While Tennessee was eagerly anticipating their bowl placement Sunday afternoon, Georgia and South Carolina officially announced replacements for the departing Mark Richt and Steve Spurrier, meaning that once again, every head coaching job in the SEC East has been filled. And it's a green incoming group. All three newcomers were defensive coordinators last year, with Georgia hiring Alabama's Kirby Smart, South Carolina hiring Auburn's Will Muschamp, and Missouri promoting Barry Odom. Of that group, only Muschamp has any head coaching experience, and he was fired from his only previous head gig.
In 2010, when two-time national champion Urban Meyer retired (the second time), it presented an opportunity for someone else to step in and take control. In 2001, when Steve Spurrier jumped to the NFL, it was Mark Richt's Georgia who filled the void, winning the SEC East three out of the next four seasons and winning the entire SEC two of those years before his run was ended by Meyer's first title team. In 2010? Steve Spurrier's South Carolina team probably did better than anyone, responding with three straight top ten teams, but his 2011 and 2013 teams squandered the East by losing to unranked teams, and the 2012 team finished behind a top five Georgia (despite beating the Dawgs 35-7 in Columbia). So we saw two titles go to Georgia and two to Missouri before Jim McElwain grabbed a division title in his first year at Florida. Since 2010, no one has won the East more than twice, and just two East champions have finished in the top ten nationally. And those two champions, Georgia in 2012 and Missouri in 2013, were among the three schools who said goodbye to their head coaches this season.
The opportunity is bigger now than it was in 2010. Then, the conference had Steve Spurrier, who had bossed the SEC in the 90s and was on the verge of finally bringing South Carolina into the national conversation. It also had Mark Richt, who despite much-publicized struggles to win the big one, had six top ten and two top five finishes in the 00s and had been on top before Meyer came to Florida. In 2015? Richt is gone. Spurrier is gone. Two-time East champion and noted coachemupper Gary Pinkel is gone. Now? No coach in the SEC East has an SEC title on their resume. The last time that's happened? Never. Since the advent of the SEC East, there has always been one team with an SEC-winning coach on the sidelines. Now just one, Jim McElwain, has so much as a division title from a major conference, and McElwain did it in one of the worst SEC Easts in memory. The seven coaches have combined for just two outright conference championships in their coaching histories: the 2007 and 2009 MAC championships, both won by Butch Jones' Central Michigan. No current East coach has won an outright conference title this decade.
The East has never been more ripe for the picking and lacking in teams ready to pick it. Georgia and South Carolina have hired former Nick Saban assistants with no track record of success on their own (and one with a significant track record of failure), which, as Tennessee and Florida found out in the early 2010s, is far from a guarantee of success. Missouri has been making up for lackluster recruiting with stellar player development and defensive scheme, but while the defensive schemer is still there, he has no experience in his current position and is following one of the most successful coaches in school history. It's hardly a sure thing. What do you have left? A Florida team that rode five one-possession wins (four over teams that finished below .500) to a 10-3 record this season, and a Tennessee team that's trending up but hasn't been in division contention in November since 2007.
Obviously, it's not all about coaching. And with seven unproven coaches, raw talent may be more important than ever. How does it look in December of 2015? Here's a snapshot of the East's recent recruiting of blue-chip (read: 4/5 star) players.
|Team||3-yr blue chip total||3-yr blue chip %||4-yr blue chip total (includes 2016 commits)||4-yr blue chip %|
Like in 2015, Georgia can move forward as the only school with championship talent. But Georgia is also the only East school with more than 11 blue chip recruits in the last three years to have a first-time head coach. And first time coaches make mistakes. So Tennessee and Florida, with blue chip ratios over 40% and with the most successful coaches in a green division, have opportunities to step forward. The East is there for the taking, not just in 2016, but for years to come. Are Kirby Smart, Butch Jones, or Jim McElwain ready to take it?