There’s no doubt that 2022 was a down year for the SEC, despite still being the best conference in college football. The reality is the landscape of the entire sport is drastically different than in years past. It’s a real possibility the College Football Playoff will happen without Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State for the first time ever. Parity is up across the board, especially with Lincoln Riley reviving a USC program, giving the Pac-12 at least one playoff-caliber team. Back to the SEC, though, which as I said experienced an uncharacteristic down year.
The SEC is the only conference that has sent two teams to the College Football Playoffs, but they produced only one elite team this year — Georgia. Tennessee fell by nearly 30 points to South Carolina, which ended the Volunteers’ hopes of reaching the playoffs for the first time. It was a shocking upset. There’s no chance an elite team gets boat raced by an average Gamecocks team; it doesn’t matter where the game was played.
The Crimson Tide have long reigned as king of the conference, with the Dawgs on their heels. However, Alabama lost to Tennessee and LSU, which is just the second time in over a decade that Nick Saban has dropped two in-conference games. For their standards, it was quite a disappointing outcome, and the whole body of work would agree with close wins against Ole Miss, Texas, and Texas A&M.
The SEC West, which is typically the strongest division in the sport, was terrible. So bad that it allowed a portal-heavy LSU team to punch its ticket to Atlanta. The Tigers lost in Week 1 to Florida State in the opener, were obliterated at home by Hendon Hooker and Tennessee, and just finished the season with an embarrassing performance against an underachieving Aggies team.
Speaking of Jimbo Fisher’s team. That oil money is flowing, which has made College Station one of the most lucrative destinations for recruits, netting the school several impressively ranked classes. A season that began with playoff expectations has ended without bowl game eligibility. To say they disappointed is an understatement.
A Kentucky team that was supposed to surprise some people with one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation was just average. Florida looked horrendous in its first season under Billy Napier. Ole Miss started strong but fell off quickly to end the season. Auburn fired its coach before it really even started, and Mississippi State is content with being average.
HOWEVER, the future of the conference couldn’t be in better hands.
Kirby Smart has quickly ascended to one of the best coaches in college football. He has the Bulldogs set up to be a perennial championship contender for the foreseeable future in what could be the sport’s next dynasty. He’s the best combination of Xs and Os, recruiting, and motivation since Nick Saban. Smart and the Dawgs have seemingly surpassed the Crimson Tide, whose had a stranglehold on the conference for the last decade.
Still, Alabama and Nick Saban shouldn’t be taken lightly. They’re a powerhouse. Even in down seasons, they still win double-digit games. Anyone expecting Alabama and Saban to fall off a cliff is naive. The greatest coach in college football history will surely make corrections moving forward.
LSU was expected to be a mediocre team this season under Brian Kelly, with a roster mostly comprised of transfers and true freshmen, and all they did was win the SEC West. The entire state of Louisiana revolves around the Bayou Bengals; there aren’t many places in the country that will give a program the amount of resources as LSU. The Tigers have won three National Championships in the past 20 years with three different coaches. And I don’t think anyone would argue that Ed Orgeron and Les Miles are better coaches than Brian Kelly. He’s the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, one of the most storied programs in college football, and will surely have LSU competing for championships sooner rather than later.
Tennessee, under Josh Heupel, has made a complete 180. The program is in an excellent position to challenge UGA for the right to go to the conference championship moving forward. They have as many resources as any in the conference, and Heupel has proven to be one of the best up-and-coming coaches in all of college football.
Another impressive up-and-comer is Shane Beamer, who led South Carolina to wins over Tennessee and rival Clemson in the season’s final games. I liked Beamer before the season and love him now. I believe in what he’s building in Columbia.
Ole Miss hasn’t experienced the kind of success under Lane Kiffin in a long time, probably since Hugh Freeze was there, and Freeze is returning to the conference as Auburn’s next coach. If anything, it’ll be entertaining for the disgraced coach and the Tigers. And don’t forget about Texas A&M; there isn’t a school in the country that can outbid the Aggies for recruits and coaches.
The future of the SEC is in good hands; they should regularly send two teams to the College Football Playoff, and that’s not even mentioning the additions of Texas and Oklahoma, two college football bluebloods. The conference still is the best in football, and the gap will only continue to grow
Photographer: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire