Why Missouri and Texas A&M Football Will Thrive In the SEC
As we near Missouri's invite to become the SEC's 14th -- a likelihood first reported by this site back in early September -- one of the most consistent tropes in the anti-Missouri and anti-Texas A&M to the SEC argument is that Texas A&M and Missouri can't compete in football. I think that argument is completely wrong. Now, if you're arguing that Missouri and Texas A&M won't win many SEC titles, that may well be true. After all, in an SEC championship game era that now spans nearly twenty years three schools have never been to the SEC title game: Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss and three more schools have never won a title: Arkansas, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. (Arkansas has been three times while the other two schools have each been once).
Six schools have won titles, the so-called traditional powers of SEC football: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, have won all 19 of the SEC titles and comprise 33 of the 38 total appearances.
If you look at this grouping you'd say that Missouri football has more in common with Arkansas, Mississippi State, and South Carolina than it does the traditional powers. I'd argue that with the benefit of being in the SEC, A&M will have more in common with the six traditional powers, but that remains to be seen. Regardless, lazy analysts and media critical of Missouri and Texas A&M's move to the SEC are saying that neither school will be able to compete in football. (To be fair you hear this more about Missouri than Texas A&M, but you definitely hear it a ton about both).
Generally that argument focuses on how dominant the SEC has been over the BCS era, snagging 7 titles in 7 title game appearances while also winning the past five consecutive titles. The only traditional power that has not won a national title since 1998 is Georgia and that's primarily because LSU got to beat Ohio State in 2007 instead of Georgia.
The Pax SECana era during which the conference has won five consecutive national titles has clearly been characterized by national dominance at the top of the conference. But the rising tide of SEC football dominance has actually lifted all programs during this period. Those of us who paid attention to the conference could see this coming when the SEC added a national television package second only to the NFL. (The Florida Gators appeared on national television more times during the Tim Tebow era than any NFL team did). The conference's brand has become a desirable location from top to bottom. Recruits want to play in the SEC because the SEC has the best football in the country. The more top players who come to the conference, the better the conference gets. It's a cycle of dominance that replenishes itself anew every February. And every single program is benefiting.
As the equally distributed revenue has flowed into individual team coffers, just about everyone has taken their program to new heights relative to past program success. (The only real exception to this is Tennessee, which has floundered since firing Phil Fulmer and hiring Lane Kiffin). The Pax SECana ear, or ManifeSECt Destiny if you prefer, has seen the conference take over the nation. The SEC brand is second only to the NFL when it comes to football. Again, that dominance at the top has been duly noted, but the growth of the other programs has been mostly overlooked.
That is, even the programs that are beneath the national radar have stepped up their games. Indeed, one of the lazy rationales trotted out is that the SEC is a top-heavy league and no one can compete if they're outside the top half of the conference. Compete for consistent conference championships? Perhaps. (Although does anyone doubt that Missouri could have competed this year for the SEC East title?) But outkick the historical accomplishments of their past programs? Virtually every SEC school is doing that right now.
Let's consider the "bottom" six's performance since Florida won the SEC's first of five BCS national titles in 2006.
Bobby Petrino has taken the Razorbacks to heights unseen in the program's modern era. The Razorbacks look likely to follow up last year's 10-3 BCS bowl appearance record with a 10-2 regular season and another top bowl game. Whether Bobby Petrino can ever beat Nick Saban remains to be seen -- so far Saban owns Petrino's offense -- but the Razorbacks are far from floundering in this modern era.
Indeed, the Razorbacks were in Atlanta as recently as 2006 and were poised to spring an upset until their punt returner decided to field a punt that was over his head while running full speed backwards at his own two yard line. The resulting fumble led to a touchdown and the Gators were off to Arizona where they walloped Ohio State to begin the SEC's reign of dominance.
If you had to pick one of the "bottom" six that's most likely to win a national title, it would be Arkansas. In fact, prior to the Knile Davis injury the Razorbacks were a trendy dark horse national title pick.
During the SEC's five consecutive national wins Kentucky had been to five straight bowl games, winning three of them. In the entire history of the program prior to 2006 the Wildcats had been to just ten bowl games.
Never in the program's history had Kentucky been to five straight bowl games.
The Wildcats also beat LSU in its 2007 national title season, a victory over a number one team that may be the biggest win in the program's history.
Joker Phillips' team is bad this year, but if the Cats fired Joker and hired Mike Leach, who has openly lobbied for the job, they could quickly return to program heights unseen. And, hell, as impossible as it is to believe, Kentucky could still get to 6-6 and go to a bowl game for a sixth straight season.
3. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs hold the ignominous distinction of being one of only two programs in the SEC -- the other is Vanderbilt -- to have an all-time losing record in football. They've also only won a single SEC title, in 1941.
But the Bulldogs won a New Year's Day bowl game last year for the first time since 1941 last season. The team they beat back then? Georgetown.
The Bulldogs beat Michigan 52-14 in what may be the program's biggest win since World War II.
So, yeah, it has been a long time for Mississippi State to be this nationally relevant again. While the Bulldogs may take a step back this season, if they beat Kentucky and Ole Miss they should be bowl eligible. As long as Dan Mullen is in Starkville the Bulldogs will be much better than they have been historically.
Vandy has their man in James Franklin. After Saturday's win over Army Franklin will be at 4-3 in conference, poised to make a run at a bowl game if his program can beat Kentucky and just one more team on the schedule. Already Franklin's 30-7 win over Ole Miss was the biggest SEC margin for the Commodores since 1972.
What's more in 2008 the Commodores notched their first bowl victory since 1955. That team's 7-6 record represented the most wins for a Commodore football team since 1982.
As the SEC has risen in football, so too has Vanderbilt's performance.
5. Ole Miss
Since the SEC added a title game in 1992, Ole Miss is 8-1 in bowl games.
I know they've been awful the past year and change, but prior to that Ole Miss won back-to-back Cotton Bowl games in 2009 and 2010.
Those were the biggest bowl wins -- and best seasons -- for Ole Miss since 1970.
6. South Carolina
The Gamecocks won the SEC East last season to advance to Atlanta for the first time in program history.
While Marcus Lattimore was just knocked out for the season, the Gamecocks are presently in first place in the SEC East at 4-1 and would advance to Atlanta for a second consecutive season if they could beat Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida.
Once a perennial laughing stock program, the Gamecocks have now asserted themselves as a legitimate threat to contend for the SEC East division crown. And maybe, who knows, something more someday. The Gamecocks have the second best chance of any program in the "bottom" six to win a national title -- or BCS game -- someday.
Now, a couple of caveats, yes, it's easier to make a bowl game today because there are now 12 regular season games and because there are more bowls to go to, but the fact remains, each of these programs has advanced to new program heights even as the top of the conference has risen to unseen heights. Five consecutive national titles has, amazingly, helped the bottom half of the SEC as much as it has helped the top half.
It's a cliche, but a rising tide really is lifting all SEC boats to heights of program prominence not seen before.
Can the SEC make Missouri and Texas A&M national title contenders? Not consistently. But can the SEC take Missouri and Texas A&M to heights heretofore unseen by their football programs? The evidence suggests that contrary to what the doubters would say, the answer is yes.
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