I don’t think you’ll get too many arguments that 2016 was a down year for the conference. I also think if you asked why that was the case, most people would point to two factors, quarterback play and coaching.
Barrett Sallee, in this post, suggests that’s on the mend for this season. I’m not sure I find his arguments that convincing.
Here’s his argument for improvement at quarterback.
Georgia’s Jacob Eason (16 touchdowns, eight interceptions), South Carolina’s Jake Bentley (nine touchdowns, four interceptions) and Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson (six touchdowns, three interceptions) all evolved into starting quarterbacks as true freshmen as the season progressed, and had moments of brilliance.
The lumps taken by those young quarterbacks, combined with the departure of defensive studs like Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams; Auburn’s Carl Lawson; Tennessee’s Derek Barnett; Florida’s Caleb Brantley; Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and many other defensive studs should light a few more fuses in a conference in desperate need of offensive fireworks.
Toss in the arrival of former Baylor quarterback and hot-shot recruit Jarrett Stidham at Auburn, former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire at Florida and Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson getting a full offseason to learn the Wildcat offense, and the SEC has its best crop of quarterbacks since 2013 when Manziel, Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron, Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw were the headliners.
The problem with that is “best since” isn’t in the same ballpark as “same as”. In 2013, those five quarterbacks Sallee cites all finished in the top twelve nationally in passer rating. (Beyond that, McCarron and Murray went one and two in that category the previous year.) Is anyone really expecting similar results out of the 2017 group?
That’s not to say some improvement shouldn’t be expected; Eason, Bentley and Patterson should be more polished as sophomores. But let’s also not forget that last year’s top two quarterbacks in terms of passer rating, Dobbs and Kelly, are gone. If last year was subpar (Dobbs’ 150.59 rating would have been only sixth-best in the SEC in 2013), perhaps the best way to describe what is coming in 2017 overall is “work in progress”. I suspect that whatever programs benefit from above-average quarterback play this season are going to be among the conference’s top teams.
As far as coaching goes, I am not sure I understand the distinction Sallee makes when he writes,
There’s a prevailing thought that the SEC is down in the coaching department.
The real problem isn’t coaching talent, it’s coaching sustainability.
He explains that as follows:
Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze have all enjoyed variable amounts of success early in their coaching careers. But they’re all still relatively new at this, unlike the 900-pound gorilla in the room known as Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Sumlin veered a little too much towards exotic offenses in the post-Manziel era and has been struggling to find the right mix of creativity and physicality over the last two seasons. Malzahn has bounced from hands-off to hands-on the Tiger offense like a pendulum ever since Auburn was within 13 seconds of a national title after the 2013 season. Freeze led Ole Miss to consecutive New Year’s Six bowl games despite massive offensive line issues — including a seven-game suspension to star left tackle Laremy Tunsil in 2015 — and a rushing attack that couldn’t gain traction between the tackles.
There’s pressure on those coaches for a variety of reasons. But it’s clear that they’re all dedicated to picking a lane and staying in it.
Again, what that means is unclear. Freeze has run the same offense since he’s gotten there and is already on record as staying this season with what’s worked for him. How you can acknowledge Malzahn’s hands-on, hands-off approach to his offense and go on to accept as a given that this year will be different strikes me as little more than a leap of faith. Sumlin looks more and more like somebody who caught lightning in a bottle with Johnny Manziel, hardly someone for whom lane picking will make a big difference.
Beyond that, the argument doesn’t even touch on Kirby Smart, who sure seemed like he stayed in a lane last season, Butch Jones, who couldn’t take the preseason favorite to win the East over the finish line, Bret Bielema, about whom, whatever else you might say, failing to pick a lane and stay in it hasn’t been an issue, and a couple of coaching retreads in Muschamp and Orgeron.
Like it or not, as a group, there’s been a clear regression, and, just like the quarterback situation, it’s hard to see how this year’s bunch is going to reclaim the old magic quickly. (Again, if any one of last year’s question marks breaks out of the pack, some program is going to rise up the conference ranks in a hurry.)
Maybe I’m being too pessimistic here. Maybe it’s time for the SEC to be great again. I don’t know. From where I sit, it looks like there’s still a fair amount of heavy lifting to be done.