One Southeastern Conference coach received his walking papers this week. Another saw his fortunes fade as his athletic director was fired amid a sour season. Those off-field happenings in the league that proclaims It Just Means More are a significant curiosity, particularly when Saturday’s set of games are relatively tame.
Let’s start with Tennessee, which went “brick by brick” with Butch Jones, who helped the Volunteers become “champions of life” (but not of the SEC East) and eventually was consigned to doling out leadership reps as this season rapidly fell apart after a last-second loss at Florida.
The Volunteers were probably doomed the second quarterback Joshua Dobbs’s eligibility expired after last season, but that’s another matter.
More on Jones’s legacy in a moment, but first it’s worth pointing out just how tattered the Tennessee brand is after a decade spent largely in the dumps. Only two teams in the SEC own a worse league record since 2008, which was Phil Fulmer’s final year on the sideline in Knoxville. He gave way to Lane Kiffin, then Derek Dooley and finally Jones.
SEC regular season records, 2008-present
Even if Tennessee wasn’t stuck losing to Alabama every third(ish) Saturday of October (11 in a row and counting) and faced a more manageable annual crossover opponent, it wasn’t jumping more than two or three spots on this list.
Now take a peek at how the past five seasons — the entirety of the Jones era — has gone for the Volunteers relative to their conference peers.
SEC regular season records, 2013-present
Better. Not by much, but better. And subbing out an annual West Division opponent it would beat half the time rather than Alabama would slot the Vols at the tail end of a large midpack. In the end, Jones improved Tennessee but not enough. Despite this year’s disaster, he leaves Tennessee better than he found it.
The second chart also explains why Bret Bielema’s time at Arkansas is in danger of concluding within the next two weeks. After all, “worse than everyone but Vanderbilt” is not a welcome line on any SEC football coaching resume.
The losing — and this year’s 4-6 slog — doesn’t help, but the possibility of a change probably increased Wednesday when Arkansas fired Jeff Long as athletic director. It’s fair to debate whether it’s all that wise to try to lure a coach without knowing who the long-term boss is going to be, but Long’s ouster does not bode well for Bielema’s chances of spending a sixth season in Fayetteville.
There are already three SEC openings (Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee), and both Arkansas and Texas A&M could easily join them. In 2017, at least, what’s happening in the SEC definitely Just Means More for the coaching carousel than any other league.
Right on schedule
Earlier this week, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News went into great detail on the impediments (some self-imposed) the Pac-12 faces as it tries to coax a playoff bid out of its 12-team league. It did twice in the first three years of the four-team format (2014 Oregon and 2016 Washington), and almost certainly won’t this year.
One of Wilner’s major points was that sending a contender on the road on a Thursday or Friday after playing on the road the previous Saturday is counterproductive. Southern California did it this year (and lost at Washington State). So did Washington State (which lost at California). And so did Washington (which lost at Stanford). Those three games went a long way toward trashing the Pac-12’s playoff possibilities.
It would seem the league has put that lesson to good use. The Pac-12 announced its 2018 football schedule Thursday, and there are eight conference contests played on a Thursday or Friday. A quarter of the 16 teams involved will be coming off an open date. Only one (Oregon State’s short trip to Oregon) will come six days after a road game.
In fact, there’s only two home teams in those games coming off road contests. That will help. The Pac-12’s teams still need to play better, but at least the conference isn’t accidentally stacking the deck against its top programs from the start.
Five teams have locked up spots for conference title game weekend, Dec. 2. Clemson and Miami will meet in the ACC championship. Wisconsin nailed down the Big Ten West last week. Same for Southern California in the Pac-12 South. And North Texas is the winner in Conference USA’s West Division. Eight more spots could be clinched this weekend as division title races wind down:
- American: Central Florida (9-0, 6-0) would lock up the East Division with a victory over Temple and a South Florida loss to struggling Tulsa. The path’s clearer in the West Division for Memphis (8-1, 5-1), which would clinch with a victory over Southern Methodist.
- Big Ten: Ohio State (8-2, 6-1) can actually finish off the East Division before its Thanksgiving weekend showdown with Michigan. The Buckeyes need a victory over Illinois and a Michigan loss to Wisconsin to return to the Big Ten title game for the first time since 2014.
- Big 12: Oklahoma (9-1, 6-1) will secure a place in the revived conference title game with a triumph over Kansas. It’s a much more convoluted path for Texas Christian (8-2, 5-2), which would be assured of winning any tiebreaker for the second spot with a victory plus losses by Iowa State (at Baylor), Oklahoma State (to Kansas State) and West Virginia (to Texas).
- Conference USA: Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic (7-3, 6-0) will wrap up the East Division with a triumph over Florida International.
- Mountain West: Mountain Division leader Boise State (8-2, 6-0) claims its first trip to the league title game since 2014 with a victory over Air Force. Same goes for Fresno State (7-3, 5-1) — right down to the ending a two-year hiatus — if it can seal the West Division with a triumph at Wyoming.
Five games to watch
No. 24 Michigan at No. 5 Wisconsin (Saturday, noon, Fox): It’s the biggest test to date yet for Wisconsin (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten), which figures to be in for a low-scoring slog against Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines (8-2, 5-2).
Kentucky at No. 7 Georgia (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): How does Georgia (9-1, 6-1 SEC) respond to its thumping at Auburn? Kentucky (7-3, 3-3) will find out soon enough.
Navy at No. 8 Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., NBC): Same question for Notre Dame as Georgia, though the Fighting Irish (8-2) aren’t going to the playoff after getting pummeled at Miami. Navy (6-3) has won four of the last 10 against Notre Dame, including last year’s 28-27 triumph.
No. 19 N.C. State at Wake Forest (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU): The home team has won nine of the last 10 games in this Tobacco Road series, and with Wake Forest QB John Wolford playing exceptionally of late, this figures to be one of the more entertaining games of the weekend.
UCLA at No. 11 Southern Cal (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC): In a Pac-12 scheduling quirk, this is the regular season finale for the Trojans (9-2, 7-1). It’s also likely to be the only matchup between Southern Cal QB Sam Darnold and UCLA QB Josh Rosen. The Bruins (5-5, 3-4) need a split of their last two games to become bowl eligible.
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