The Southeastern Conference was and is a hard conference to assess this college football season. There’s no way to reasonably refute that claim — not when considering the contradictions which exist in the league.
The SEC’s most fundamental contradiction at the end of the bowl season, one which will exist whether or not Alabama wins against Clemson, is that the league stumbled in the regular season but excelled in the bowls. The SEC offered the appearance of weakness from September through November, but it then flexed its muscles in very late December and very early January. It’s not easy to arrive at a definite conclusion under such circumstances.
That’s just the beginning, however. The SEC continues to bring college football pundits and commentators all sorts of scenarios which defy easy categorization. This is particularly true when considering a simple yet weighty fact: An outright majority of SEC programs will have at least one if not two new coordinators in 2016.
Alabama. Auburn. LSU. Texas A&M. Mississippi State. Georgia. South Carolina. Missouri. Kentucky. These programs will have at least one new coordinator in 2016. The inclination is to say that programs must be struggling if there’s this much turnover on staffs. Certainly, the situations at Texas A&M, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri, and Kentucky all reinforce that claim. All five programs fell short of expectations last season and face major transitions in the offseason.
However — as unexpected as this might be — the other SEC coaching staffs with new coordinators aren’t necessarily the products of failure.
LSU did not fail this season primarily because of its defense. The offense withered in November and did not give the defense the help it needed. Yet, it’s on defense where LSU has had to make a change. Kevin Steele went to Auburn to become the defensive coordinator for the “other” Tigers. Steele didn’t flourish in 2015, but Les Miles would have kept him on staff if he hadn’t bolted for Auburn.
Speaking of Auburn, one can’t view that coaching change as a product of failure, even though Will Muschamp’s year as defensive coordinator was not all that successful. Muschamp made an upward move on the coaching ladder, so it’s not as though the vacancy (and subsequent change) which marked Auburn’s staff readjustment was rooted in a shortcoming. It’s complicated.
Alabama’s staff change — finding a new defensive coordinator — was clearly the product of Kirby Smart succeeding to the point that Georgia wanted him to replace Mark Richt. Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz went to Miami on the heels of what was a very solid season in Starkville under Dan Mullen.
Some SEC coaching-staff changes were the products of failures, but many others were the products of success. It makes it hard to evaluate how the 2016 SEC will unfold, but that’s going to make the season that much more fun to chronicle once it begins.
Here’s the other main point to make about the SEC’s coordinator changes, removed from the prism of success-or-failure: Many of them involve movements within the conference, not from the outside.
Yes, Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran comes from Cincinnati and The American, and Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel came from Utah State and the Mountain West, just to give a few examples. Yet, South Carolina’s and Georgia’s new head coaches were SEC coordinators last season. Auburn’s new defensive coordinator moved within the SEC West. Alabama’s new defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, worked for Georgia last season. Missouri head coach Barry Odom was promoted internally from his position as defensive coordinator.
When a league’s coaching fraternity undergoes the profound transformations which have affected the SEC in this spin of the coaching carousel, the reality of large-scale change is itself a reason to give the conference a fresh look. When these massive changes are often (though not always) the result of internal moves within the conference, it becomes that much more difficult to assess where various programs stand:
Did Program A benefit from adding Coordinator B (from another SEC school), or did it benefit more from losing Coordinator C, who was a drag on the coaching staff?
That kind of question becomes much more central and paramount when coaching changes often involve moves from one SEC school to another.
This much is clear: The 2016 SEC will be endlessly compelling. We’ll have so much to say about all the coaching and coordinator changes in the conference… and the revolving-door dynamic in which certain SEC programs opened their doors to men who coached at rival programs the year before.