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Sustaining Success in the SEC

NCAA Football: SEC Media Day Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Butch Jones is often playfully criticized for being the chief of coachspeak; his turn at the podium at SEC Media Days produced more of the same a couple of weeks ago. But while he may not set the bar among coaches for originality, there’s usually plenty of good old boring truth in what he shares. And every once in a while some of it catches our eyes and ears, drawing us in for closer inspection.

Today he spoke at a Rotary Club function, and Dustin Dopirak tweeted a comment Jones shared I had not heard before: only four teams in the SEC have won at least eight games in each of the last four years.

You’ve got Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and...yep, Texas A&M. Or we could think of it as Alabama, coach fired, coach almost fired, and coach on the hottest seat in America. And those are the only four who have done it.

Tennessee obviously has not; last year Jones got the Vols back to 8-4 then won the Outback Bowl in Tennessee’s first 8+ win season since 2007. But as sustaining success becomes another one of those talking points for Jones and Bob Shoop, what sustained success looks like in the SEC is a little different than the most optimistic versions of Team 120 and beyond in our heads.

Here are the four year records for the SEC since league expansion in 2012:

  • Alabama 50-6
  • Georgia 40-13
  • LSU 37-14
  • Texas A&M 36-16
  • Mississippi State 34-18
  • Ole Miss 34-18
  • Missouri 33-19
  • Florida 32-19
  • South Carolina 32-19
  • Auburn 30-22
  • Tennessee 26-24
  • Vanderbilt 25-25
  • Arkansas 22-28
  • Kentucky 14-34

We’d all certainly love to be Alabama, whose current four year winning percentage of 89.3 is surpassed only by Bama themselves from 2009-2012 (49-5, 90.7%) and Tennessee’s 1995-98 run of 45-5 (90%) since league expansion in 1992. But the reality is for every other SEC school, even and in some ways because of being in the best conference in the country, even the best non-Bama programs in this league are going 8-4 at least once per graduating class.

Mark Richt won the East back-to-back in 2011 and 2012, the latter squad finishing 12-2 and ranked fourth. He went 8-5 the following year, then couldn’t get back to Atlanta via a pair of 9-3 regular seasons.

Les Miles has the misfortune of being in the same division as Alabama, which means he hasn’t been to Atlanta since 2011. Since then his teams have gone 10-3, 10-3, 8-5, and 9-3 with a weather cancellation.

Kevin Sumlin has never been to Atlanta and is paying for setting the bar so high in his first year in the league: 11-2, 9-4, 8-5 (7-5 regular season), 8-5.

They are the only three non-Saban SEC coaches to win at least eight games in the last four years. But clearly there’s a difference between sustained success and championships: only Richt has been to Atlanta in that span, and not since 2012.

The others who’ve made it to Atlanta have been on the roller coaster. Missouri went 23-5 in 2013 and 2014, the seventh best winning percentage in all of college football in those two years. But they were bookended by 5-7 campaigns. After a 3-9 season cost Gene Chizik his job, Auburn found magic in a 12-2 campaign in 2013 and won an SEC title, but slid to 8-5 and then 7-6 last year.

Two others that just missed the list created steady improvement. Dan Mullen built from 5-7 in 2009 to winning 7-9 games each of the next four years to the program’s peak in 2014 at 10-3, and still kept it afloat with 9-4 last year. The Bulldogs are picked last in the SEC West this fall. In the same state Hugh Freeze has charted the path Butch Jones is following a year behind: 7-6, 8-5, 9-4, 10-3. Team 120 will inherit a path of 5-7, 7-6, 9-4.

We’re all hoping for big things from Tennessee this fall, when 8-4 would absolutely be considered a disappointment for the first time in a decade. But we don’t get to pretend to be Alabama just yet. So even if the Vols go 15-0 and win the national championship this year, having an 8-4 season approximately every four years would still have to be the expectation until the Vols start winning multiple titles.

That’s what it’s looked like to be a top program in the SEC since league expansion. Richt, Miles, and Sumlin all get high marks for consistency and avoiding a year of total collapse. But they’re also a picture of how consistency doesn’t relieve the pressure when you can’t hold up a ring at the same time. Tennessee’s goal is to create sustainable success. But that success will always have to include a championship sooner or later, or else it’s never really success to begin with.