Missouri and Auburn aren’t switching divisions.
The commissioner’s office now is the final authority when it comes to rescheduling games after the Florida-LSU debacle last season.
And the conference is recognizing the 50th anniversary of breaking the color barrier. Kentucky football was integrated in 1967. The SEC was late to such progress compared to most of the nation, but an opportunity to salute pioneers should never be passed up.
These were the highlights of Greg Sankey’s first pitch of SEC Media Days, the too-early blessing of the college football season. Sankey begins his third year as commissioner, and not much has changed since he took over for Mike Slive. The conference continues to dominate on the gridiron and other surfaces and doesn’t miss this opportunity to pat itself on the back for these accomplishments (and shouldn’t).
Something else hasn’t changed, although this more quadrennial or so in nature.
Coaches are feeling heat. Winning in a bigger way wouldn’t hurt the perception of leaders such as Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. And it would help Arkansas’ Bret Bielema not to lose games like the Razorbacks did to finish last season, dropping big halftime leads to Missouri and Virginia Tech in the bowl game.
Then there is Hugh Freeze, whose Mississippi’s tenure could be tied to a scandal that surrounds the program. The NCAA found 15 Level 1 infractions and the school had already announced a postseason ban. If additional penalties prove damaging, Freeze could pay with his job.
Even Ed Orgeron, who led LSU to a 6-2 record after taking over for Les Miles last season and had the interim tag removed, understands the pressure cooker he’s in. After all, he’s already been fired from one SEC job — Mississippi in 2007 after three years.
“I understand the expectation of LSU,” Orgeron said. “I was born in Louisiana.”
Every coach lives with this type of tension. It’s what gives deeper meaning to the SEC slogan, “It just means more.”
It means, in Jones’ case, no division titles and a 14-18 SEC record in four seasons isn’t what Tennessee expected when he was hired from Cincinnati. Now, Jones has a new boss to impress. John Currie was hired from Kansas State and had spoken favorably of Jones and the program, which has finished in the AP top 25 in consecutive years for the first time in a decade.
One Tennessee player said Monday that Jones’ heat is undeserved.
“It’s a little disrespectful,” senior defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said. “When I got here, we were 5-7. We’ve won three straight bowl games and were 9-4 (last season). He’s changed the program so much.”
Bielema’s first Arkansas team finished 0-8 in conference play, improved to 2-6 and 5-3 over the next two years and appeared poised for bigger things in the fourth. But the Razorbacks lost four of the final six games for an unsatisfying 7-6 record.
“The end of last season was a unique situation for me,” Bielema said. “Our kids are great. They owned and embraced we didn’t do well at the end of last season.
Sumlin looks to steer Texas A&M out of a rut. They’ve finished 8-5 each of the last three seasons, not a job-losing record at most schools, but the Aggies went 11-2 and won at Alabama in Sumlin’s first season.
Beating the Crimson Tide is a rarity, and part of the longevity problem for programs, especially in the West Division — and with Tennessee, which plays Alabama on an annual basis.
The Crimson Tide under Nick Saban has finished no worse than 7-1 in seven of the last eight years. That’s plenty of losses for their regular SEC opponents.
“They are the benchmark,” Orgeron said. “I understand that the head coach of LSU must beat Alabama.”
Or he doesn’t remain head coach for long.