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The SEC in review and what comes next

In addition to our great season, several interesting things happened in the SEC, and the league may be in a period of change. It was a wild year both on and off the field. I have never seen so many games won in such exciting fashion. It can be argued that the SEC was "down" in 2002 (and the bowl results give some credence to this view), but there certainly was no shortage of great games, plays and performances.

The SEC

Roy Kramer finally hung it up. The man who opposed dividing the league into divisions, opposed expansion, and opposed the title game - then took credit for it-, is gone from the top post. He oversaw a period of great financial success for the league and was the main man behind the B.C.S. Kramer has been accused of favoring a certain program and of running interference for them with the NCAA. Alabama fans are convinced that Kramer knew about the Memphis Mess  and warned other programs about it; in effect, setting up Alabama. Well, his retirement announcement was quickly followed by allegations of improprieties involving that program he was said to favor. He dispatched his minions, but the problem didn't go away. The B.C.S. is coming under more and more criticism every year. The SEC is at its lowest point ever in terms of national perception. Good riddance.

The Bottom Eleven of the Conference

Alabama- The strangest year in the history of this storied program got off to a rocky start when the NCAA handed down sanctions that included scholarship reductions and a two year bowl ban (more in a moment). The Tide had a weak start to the season, losing to OU, and squeaking out a win against MTSU. Then Coach Fran righted the ship, and the Tide rolled. A loss at home to UGA was mitigated by a drought-breaking win against the Vols. (Did any of you happen to catch the ESPN shot of Coach Fran huddling his troops just before kickoff in Knoxville? Imagine Liberace saying "Let's kick their ass.").

From there the Tide kept rolling, right up until the season got weird again. They lost badly to underdog Auburn, amid rumors that Coach Fran was up for the Texas A&M job. Then he took the job. Coach Fran became Coach Fraud overnight. I actually feel for Bama on this one. You can't begrudge a guy for taking a higher paying job, but all of his preaching about commitment was hypocritical. How tough would it have been to address his team? "Fraud" is not quite right. "Coward" might be more appropriate.

Lost in all of this is the fact that Bama had a pretty good year, and were a fun team to watch. Their future is murky at best. I think they hired a pretty good coach, but the road back will not be easy.

Arkansas- Yet another slow start for the Hogs, yet another fast finish in the regular season, only to get kicked around in the post-season. They got destroyed by Bama, and turned right around and kicked Auburn all over the field. They beat LSU, but lost to Kentucky. Arkansas is not always fun to watch for a game, but they are certainly interesting to follow for a season. They survived the SEC West more than they won it. They may have some NCAA "issues" coming up. I hope not. Always have liked the Hogs. Houston Nutt is a wild one to watch.

Auburn- Another bi-polar SEC West team. Will the real Auburn please stand up?! Are they the team that creamed the Tide, or the team that squeaked out a win against Syracuse. They played UGA and Florida to the wire, and got demolished by Arkansas. They are the favorite in the West next year; at least the better version of them is the favorite. The Tennessee vs. Auburn game next year should be beyond interesting. Years ago, that was usually the best SEC game in September.

Florida- Okay, so I really bashed Ron Zook prior to the season. I take back a part of it, but not much. Yes, they beat us. They also beat Tennessee. They squeaked out a win against Auburn. They also squeaked one out against Kentucky. They lost to Ole Miss, and were just killed by LSU, Miami and FSU. The year was an obvious step down for the Gators. They may still have Tennessee's and UGA's numbers, but those games look a little fluky in light of the rest of the season. Their bowl game was just terrible. They lose John Thompson, but replace him with another high-quality defensive coach in Charlie Strong. They lose Rex. Zook did enough to keep his job. One thing is certain, things have changed. The Gators ain't quite what they once were.

Kentucky- Guy Morris, we hardly knew ye. What a great job. The Cats pulled a winning record, coached up by the guy who was thought to be a stand-in. The loss to LSU was a wonderful lesson about sports and life. The spectacle of the coach getting a premature Gatorade bath is one that I won't soon forget. It was obvious in late 2001 that Morris was improving that team. It is a shame that he left for Baylor. Is that a step up? Can Baylor pay more than Kentucky? I don't get this one, and it is not good for UGA. A stronger UK means less talent leaving that state for Tennessee. The NCAA sanctions will start to hurt, and that might have played a role. My favorite Lorenzen nickname was J-Load.

LSU- The defending champs just didn't have that extra gear this year. What started out as a dominant defense, faded late. The offense never really took off. Maybe it was the injury at QB, but Mauck isn't going to make anyone on the bayou forget Bert Jones. They were a miracle play by Arkansas away from returning to Atlanta and are stocked with talent. They were also a miracle play away from losing to Kentucky. Saban appears to have stabilized the program, if not his staff. LSU and Auburn look like the teams of the immediate future in the West.

Ole Miss- All Eli all the time. The Rebels are quickly becoming the most predictable team in the conference. They have a decent offense, and absolutely, positively NO rushing defense....AGAIN!!! Our last three games against them all look the same. Their win against Florida was breathtaking. Cutcliffe bought some more time with that one. It was a breakthrough win. Now he needs a breakthrough season as the only SEC West program that hasn't been to the championship game. Maybe they will switch from a 4-2 defense to a 4-1. If you can't stop the run, then take players away from the LOS, by all means. Perhaps a 0-0-11 set would really solve the problem. Of course, they gave up a zillion rushing yards to Nebraska, but still won. Just when you think Cutcliffe is on the ropes....................

Mississippi State- I think we can draw some conclusions from the Bizarro World Bulldogs. You probably can't have a pathetic offense every year and win much in the SEC. You probably also can't reload with junior college recruits every year either. MSU ran out of talent on defense, and the game seems to have caught up with Joe Lee Dunn. Sparkyball was horrible on offense. Jackie has done a good job in Starkville, but he needs to turn it back around, or his legacy will be one of failure. If I continue to take MSU and the points, please shoot me. They do not run the ball, they do not play good defense, and they do not keep it close!!! I'll just keep telling myself that for the next seven months, and maybe it will sink in.

South Carolina- Did the leprechaun run out of magic? No, he ran out of NFL caliber talent in the senior class. He also ran out of steady play at QB. The Gamecocks lost five defensive starters to the NFL last year. SC just couldn't get over the hump in several big games. They have won so many close ones over the past three years, it had to catch up to them. Where is that SC program headed? They lose some offense this year, not that they had much anyway. They lose Charlie Strong. Had Guy Morris stayed at UK, I think the Gamecocks would be in serious danger of falling behind the Cats for more than the short term. They allegedly have some talent in the younger classes. New faces will be carrying the load for them on offense, and plugging the line of scrimmage on defense. Maybe we can score an offensive touchdown against them next season.

Tennessee- Weeeeeeeellllllllllllll........... Look who got bit by the injury bug. I don't remember the Vowel faithful cutting us a lot of slack in 1995, so I don't think they are due any this year. "Unfinished Business" got finished up pretty quickly this year.

Tennessee was decimated by injuries and internal problems, and returned to their usual form against Florida. Their coaches lost control of the team, and the future is as uncertain as The Future. The Vols lost to Florida, UGA and Bama for the first time I can remember. Those are the teams that the Vol fans simply have to beat.

Then Miami toyed with them. Remember that UT fans, just last August, thought their program was right up there with Miami's. They were three years ago, now they are not. No previous Fulmer-coached team would have let Rutgers kick them around for a half.

Tennessee might be at a crossroads. They return some good players, but lose another entire defensive line.  Whitten is gone to the NFL, Clausen will return. Recruiting did not go nearly as well as usual. Rumors suggest that the team was not very motivated. There were published stories last year about the lack of commitment in the off-season conditioning program.

Players who watched Albert Haynesworthless mostly sit on his butt for three years and become a first rounder aren't very motivated. There is something not quite right up there. Name any phase of the game of football, and they had at least one breakdown in it at the Peach Bowl.

Vanderbilt- Though the results were the same as always, I think they might actually have hired a football coach; the first they have had in a very long time. Woody was notoriously lazy, and just not a head coach. Dowhower is the worst I have ever seen at any level. Bobby Johnson is a solid guy. If they stick with him, and give him some support, I honestly think he might deliver a winning season in 3-4 years.

Though the talent gap is often cited as a reason for Vandy's lack of wins, many of their games are lost through mental mistakes. They have blown way too many chances for a team that is supposed to be made up of smarter players. Johnson coaches a disciplined brand of football on both sides of the ball. He is not a fire and brimstone guy (which is what they really need), but is organized and driven. He is a guy the players will respect. Vandy just needs to stay ahead of Duke, at least for purposes of ACC/SEC arguments. They have fallen behind Wake Forrest, so their usefulness in the conference is dwindling even further.

The Memphis Mess

I've seen the bright lights of Memphis, and the Trevezant DL, and underneath a streetlamp, I paid them all so well;

OHHH, they sold me down the river, and it all began to smell, now feds are leaning on me, and I don't even know Cottrell;

.............If you'll be my Dixie Chicken, he'll be on the Bama DL. And we can walk together, if we don't all go to jail.........(apologies to the late Lowell George, and Little Feat).

The bright lights of the Memphis saga have attempted to spread; and, as I warned, the whole ordeal still has the potential to cause a very ugly scene in the conference. There is no question that a very shady Tennessee ex-booster helped the case against Bama along. He also bragged about it repeatedly on the internet and in person.

It didn't help that all the while he insisted that Tennessee was a perfectly clean program. The truth is that the program is a little cleaner ever since he was formally barred from it, but he is still around, lurking. One result of his involvement with "bringing down Bama" was that it caused some rich people with Bama ties to start digging for dirt on the Vols. Well, as anyone other than the most ostrich-like Vol fan knows, the dirt is out there. They found some in Mobile, and there is plenty more if you know where to look.

The Alabama faithful howled mightily at the severity of the penalties and the attitude of the NCAA infractions committee. They might have had a point about the attitude of the infractions committee, but the sanctions were probably about right. The NCAA couldn't really prove the worst of the allegations in any legal sense, but they don't have to. Some people knew about the Logan Young deal right when it was happening.

Bama was pretty guilty, at least a big booster was, but the celebration of opposing fans was misplaced. Every SEC school (and I include Vandy) could be nailed, and the last thing any of us need is a race into the mud pit. The new commissioner needs to lay down the law in a hurry. As anticipated, there was still an effort to tie UGA to Memphis. If the NCAA reopens the Alabama case, there will just be more chatter about it, and more attempts to implicate us. Old "news" stories will be rehashed yet again, and certain opposing coach(es) will keep saying "Georgia won't even be around in five years."

Since we nailed down most of our recruiting class early, the AJC didn't bother with it this year. The most amazing thing to me about the Memphis mess is that the bowl ban on Kentucky actually meant something. I thought that penalty was a big joke. Kind of like when I banned myself from sleeping with Cindy Crawford.

The latest twist on this thing is the multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by Ronnie Cottrell. This could go any number of ways. Assuming the suit survives the various motions to dismiss, transfer to federal court, and anything else they can think of, Cottrell's lawyers will have discovery power against the NCAA and the University of Alabama. It sure looked like Cottrell was the fall guy for Bama. He could end up hurting both Bama and the NCAA. The problem with defending a slander suit is that the defense is to further smear the guy by trying to prove the truth of all the stuff you have already been accused of saying. You either win, or you REALLY anger the jury. Alabama juries can write a lot of zeros. It will never get that far, but what happens in the meantime will be worth watching.

Meanwhile, lost in all of this, was Albert Means. Means' alleged football talent was the reason all of this took place, and his fate is instructive. He reported to Alabama VERY overweight. He then transferred to Memphis, and is no longer enrolled there. No offense to him, but he was a classic recruiting bust. The top players from Memphis usually are. That somebody offered/paid $200,000.00 or anything close to that figure for Means is just insane.

The Conference Really is Changing

Last year I wrote a column in which I suggested that the time was right for a "paradigm shift" in the conference. Spurrier left behind a void, and the time was perfect for UGA to step up. I never dreamed that it would happen this year, as I was thinking more along the lines of us beating Florida, and maybe not having enough to make it three in a row against the Vols.

Suddenly, things look very interesting for the future. If you look at the talent across the league, nobody got more out of their underclassmen than the Dawgs. Both Florida and Tennessee have some severe personnel issues to deal with, especially on their defensive lines and don't seem to have the answers on campus at this time. South Carolina might be a two year rebuilding job, as they replace some important people. Alabama will begin to hurt from the NCAA sanctions and the coaching carousel.

While things can certainly change in a hurry, some teams look like they are better prepared for the future than others. Auburn seems to be headed in the right direction. They have good talent, and should be the favorite in the West. Tubberville has recruited well, and the 2003 team should be his best yet. LSU has signed enough talent to give Auburn all they want. They continue to recruit well, and Saban has an SEC title to his credit. If he stays there, I doubt he remains a one-hit wonder for long. Tennessee is still enormously talented, and will probably stay that way. They might signed an uncharacteristically average class this year, but they have the guns to win the conference. Their only question is one of team/staff chemistry. That is a big question. Florida looks like it is slipping. Spurrier's last class wasn't that strong, nor was Zook's first. This year's class is outstanding. The Gators will remain a dangerous opponent (as we saw), but they look like they are on the decline a bit.

For the next two years, it looks like a UGA-UT battle in the East, and an LSU-Auburn fight for the West. Things are still in a state of flux in the East, and parity still reigns in the West.


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