Looking Back, Looking Ahead In SEC Football

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Southeastern Conference football trends and the upcoming season.

Was it really 24 years ago that Pat Dye was heading toward his first season as Auburn's head coach? Like my dad always told me, the older you get, the faster time goes.

The information explosion that came from the Internet was still years away when Dye moved from Wyoming to Auburn in January 1981. He came with fire in his gut, vowing that Auburn would win big.

He was as good as his word. In his third season, the Tigers went 11-1, won the SEC championship and should have been awarded the national championship.

But in today's atmosphere, Dye would have been ripped to shreds during his first season.

Why? The Tigers went 5-6, actually better than predicted, but they absolutely blew three games they should have won. They lost to Wake Forest when Clayton Beauford returned a kickoff from deep in his own end zone and fumbled, setting up the winning touchdown. They fumbled a yard away from the winning touchdown against Tennessee. They lost to Mississippi State when, instead of punting, they tried to draw the Bulldogs offsides in the final minutes. An illegal snap was called, Mississippi State declined the penalty, got the ball at midfield and drove to the winning touchdown.

Pat Dye (left) watches an Auburn football practice with Coach Tommy Tuberville.

No one knew it at the time, but the man who would win 20 games as a wishbone quarterback, was barely on the dress-out squad. Randy Campbell even played wide receiver for a time.

I wonder, too, what the reaction would have been in the two seasons after the 1983 championship. Auburn was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls in 1984 and No. 1 a week into the season in 1985. The 1984 team finished 9-4. The 1985 team finished 8-4. Even without the benefit of the Internet, fans made their displeasure known.

In 1986, of course, Dye started one of the great runs in Auburn history. Over four seasons, the Tigers won 39 games and shared three SEC championships.

These are great days to be a big-time college football coach. Get one of the plum jobs and you are going to be rich. Win big and you are going to be very rich. But the scrutiny is so intense, the expectations so high, the time demands so heavy, that it can make a man old before his time.

There's not much patience when the coach is making millions of dollars a year. Realistic or not, for that price, people expect instant results.

With another football season just more than three months away and Auburn riding a 15-game winning streak, it's not too early to offer a good dose of reality tonic. A few thoughts:

*Never has it been so difficult to win big in the SEC as it is now. In the days of Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan and for most of Dye's tenure, there were 10 SEC teams. You were required to play just six SEC games. Now there are 12 teams and you must play eight SEC games, nine if you play for the championship. There is a reason just three SEC teams have gone 13-0 since 1992. It's important to note that none of those teams was coached by Steve Spurrier, who made Florida one of the more dominant programs in SEC history in the 1990s. Undefeated seasons should be cherished. There won't be many for anybody.

*Coaches can build solid programs. They can recruit outstanding players. But in the end, fate often plays a large role in deciding who wins games and championships. Schedule luck and injury luck are paramount. I'd probably pick LSU over Auburn in the West next season simply because they play in Baton Rouge. Keeping your best players healthy, obviously, is crucial. And sometimes, it just comes down to the bounce of the ball.

Florida's Urban Meyer

*Urban Meyer is the latest "genius" coach to come into the SEC. Four years ago, it was Mark Richt. I don't believe in genius coaches. Truth is, there are very few secrets. Players mostly laugh at "pep talks." Maybe Meyer thinks barring his players from their locker room in the summer will help him beat Tennessee. I don't. You aren't going to trick many SEC coordinators. Preparation and talent win games. There's not a coach in the SEC who doesn't know how to prepare and there are very few players who aren't highly motivated to be ready to win every Saturday.

*No team is going to dominate the SEC year in and year out. There is too much talent and too much parity. That's why, since 1998, six different teams have won SEC championships. That's a remarkable statistic that no other major conference can come close to matching. The six teams that have won it--Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama--are the six that have been the SEC's strongest for most of its existence.

Could Auburn win a second straight SEC championship in 2005? Sure it could. The Tigers have everything it takes. But LSU, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee also have everything it takes. Others might also join that list as the season unfolds.

In the SEC, there's no way to know what's going to happen. That's why it's fun, and why millions go to watch. And that's why we talk about it even before summer's heat is upon us.

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