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SEC Coaches in Year Two - The Case for Hope

I mean, after this, what won't you believe?
I mean, after this, what won't you believe?

(Alternate Title:  How to Get Excited 33 Weeks from Gameday)

(Second Alternate:  How to Place Unfair and Insane Expectations on Derek Dooley)

Team Speed Kills - SB Nation's SEC blog, if you're unfamiliar - is run by a South Carolina fan (cocknfire) and a Florida fan (Year2).  I don't know either of them personally, but I've got a good idea where Year2 got his handle from.

Urban Meyer's path to Florida included just four years as a head coach:  two at Bowling Green, and two at Utah.  He turned Bowling Green around instantly (something Dave Clawson is still working on), from 2-9 in 2000 to 8-3 in 2001.  In 2002 the Falcons went 9-3, and Meyer was off to Utah.

In 2003, the Utes went 10-2 and won the Mountain West a year removed from a 5-6 campaign.  In Meyer's second year in 2004, the Utes went undefeated and became the first mid-major school to crash the BCS, beating Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Meyer was hired by the Gators to follow Ron Zook.  In his first year at Florida, the Gators went 9-3, a slight improvement over anything the Zooker was able to accomplish.  In year two, the Gators won the National Championship.

Some of the mystique surrounding Meyer at the time included the notion that it took two years to get the spread option up and running (another concept Dave Clawson is yet to master...).  But when you look around the SEC in the last ten years, the "Year Two" mystique isn't unique to Meyer, or one particular offense.

It's usually easiest to separate the SEC into two tiers:  programs that expect to compete for National Championships (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee) and programs that don't (everyone else, though Arkansas is trying to trade places with the Vols...).  At the other five power institutions in this league, a head coach has had extraordinary success in his second season in the last decade.  This is one of the most incredible and unique stories in the league over the past ten years...and it's one Derek Dooley hopes continues for him.

Let's take a look at how this has unfolded for each of the other five schools, as well as some of the Year One signs that better days were ahead...

Nick Saban - LSU

  • Year One - 2000:  8-4
  • Year Two - 2001:  10-3, SEC Championship

Saban took over an LSU team that went 3-8 in 1999.  Year One got off to a rough start with a blowout loss at Auburn and a home loss to UAB in September.  Some UT fans I know were unintentionally mispronouncing his name ("Nick Sa-BAAN") at the time, and I'm sure LSU fans weren't thrilled.  But Saban stopped the bleeding with an overtime win over the Vols.

(Note how many times these coaches get an important Year One win against Tennessee.  SPOILER ALERT:  All of them did.  That's one thing Dooley can't do...unless he secretly knows the Year Two Formula, and threw the LSU game and paid off the refs in the Music City Bowl just to make sure...)

Though the Tigers were later blown out by Florida, they won four of their last five, including the Peach Bowl over Georgia Tech.  All of their key offensive players - Rohan Davey, LaBrandon Toefield, and Josh Reed - came back for Year Two.

2001 didn't start off well for the Tigers, with a 26-18 loss in Knoxville and an embarrassing 44-15 loss in Baton Rouge to Florida coming on consecutive Saturdays.  As we would later discover, both the Vols and Gators were really, really good.  But LSU also lost to Eli Manning's Ole Miss squad, and was 4-3 headed to November.

In one of the tightest division races ever (two teams finished 5-3 in conference, three teams finished 4-4), LSU won at Alabama and at home vs Arkansas to set up a winner-takes-all SEC West Championship against Auburn on December 1, the same day the Vols were playing at Florida.  LSU won 27-14, then went to Atlanta and handed Tennessee the most heartbreaking loss in the history of the program.  It was LSU's first SEC Championship since 1988.  The Tigers also won the Sugar Bowl over Illinois.


Mark Richt - Georgia

  • Year One - 2001:  8-4
  • Year Two - 2002:  13-1, SEC Championship, Ranked #3 in final polls

Jim Donnan did everything except beat Georgia's rivals.  After his first season, the Dawgs went 4-12 against Auburn, Florida, Georgia Tech, and Tennessee from 1997-2000...and 31-1 against everyone else.  That one was the beginning of the end however, a September 2000 loss at South Carolina with the #10 Dawgs the preseason SEC favorite (that loss came against Lou Holtz in his second season, a different kind of success story going from 0-11 to 8-4 at South Carolina).

So Mark Richt inherited a team with some talent, but also some key holes to fill.  Richt turned to freshmen, including David Greene, Fred Gibson, and David Pollack, throwing them in the mix right away.  They lost a close game to South Carolina in week two, but put the Hobnailed Boot on Tennessee to give Richt the momentum he needed.  The Dawgs lost to Florida and Auburn, but competed well in both games, and lost the Music City Bowl to finish 8-4.

In Year Two, Georgia thrived on the close win:  31-28 vs Clemson, 13-7 at South Carolina, 27-25 at Alabama, 18-13 vs Tennessee (the C.J. Leak/James Banks combo of death), and 24-21 at Auburn.  But by the end of the year, they had it all together:  the Dawgs spanked Georgia Tech 51-7, then won their first SEC Championship since 1982 in their first appearance in Atlanta, 30-3 over Arkansas.  A 26-13 win over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl gave them 13 wins on the year.


Urban Meyer - Florida

  • Year One - 2005:  9-3
  • Year Two - 2006:  13-1, SEC Championship, National Championship

The Zooker never won more than eight games in a season, and had a losing record against Tennessee.  Meyer turned that around right away, shutting down the Vols and benefitting from UT's complete special teams collapse in a 16-7 win.  The spread option didn't have to work if the other team was only going to score 7.

That tactic didn't work in Tuscaloosa, however, where the Gators were undressed 31-3, and I'm sure many Florida faithful were wondering about their new head coach.  Florida lost close games at LSU and at South Carolina, and survived a near miss against Jay Cutler in a 49-42 win.  The Gators closed the year in style, blowing out Florida State and beating Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

Another common theme for these Year Two teams is the return of a solid quarterback (or, if you're Auburn, signing Cam Newton).  Chris Leak returned in 2006, and the Gators signed Tim Tebow.  Here again, this team wasn't a juggernaut right out of the gate in Year Two:  the Gators beat the Vols by one point, lost at Auburn, then won three straight one possession games against Georgia, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina (on a blocked field goal), and also beat Florida State 21-14. 

But they too saved their best play for the right time:  when Arkansas' offense got the best of the veteran Gator D in Atlanta, the Gator offense came to the rescue in a 38-28 SEC Championship win (we're used to Florida always being good, but remember that this was UF's first SEC title in six years).  And with everybody in the free world picking Ohio State, the Gators trashed them 41-14 in the National Championship, holding the vaunted Buckeye offense to 86 total yards.


Nick Saban - Alabama

  • Year One - 2007:  7-6
  • Year Two - 2008:  12-2, SEC West Championship, BCS at-large

The Process began on the heels of Mike Shula's departure in a 6-7 2006 season.  Unlike the others on this list, Saban avoided the Year One blowout, but couldn't avoid the embarrassment of losing to Louisiana-Monroe.  That was one of six one-possession losses for the Tide in 2007.  On the other hand, Saban beat two ranked teams with a close win over Arkansas and, you guessed it, a blowout win over Tennessee.  The latter was probably a good memory during the month of November, when Saban's team went 0-4.

Saban's Year Two Alabama team also stands out for two other reasons:  a heavy reliance on freshmen, and a spectacularly quick rise to prominence.  It started in Atlanta against #9 Clemson, a game the Tide won 34-10.  Against preseason #1 Georgia, Alabama put on one of the most impressive first half displays I've ever seen, 31-0 at the break en route to a 41-30 victory.  On September 1 the Tide were ranked #24.  On October 1 they were ranked #2.

Bama did have some near-letdowns in October against Kentucky and Ole Miss, and beat LSU by six, but the rest of the regular season was total domination, including 36-0 against Auburn to break the Tigers' hold in the rivalry.  Alabama lost to the eventual National Champion Gators in the SEC Championship Game, and did have a total letdown in the Sugar Bowl against Utah, but 2008 was still the Tide's most successful season in ten years.


Gene Chizik - Auburn

  • Year One - 2009:  8-5
  • Year Two - 2010:  14-0, SEC Championship, National Championship

Gene "We want a leader, not a loser!" Chizik was hired to replace Tommy Tuberville, who went 5-7 the year before.  The Tigers were an unproven 4-0 when they won in Neyland Stadium, 26-22.  From there, the offense sputtered and the defense couldn't offer enough support, and Auburn finished the regular season 3-5.  They won a wild overtime affair against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

Then they signed Cam Newton.

Year Two for Chizik (and Gus Malzahn) was yet another case study in close wins:  half of Auburn's victories were one possession affairs, including late rallies against Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky, and an incredible turnaround against Alabama.  Auburn played their best football in the SEC Championship Game, and had enough of it left to hold off Oregon to win the National Championship.

Other Nominees:

  • We didn't include Les Miles, because he followed a guy who went to the NFL and inherited a team that was absolutely loaded.  Miles did win 11 games and earn a BCS at-large bid in Year Two...he just also won 11 games in Year One.
  • Dan Mullen took Mississippi State from 5-7 to 9-4 in his second year - he didn't win a championship, but the Bulldogs clearly made a leap.
  • Dennis Franchione and Alabama were on probation and ineligible to win anything in 2002, but the Tide still went 10-2 in Farmer Fran's second year.
  • As mentioned, Lou Holtz took South Carolina from 0-11 to 8-4 in his second year.

While the other nominees were certainly successful, note that these four coaches and five schools aren't just finding moderate success in Year Two - they're winning championships and turning in the best single season at those institutions in at least ten years (with a tip of the cap to 2004 Auburn).  So if you're Derek Dooley, and you'd like to win a championship and join Saban, Richt, Meyer, and Chizik as a Year Two success story, what are some common Year One factors to note?

  • Consistency at QB.  Rohan Davey, David Greene, Chris Leak, and John Parker Wilson were all returning starters in Year Two.  Dooley's not going to sign Cam Newton, but with Tyler Bray he doesn't have to.
  • Reliance on youth in Year One and Year Two.  Because if you rely on them in Year One, they're not so young by Year Two.  Richt's Year Two Georgia team was led by sophomores.  Saban's Year Two Alabama team had freshmen in critical roles (who then won the National Championship as sophomores).  Urban Meyer brought in freshman talent like Tim Tebow to compliment his veterans.  Chizik and Malzahn put Cam Newton and Michael Dyer in charge.  Tennessee won't have to worry about this one. 
  • An embarrassing loss or almost-loss in Year One.  Saban lost to UAB at LSU and to Louisiana-Monroe at Alabama.  Chizik lost at home to Kentucky.  It took Urban Meyer overtime to beat Vanderbilt, and it took Dooley overtime to beat UAB.  It happens.
  • Blown out by more talented teams in Year One.  Saban avoided this at Alabama, but lost to Florida 41-9 at LSU.  Meyer lost 31-3 at Alabama.  Chizik lost to Arkansas and LSU by 21 apiece.  The Georgia loss is still a bit of a sore spot, but it makes sense that Dooley's Vols got rocked by Oregon and Alabama this year.  You're just not that good right away.  No one is.
  • The Near Miss.  Saban's Year One Alabama team lost six one-possession games.  Richt's Year One team lost a pair of one possession games to ranked teams.  Meyer's Year One team lost by four at #8 LSU.  Chizik's Year One team played Alabama's National Championship team closer than anybody...except Lane Kiffin's Year One team.  I believe Dooley's performance in Baton Rouge qualifies.
  • The One to make them believe.  Here's what I'm not sure Dooley has, but may have achieved anyway with four lesser wins in November.  All of the other guys beat Tennessee in Year One, and except for Chizik it was when beating Tennessee really mattered.  Kiffin did this by beating Georgia in 2009 - and don't think about how much you hate Kiffin or the struggles that Georgia team eventually had, remember back to the way you felt immediately after that win.  Kiffin did enough good on that one Saturday to cover over the messes he made in Tuscaloosa and Oxford, and the mess our players made at Pilot.  Still, I think Tennessee fans believe in Dooley even though we don't have The Big Win.  We got The Important Win by beating Kentucky...and that's clearly been worth something.

What appears to be overrated is the late-season run in Year One.  This would be a bigger deal had the Vols won the Music City Bowl, but note that both Saban and Chizik had terrible slides at the end of their first seasons, and things turned out just fine in Year Two.  It's not about turning late-season momentum into something, it's about building something real in Year One that's more reliable than the temporary boost of a few late wins the previous year.

And before we just assume Dooley's going to win a trophy in 2011 based on the track record of the other guys in this league, look how much luck is involved:

  • In Year Two for Phillip Fulmer, Jerry Colquitt got hurt on the seventh play of the season.  Same thing happened to Brodie Croyle in the fourth game of Mike Shula's second year.  Ask yourself, if Tyler Bray got hurt and Matt Simms was the starting quarterback in 2011, how hard is it to talk yourself into even the idea of competing for anything significant?
  • Other than Saban's Alabama team, none of the other Year Two teams were all that great right away.  Saban's LSU team started 4-3, Richt's team beat Clemson and their first three SEC opponents all by one possession, Meyer's team almost lost to Vanderbilt and South Carolina on consecutive Saturdays, and we've just spent an entire season watching Auburn live dangerously.  Most Year Two success stories start slow with young teams that eventually find their best football, and all of them involve the ability to win a close game week to week.  Good teams make their own luck.

Only the 2006 Florida team started Year Two ranked in the Top 10; 2008 Alabama and 2010 Auburn were ranked 24th and 22nd, respectively.  Almost all of these are off-the-radar stories...which is certainly where Tennessee will find themselves in September.

Despite all of this, I'm not suggesting that the Vols are going to win a National or SEC Championship, and won't be suggesting that in August (not seriously, anyway...).  I know based on where we've been and the youth and depth issues we'll still be dealing with that eight or nine wins for the 2011 Vols would be a job well done.

But I also know that the SEC East should be as wide open next year as it was this year.  It's children's fiction to talk about the Vols in the BCS right now.  But the Vols in Atlanta on the first weekend of December?  That's a story we might be willing to believe.

The major intangible with Year Two is hope itself.  Even the fanbases with the most pride know that Year One is going to be a struggle.  Year One also comes on the heels of the final year for the previous coach, which meant it was also a struggle.  In all of these cases, you've got hungry fanbases who've been disappointed for at least one year, then accepted patience for one (or in our case, two) with a new coach.  But none of us forgot what it's like to win...and after spending a couple of years without it, we fall in love with hope all over again.

We will find it even if our new coach got blown out by his rivals or lost to a mid-major in year one.  Even if we're not sure about his fancy new offense.  Even if he ran thirteen guys on the field on the game's final play.

Year Two is the perfect opportunity for hope, because if it isn't made real it usually becomes desperation in Year Three.  And it's become real too many times for too many schools in the last ten years for it not to be a factor.  After two offseasons of knowing we would have to be patient and that we couldn't compete, hope is alive and well in Knoxville.  It's what makes me write and you read something like this in the middle of January.  And it's what will make this a long offseason...only this time, long because we're hopeful instead of merely curious.

Nothing is guaranteed.  Good teams make their own luck, and Dooley is yet to prove himself in a close game or against any of our rivals.

But 33 weeks away, I'm already excited about the simple possibility.  It's happened all around us for the last ten years.

What could happen in Knoxville in 2011?