Everyone other than Alabama, of course.
We come to bowl season with the Crimson Tide undefeated and every other SEC team with at least four losses. In 25 years of divisional play it’s only the second time we’ve seen something like this: in 2000 Florida won another SEC title but finished only 10-3, while five other teams finished 8-4 with Auburn 9-4.
Only three times has the league had just two teams finish with three or fewer losses: Georgia and Alabama in 2002, LSU and Auburn in 2007, Alabama and Florida in 2009.
The most common outcome is for the SEC to have four teams finish the year with three or fewer losses, which has happened 10 times in 25 years. In the pre-A&M/Missouri days, this created an easy hierarchy: a third of the league had a good year, a third of the league was middle of the pack, and a third of the league was Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and two players to be named later. When expansion came again in 2012 the league immediately turned in its most top-heavy season: five teams finished between 11-2 and 13-1, plus LSU at 10-3.
But since then it’s gotten less and less crowded at the top. And after Auburn kick-sixed its way to the SEC title in 2013 with four other teams having three or fewer losses, it’s been only Alabama at the top and more and more space between them and the field.
Alabama is 39-3 the last three years. Consider how close - and how good-but-not-great - it’s been among the next eight best teams in the SEC since 2014. We first looked at these numbers in the aftermath of Butch Jones’ comments on success being minimized; Tennessee’s subsequent loss to Vanderbilt continued to show how slippery success can be. But while narratives can swing hard on one outcome, the facts continue to show the Vols in a crowded field:
If Georgia loses to TCU in the Liberty Bowl, every one of the next eight best teams in the SEC will have at least a dozen losses over the last three years. That’s an average of four losses a year for everyone who isn’t Alabama.
The two at the top of this crowded field have already fired their long-standing head coaches. Right now, is anyone in this group happy? We know we’re not thrilled. Auburn got the Sugar Bowl but still went 2-6 in the SEC in 2015. Florida has won the East in back-to-back years but might miss the Top 20 in recruiting for the second time in three years. Ole Miss beat Bama twice but is 5-7 with the NCAA’s shadow looming.
Much of the particular frustration in Knoxville comes from Tennessee losing to teams outside this tier. In head-to-head games among these eight teams, only the Vols and Gators had just one loss (Florida to us, the Vols to Texas A&M). Florida had a bad performance against Arkansas that ultimately didn’t hurt them because the Vols did the same against South Carolina, then doubled down at Vanderbilt.
But only Georgia (1-3) was more than one game above or below .500 in head-to-head games against this tier this season. As we ask ourselves if a year like this one will be the exception or the rule going forward, it affects the way we think about the 2017 schedule. The Vols (and perhaps everyone else) feel no closer to beating Bama, but so much parity creates greater uncertainty about the whole thing. Throw in this year’s losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt and all the questions about the defense, and which SEC games do you feel confident the Vols will win next year? Which ones do you feel confident they’ll lose? Can any of these second-tier programs answer any differently?
If this kind of year is becoming more and more the rule, it will eventually have to change the way we view a successful season. But will something like that happen while these coaches are still with their current schools?