Last Modified: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 10:00 AM
Back in the football doldrums of late last spring, it was Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, I believe, who questioned if the SEC was really all that in football.
Stoops suggested taking a broader view, demanding that one look beyond the seven crystal footballs aligned neatly in a row, signifying the run of consecutive BCS championships.
Perhaps Stoops had been on the recruiting trail, where this year’s strapping, full-grown high school seniors were in the fifth grade — barely on Nick Saban’s recruiting radar — the last time a non-SEC school won the national championship.
Anyway, in a rebuke to the SEC’s claims of ongoing world domination, he started poking fun at the underbelly of the SEC, where he said easy victories awaited all comers once you got past the heavy contenders and bellied up to the dirt-cheap, all-you-can-eat buffet.
Now that Baylor has gotten presentable, I guess the top-to-bottom thing was a logical argument from the Big 12.
But perhaps he didn’t get the memo that Vanderbilt insists on being taking seriously these days.
Still, grasping at straws though he was, Stoops had a point — to a point.
Even with Vanderbilt’s remarkable strides toward respectability — the brainy Commodores won nine games last year and even had to kick a few players off the team this summer — there was a historically bad bottom four in the SEC last season.
Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas more than offset Vanderbilt’s rise by combining to go 3-29 in SEC games, all of the three wins coming in pillow fights amongst themselves.
Those four did go 11-5 when outside the SEC, but with no victories to really write home about.
It was inexplicably, historically bad for proud Auburn (0-8), Tennessee (1-7) is still trying to figure what happened to its tradition and Arkansas (2-6) isn’t used to being in that neighborhood. Kentucky (0-8), well, you know.
But the SEC knows how to handle these matters.
The reaction was swift.
Yes, all four have to play Alabama this year.
Just kidding. No, really, Alabama does indeed get to play them all this year, but that was just a scheduling coincidence.
No, the way the SEC handles something like this is that all four of the wayward teams fired their head coaches without much dissent but with all due haste.
They will all be better this year for it.
Different, at least.
But whatever Stoops’ point was about top-to-bottom excellence won’t be as much of a factor this season in the SEC.
In fact, it might be the single deciding factor in whether the SEC gets to even play for an eighth consecutive title.
None of those four are going to challenge Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M for the West, or Georgia, South Carolina and Florida in the East.
Not over the long haul of the season. Not for a trip to Atlanta.
But they might leave a mortal wound on any of the contenders, might cause a chain reaction that ends up with the SEC finally beating itself up enough to keep it out of the championship game altogether.
LSU struggled to beat Auburn and Arkansas last year.
But in recent years the big six haven’t really had to worry many uprising from the riffraff.
That may not be such a given this season.
Auburn, which will finally know what its offense wants to be (up-tempo physical) under new head coach Gus Malzahn, is my pick to be the most improved team in the SEC this year, probably no worse .500 in the league.
Tennessee can’t be any worse but probably needs a few recruiting classes with Butch Johnson. A little stability should steal at least one unexpected win, however.
Arkansas could have less talent this year than last, but the Hogs are always good for a surprise or two.
Kentucky, well, the Wildcats are excited under new head coach Bob Stoops (Mike’s younger brother) but will probably still be Kentucky.
But even more, look at the middle tier of teams, Missouri and Vanderbilt in the East, Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the West.
Ole Miss, a complete mess two years ago when the Rebels flat quit on Houston Nutt, made the kind of strides last year under Hugh Freeze that Auburn will make this year.
Ole Miss was pretty darn good last year at the end of the season, still has an excellent quarterback in Bo Wallace and a remarkable recruiting class coming in. The Rebels could beat any of the top six and, it says here, will beat at least one of them, maybe two.
Mississippi State probably won’t — not the Bulldogs’ style — but have scheduled themselves into a bowl game anyway.
Missouri is the mystery. Surely the Tigers are better than they appeared in their SEC shakedown cruise. They always did well in Stoops’ Big 12.
And you’ve already been warned about Vanderbilt.
If the SEC is denied a chance to even play for that eighth title, it will likely be the fault of those improved bottom-feeders.
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Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at email@example.com