USA TODAY Sports
Now that the regular season is completely behind us, let’s look back on LSU’s 12 opponents and figure out how things stacked up this season, and what they may be looking at going forward. I may have a few thoughts here or there on the coaching carrousel, because I’m sure Auburn/Arkasnsas/Tennessee fans just HAVE TO KNOW WHAT I THINK.
The Mean Green finished the season 4-8 and all of 1-6 in Sun Belt Conference play. It wasn't quite the step forward that Denton Record beat man Brett Vito envisioned for Dan McCarney's bunch, but the truth is they were a team replacing some very key cogs from a 5-7 2011 squad.
The Huskies finished 7-5 and 5-4 in the PAC-12, matching their 2011 mark. They'll take on Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 22. It was a season of ups and downs, including the big win over Stanford and a demoralizing Apple Cup loss to Washington State to round things out. The folks at UW Dawg Pound feel slightly disappointed. For one, the UW offense tailed off this season to the tune of 10 points per game. Keith Price followed up his breakout sophomore season by dropping into the bottom half of the nation in pass efficiency, eight spots behind Zach Mettenberger.
But if I may editorialize for a moment, it still feels like the program is on an upward trend under Steve Sarkisian. It's easy to forget that he inherited one of the worst major-college teams in all of FBS, and they've mostly improved every season. 2011 was probably a slight overachievement with Price replacing Jake Locker, and while things didn't progress the same this season there were still bright spots. The Huskies overcame a lot of injuries, discovered a new playmaker in running back Bishop Sankey and improved on defense by about 12 points per game under new coordinator Justin Wilcox. UW fans would do well to be patient with their young head coach. You can ask Auburn what it's like to get a quick fix. But building a program that can endure takes time, especially when the team inherited was 0-12.
No two ways about it, the Vandals were one of the worst teams in FBS this fall, with a 1-11 mark by an average score of 42-15. It cost Rob Akey his job. His replacement is a name we all know -- Petrino. Paul, not Bobby, who is still getting talked about for the Auburn gig.
Y'all know all this. 3-9 and 0-8 in-conference. The worst SEC mark in Auburn history. Ultimately, it cost Gene Chizik his job. In terms of their coaching search, the rumors have centered on Bobby Petrino, Chris Petersen, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris (a Gus Malzahn protégé), Malzahn himself and Kirby Smart, amongst others. There seem to be some issues on the Plains, from both a leadership standpoint (most seem to think that Athletic Director Jay Jacobs will not be around much longer -- and of course there's Bobby Lowder in the background) and a rumored NCAA investigation looming. These are not small strikes against a program in the market for a head coach, even a program with Auburn's considerable budget.
But since I'm already editorializing, why not discuss this season's coaching carrousel. What makes the final three open SEC jobs interesting is that they're somewhat similar. Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee are all programs with large budgets and facilities that are new, recently updated or currently under renovation. And all three are programs with talent bases that should be defined regionally. Arkansas and Tennessee are states that just don't produce a ton of SEC-level talent, and while Alabama does, most of it is usually picked up by the University of Alabama. When Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn thrive, it usually comes through players from their neighboring states. Be it Texas or Louisiana for the Razorbacks, Florida or Georgia for Auburn, or the Carolinas region and Alabama for Tennessee. These types of program require a coaching staff that either has networking skills in those states or can acquire them quickly. The CEO-type of coach that will assemble a crack staff and pound the pavement to bring in the best talent.
This is why I don't understand Auburn's interest in Petrino. Don't get me wrong, he's a hell of an offensive mind. But he was never really able to get Arkansas' recruiting going, something that really showed this season with a rough defense and an offense that was short on talent aside from Tyler Wilson and handful of skill-position players. Yes, Petrino had some nice success with those players, but he never consistently beat the upper-echelon teams in this league and there wasn't much of a reason to believe it was suddenly going to change. Offense is fun, and there's no reason that any program can't have a fun, explosive offense to watch with coaches like Malzahn, Petersen, Morris or Art Briles. But the teams that win championships in the SEC tend to be strong on defense, or at least on the defensive front (see Auburn, 2010). That takes assembling talent, the way LSU, Florida, Bama, Georgia and South Carolina have in the last couple of seasons.
Chizik seemed to fit this profile with Auburn, but he was unable to maintain a quality staff and in the end, couldn't consistently bring in the right talent. Auburn had some lofty February recruiting rankings, but there were clearly some errors in talent evaluation (the quarterback position immediately comes to mind) because the current talent level on this team doesn't reflect it, and the lack of scholarship numbers reflect an unsustainable amount of attrition. Too many of those star recruits either aren't making it to campus, or aren't staying around long enough to have an impact.
For these three programs to come back -- and make no mistake, it's in LSU's interest that at least somebody in Alabama's backyard give them some competition -- it's going to take a smart coach that will understand what has worked in the past at these schools and how to apply those principles to the current environment. The right guy can get it done. They just have to find him.
LSU's FCS opponent finished the season 7-4 and 6-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association, good enough to share in the conference championship but just short of the FCS playoffs. Running back Terrance West and linebacker Monte Gaddis were named to the FCS All-American team. West led the CAA in rushing, while Gaddis was the bell-cow for the conference's best defense.
It wasn't always pretty, but the Gators gutted their way to an outstanding 11-1 season, and will take on Louisville in the Sugar Bowl on January 2. It was an important step forward for the Will Muschamp regime in Gainesville. Florida still has a ways to go to get to where they want to be, but they found ways to win with an offense that was limited at times and a defense that can still get better. In other news, the Gators have hired now-deposed Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips as their wide receivers coach. His tenure in Lexington might have been a disappointment, but Phillips landed that coach-in-waiting gig with a strong tenure as an assistant there, and has a solid rep as a recruiter. Smart move by Muschamp, and a nice landing spot for Phillips.
The Gamecocks finished with 10 wins for the second season in a row, and Steve Spurrier can now claim to be the winningest head coach in the history of two Southeastern Conference programs. Quite the feather in his visor.
Meanwhile, SC will travel to Tampa again for the Outback Bowl against Michigan on New Year's Day. I wonder what Outback side item Jadeveon Clowney will have with his main course of Denard Robinson? Green beans? Garlic mashed potatoes? I bet it's the garlic mashed potatoes.
Banner first year for the SEC West n00bs. Their quarterback was named All-SEC and is officially heading to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and seems like the odds-on favorite. Defensive end Damontre Moore was also the league's breakout defensive star. What's more, their new SB Nation site Good Bull Hunting really hit the ground running, and consistently put out some outstanding content this season. Sure, LSUFreek was robbed in the great gif duel to CuppyCup, but we're not gonna hold a grudge.
Meanwhile, the Aggies will head to the Cotton Bowl to face Oklahoma on January 4. It's not Texas, and it's hardly a new venue, but it's not like A&M needs to work to gin up hatred for the Sooners.
Overall, new head coach Kevin Sumlin completely exceeded expectations in SEC year one. Sure, A&M's got quite a bit of talent, but nobody imagined them leading the league in total offense. They pulled the year's marquee upset, and yeah there were nail-biters to Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech, but if you're an Aggy fan that just means there's plenty of room to grow.
But that growth isn't always easy, and it'll be interesting to see how Sumlin manages it going forward. There's always going to be a lot of talent readily available for A&M, but their staff needs to make sure that they're bringing in the right players to stay with the LSUs and Bamas consistently. It can be easy for flashy offenses to over-focus on big names at the skill positions. I'm interested to see if Sumlin avoids that trap going forward.
Give the devil their due. Bama found a way to hold off Georgia at the last second. The game was not without controversy, but what else is new in this league? Bama will take on Notre Dame in the InsufferaBowl (HT to EDSBS-er TexanNYC) in Miami on January 7.
I'd like to take a minute to throw Andy Hutchins a link and give the man some credit for seeing beyond the usual media narrative. At least somebody else sees the truth. That Bama was hardly some dominant team that came through a meat grinder, as the Mark Mays and Kirk Herbstreits (whom I typically enjoy, but man can he be blinded by coaching hype sometimes) of the world will tell you. They were a good team, probably not a great one compared to years past, that got a favorable draw in the SEC and took advantage. That's all that really matters at the end of the day, but at least somebody else was willing to take a closer look.
The Bulldogs finished 8-4 and 4-4 in conference play. It's hard to call that a disappointment, but when you start the season 7-0, a 1-4 back stretch doesn't sit as well as you'd like. Granted, you could easily say State lost to three teams that they probably should have (Bama, Texas A&M and LSU), but that season-ender to Ole Miss is probably going to stick in Bulldog fans craw for the offseason. On top of that, you could easily argue that Dan Mullen's staff is getting worked over on the recruiting trail by Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss.
You can't ignore what Mullen's done; getting State in position for their second nine-win season in three years (they'll meet Northwestern in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day). And this year, even with the disappointing finish there was a lot to be proud of. For one, the best passing game in school history, quite a feat given that State hasn't cracked 200 yards passing a game in the last six seasons. Mullen's gone a long way towards helping that program begin to work on the necessary infrastructure they need to move forward.
But if there's legit in-state competition, that has to at least make you wonder if he's nearing the plateau of his success level.
A 6-6 debut for Hugh Freeze, but when you inherited a 3-8 team that was riding a 15-game conference losing streak, that's solid first-year progress. And the Rebels will be bowling on January 5, in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Pitt.
He'll likely lose the award to Sumlin, but Freeze has a very good case for SEC Coach of the Year honors. The best way I can put it is, simply put, the Rebels played better. They pushed dramatically more talented teams like LSU and Texas A&M to the absolute limit, and Bama and Texas to the second half, whereas last season those games were over shortly after the first snap. Sure there were some growing pains. Late-game management was costly against A&M and in a one-point loss to Vanderbilt, but this was a program in rubble a year ago. And at the very least, Freeze was able to pull the team out of a three-game losing streak to upset State in the final game and bring home the Golden Egg for the firs time since Dan Mullen arrived in Starkville.
As far as how he builds from here, that's where things get more interesting. Ole Miss has been making some solid moves in recruiting, but there's still ranked fifth in the West -- and that's behind a team that just fired its coach. Progress can be a slow process in Oxford, but that's really what Freeze and the Rebel faithful will have to focus on.
There's nothing like writing this WHILE THE COACHING HIRE BREAKS. Bret Bielema.
Honestly, I'm not sure what to think. Without a doubt, Bielemma can coach. You don't get to three straight Rose Bowls by accident, even if having Ohio State AND Penn State ineligible helped this year. But is he really a fit? He's been a Big 10 lifer, aside from a two year stint at Kansas State. He even had this to say in the last year:
"We don't want to be like the SEC in any way, shape or form."
In regards to former SEC-er Urban Meyer "stealing" recruits, which is frowned upon in Barbasolvackia.
Wisconsin is a job that lends itself to a certain style. They find big, Midwestern linemen and skill guys where they can, like a Ron Dayne from New Jersey or a Montee Ball from Missouri. To be perfectly honest, that sounds somewhat similar to what Arkansas needs. At least the "pluck talent from the surrounding region" part anyway. But can Bielema make the transition from the Midwest to the Mid-South? The staff he hires will go a long way in deciding that. If he's smart, he'll lean heavily on assistants with ties to Texas.
I can't lie, this just seems...weird. By most accounts, Arkansas had talked to Petersen, Miles, Gary Patterson, James Franklin and Mike Gundy, and been turned down. Bielema almost feels like Bama nabbing Mike Price after Dennis Franchione left and they couldn't line up their first few choices. A coach that had major conference success in a completely different area of the country, who said "yes." Whether Bielema's style will translate, well, that's a whole other question. The Frank Broyles of the world may not care for Bielema keeping a beer fridge in his office or picking up his wife at a blackjack table.
But on the upside, the league meetings just got a whole lot more interesting. We need more coaches with personality in this league. Spurrier gets tired of chewing on Georgia and Dabo all the time.