Depending on your loyalties, opening weekend for SEC football was either a breeze, a bit stress-inducing or a complete dumpster fire.
Welcome to the 2019 season, in which several SEC coaches’ seats have already begun to warm, if they didn’t enter the fall warm enough already. Instead of making a blanket statement like “what a disaster for the conference,” let’s attempt to look at things on a case-by-case basis and paint a more clear picture on where things stand.
First, we’ll examine the SEC teams’ openers as a whole, not merely the games that took place this past Saturday. First up was Florida vs. Miami on Aug. 24, followed by Texas A&M and Texas State this past Thursday. Predictably, the Aggies rolled as quarterback Kellen Mond had three touchdown passes and a rushing touchdown, and A&M backs Isaiah Spiller and Jashaun Corbin both tallied more than 100 yards rushing.
Miami-Florida, by contrast, likely left Gator fans with mixed feelings. A win is a win, but even accounting for what looked to me like a solid Hurricanes defense, do the Gators possess the offensive firepower to take on Georgia? Generally speaking, did Florida look like the No. 8 team in the country? It’s only one game, but that question was answered with a “maybe” at best instead of an emphatic “yes.”
Then we get to Saturday, in which there were few surprises when it came to the ranked SEC teams. Alabama and Georgia both routed Duke and Vanderbilt, respectively, while LSU took it to Georgia Southern 55-3. Auburn came from behind to top a ranked PAC-12 team in Oregon 27-21, and Mississippi State handle business against Louisiana 38-28 in New Orleans. Even unranked Kentucky pulled out a 38-24 win against Toledo.
Then we get to the other games. I suppose I should mention Arkansas also won its season opener, a 20-13 victory over Portland State, but does that win actually inspire confidence in the Razorbacks fan base? I’ve previously pondered whether Arkansas is in a similar position in football that Alabama’s in with baseball: A daunting rebuild in a division and conference that would need several programs to decline sharply in order to make some headway. I’m not sure whether Arkansas head coach Chad Morris goes on the hot seat if Arkansas once again goes winless in SEC play, but whoever is in the position for the foreseeable future has a tall task even being competitive in the conference.
Many of you reading this probably care about Ole Miss, whether you’re Rebel fans or Bulldog fans who hate the Rebels. On one hand, I wouldn’t classify Memphis as a slouch. On the other hand, without last year’s offensive firepower, it’s difficult to envision Ole Miss making much noise in SEC play. Like with Morris at Arkansas, I’m not sure as to the temperature of head coach Matt Luke’s seat if the Rebels have a mediocre to bad record in 2019. I do know Rebel fans will, at the very least, want the comfort of knowing their current head coach has the program on the right trajectory, so this one at least bears watching.
Then there’s the Eastern Division and, oh boy. Following the departure of Urban Meyer from Florida after the 2010 season, the division experienced a power vacuum until the hiring of Kirby Smart at Georgia before the 2016 season. From 2010-16, the SEC East has had four of its teams represent it at least once in the championship game: South Carolina once, Georgia twice, Missouri twice and Florida twice. Since then, Georgia has been the Eastern Division champion the past two seasons, and it’s difficult to see the Bulldogs doing anything but sleepwalking their way through their schedule en route to Atlanta.
This past weekend, South Carolina fell to North Carolina 24-20, Wyoming beat Missouri 37-31, Vanderbilt got blown out by Georgia and Tennessee was stunned by Georgia State 38-30. Sure, no one expected the Commodores to do much of anything against the Bulldogs, but the other three? I at least thought they’d be competent teams heading into this season. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all three having new head coaches a year from now.
Maybe that’s an overreaction to one weekend, but consider this: South Carolina saw a measure of success under Steve Spurrier it hadn’t previously experienced. Missouri was back-to-back Eastern Division champions under former head coach Gary Pinkel in just the team’s second and third seasons in the league. Tennessee was a powerhouse program in the 1990s when I was growing up and even won a national championship. Now? Missouri and Tennessee are losing to the likes of Wyoming and Georgia State. Maybe South Carolina brushes off the loss to the Tarheels and goes on to have a solid season, but Gamecock fans will no doubt want more than “solid.”
There will be coaching turnover following this season, and if I had to guess, I would say at least a couple of teams will be eyeing former Ole Miss and current Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze. Say what you want about some of the decisions Freeze made in his personal life, but the man proved he can win at Ole Miss if there’s talent in the cupboard. I’ve long felt Freeze would replace Gus Malzahn at Auburn one day, but it would take a monumental collapse at Auburn following the Oregon win for Malzahn to be let go, and I don’t see that happening.
Freeze’s name was mentioned by Outkick.com’s Clay Travis over the weekend following the Tennessee loss, and I can definitely see that as a possible destination for Freeze should that job open up this winter. I also expect Florida State to take a look at Freeze, as I cannot envision Willie Taggart being in Tallahassee beyond 2019. So, whichever head coaching positions open up following this season, expect them to be competing with Florida State when it comes to Freeze’s future.
I don’t get the sense SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey wants Freeze back in the SEC, but can he actually make the member institutions not hire Freeze? And if he doesn’t have that kind of power, does he have enough clout with SEC athletic directors and head coaches for them to respect his wishes if he requests they not consider Freeze? That’s probably a topic for another opinion piece, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind.
All in all, it wasn’t an abysmal weekend for the SEC, but early reactions seem to paint the league as being made up of some elite teams, some pedestrian to good teams and possibly too many doormats this season. Given the demands of SEC fanbases, I expect some fallout if that trajectory remains the same.
Drew Kerekes is the sports editor of The Meridian Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.