Tennessee, and Georgia) that would have played for Miami, Clemson, and FSU had those programs maintained their level of play from the 1980s and 1990s, or would have gone to Virginia Tech, Virginia, or North Carolina.

Take those 2006 and 2008 Florida national title teams. There is NO WAY that legendary Cavaliers coach George Welsh lets Percy Harvin out of Virginia. Mack Brown was at UNC at the time, so obviously Chris Leak stays in state.

And yes, Bobby Bowden during his prime would have had no problem getting Tim Tebow from Jacksonville—a city that FSU used to dominate in recruiting—and would have used the "I had a QB just like you in 1992 by the name of Charlie Ward!" line to seal the deal.

Those are just a few examples: LSU and Alabama won national titles with a lot of players that FSU also recruited, and were FSU still a top five program, they would have gotten a number of those players from the Tigers and Tide.

The ACC and Big East aren't going to stay down forever. Jimbo Fisher and Randy Shannon will either win big at FSU and Miami or be replaced very soon, and the same is true of Dabo Swinney at Clemson. His hiring of former Cavaliers head coach Al Groh shows that Paul Johnson is serious at Georgia Tech, and at some point the talent that Butch Davis is assembling at North Carolina will equate to wins.

As for the Big East, Louisville under Charlie Strong is now recruiting directly against SEC teams, including swiping a three-star CB and four-star DE that were committed to Florida and Georgia. South Florida has hired Skip Holtz, a guy that South Carolina, Auburn, or Tennessee should have hired long ago. Pitt (who will be really good next year), Cincinnati, and West Virginia are also on the rise.

Charlie Strong brings me to another point: coaching. That is the reason why the SEC has been the best over the past 20 years...guys like Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and to a lesser extent Phil Fulmer, Les Miles, Tommy Tuberville, and Mark Richt. I don't have a problem with saying that no group has coached and recruited better than have these guys.

Some of them were flat-out excellent Hall of Fame-caliber coaches that have won wherever they have been, others were in the right place at the right time, others still put together very strong coaching staffs filled with future successful head coaches, and others still had some combination of these factors.

Any way you look at it, the run of great coaches in the SEC may have peaked. Spurrier's best days are clearly behind him. Fulmer and Tuberville have been fired; the former is more likely to come back to the SEC as a coach than AD, and the latter will likely retire as Texas Tech's head coach.

Mark Richt has gone from looking like the next great college coach the first half of his career to a bumbler who can't develop talent, win big games, or manage his staff ever since losing to West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl after the 2005 season. Urban Meyer is now dealing with personal and health issues in addition to having his all-star group of assistants raided and pillaged.

As for Nick Saban—as much as I think of him as a coach, the truth is that Saban has a tendency to hop off to another job before opponents get a chance to figure him out. In three years, he will either have left Alabama, or we will see for the first time if he can adapt to teams recruiting against and scheming him.

For instance, whether we are talking about Michigan State, LSU, or Alabama, the next star QB that Saban develops will be the first, and Saban can't count on winning another national title with his QB completing only six passes.

As for Les Miles...I give him all the credit in the world for holding that team together after Saban left, Hurricane Katrina, and a ton of other problems, but the next two years are make or break for the guy.

The other guys in the SEC, like Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino, Gene Chizik, Joker Philips, Derek Dooley, Dan Mullen...well, the next decade is their shot to show what they've got. There are some pretty good coaches in that group, but I would feel better if they weren't at programs like Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, etc.

Along with Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, they remind me of the Big Ten's biggest problem the past 15-20 years: Some of the better and more innovative coaches were at programs that didn't have much potential (i.e. Wisconsin, Northwestern, Purdue, Minnesota, and Iowa as opposed to the ones that can recruit the best players like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Illinois).

Again, this is not to say that the SEC is going to fall off the map. However, the next decade is not going to be anything like the ridiculous success that the SEC had in the prior decade, and particularly since 2003.

The main reason is that you aren't going to see the all-star collection of head and assistant coaches at the top programs that you saw during that decade, if for no other reason than a great many of the assistants are now leading their own programs (i.e. Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, Gene Chizik, Bobby Petrino), are in line to (Will Muschamp), or are even in the NFL (Brian VanGorder, Greg Mattison...it is amazing that two guys who were SEC defensive coordinators in the middle of the decade are now NFL defensive coordinators).

Granted, I wouldn't be shocked if VanGorder and Mattison returned from the NFL as head coaches the way that former SEC coordinator Bobby Petrino did. (For instance, if Mark Richt gets fired, the Bulldog nation will DEMAND that VanGorder replaces him, and Mattison would be a leading contender to take over Florida were Meyer to leave.) But saying that it is likely to happen is a different thing altogether from it happening.

As things are now, the group of coaches—which includes head coaches as well as top coordinators—in the SEC is not as strong as it was five or 10 years ago.

Who is in line to take advantage of this? As far as immediate prospects go, one would have to say Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, and yes, USC. All of those squads will be absolutely loaded next year and in great position to take on an SEC whose only realistic title contender at this point is an Alabama team that will have major losses on defense and a placeholder at QB.

A couple of years down the line, Butch Davis keeps on reeling in talent at North Carolina, and Jimbo Fisher—offensive coordinator for the 2001 and 2003 LSU SEC and national title teams—is building FSU into an SEC clone.

Then there is the great job that Bo Pelini is doing at Nebraska, where he only needs a decent offense to go with his defenses that are going to be every bit as good as they were at LSU when he was helping Les Miles win 11 games a year.

But get back to USC. They will be just as talented as ever. I say that Monte Kiffin is a better defensive coach than Pete Carroll was. As for Lane Kiffin as an offensive coach...just look at Eric Crompton and Montario Hardesty before Kiffin and after Kiffin and tell me what you think, SEC fans.

I also think that Carroll got satisfied after winning those two national titles in 2003 and 2004 and thereafter began to just assume that his team was going to win national titles and was reduced to complaining about the lack of a playoff.

(That has to be the only explanation for Carroll's letting a talent like Mark Sanchez waste away on the bench for two years just so he could stick it to LSU fans by playing John David Booty, and for running off his experienced assistant coaches so he could surround himself with coordinators and top assistants that were barely 30, guys like Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Rocky Seto, etc.)

Kiffin is going to be a lot hungrier than Carroll was the last few years, and the play of his team will reflect that.

Simply put, the laid-back Trojans who bungled away national titles against mediocre to bad Oregon State, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, etc. teams are gone, and college football has long proven that you don't need to be the most experienced or talented coach to win a national title if you have the best players—as USC will—and if the coach gets his team up to play—as Kiffin did against SEC powers Georgia, Florida and Alabama this season (you can talk about the Ole Miss and Virginia Tech blowouts all you want, but USC is going to have more talent than both the Rebels and Hokies put together next season).

Even if Kiffin is just using USC as a stepping stone the way that he did Tennessee, he knows that in order to become an NFL head coach of a better franchise than the Raiders, he is going to have to win a couple of national titles at USC first, so look for him to do all that he can in order to get that out of the way as soon as possible.

Again, the SEC is not going to fall completely off the map. But don't look for five national titles plus an undefeated season by Auburn like the SEC won this decade, or even for three national titles plus an undefeated season by Auburn that the SEC won in the 1990s.

Instead, another decade like the 1980s, where the SEC won one national title and would have won or played for two more had the BCS been in effect (remember the BYU nonsense in 1984, as well as what Tennessee did to Miami in 1988) should be what SEC fans expect in the decade to come.

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