Tennessee Coach Butch Jones, left, and Florida Coach Jim McElwain greet each other at midfield before last week’s game in Gainesville, Fla. (John Raoux/AP)
Sports columnist

Barry Svrluga

In 2008, Rich Brooks and his Kentucky Wildcats football team won their first four games. Suddenly, October was about more than just the opening of basketball practice in Lexington. And then came a look at the schedule in the brutal Southeastern Conference. Not just the programs. The coaches.

Over the ensuing eight weeks, Kentucky faced teams coached by, among others, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino, Urban Meyer, Mark Richt and Phillip Fulmer. Entering this weekend, those six coaches have amassed 1,025 victories and won better than 75 percent of their games wherever they have been — from Toledo to Alabama, Duke to Florida, Bowling Green to Ohio State.

"That season, three coaches in that league had won a national championship," Brooks said this week.

Actually, Coach, it was four: Saban, Meyer, Spurrier and Fulmer. But the point is correct: "It was a very, very difficult league," Brooks said.

This year's Kentucky team is off to a 3-0 start. Here, then, are the coaches Mark Stoops's Wildcats must face in-conference: Will Muschamp (whom they beat last week), Jim McElwain, Barry Odom, Dan Mullen, Butch Jones, Matt Luke, Derek Mason and Kirby Smart.

Ain't an icon nor a national champion among 'em.

"Football's a religion in the South," said Brooks, whose seven seasons in Lexington were preceded by 18 at Oregon. "It's a 12-month season."

We're in the first month of this season, and as the SEC fans file into their pews and pull out their hymnals, there is hand-wringing about the men behind the pulpits. The SEC has a problem, and it isn't with its fan bases nor its speed on defense. It's with its coaches.

Saban is still at Alabama, and Alabama is still a machine, top-ranked and a good bet to reach the College Football Playoff for the fourth time in its four years of existence. But when Brooks was at Kentucky, it wasn't just one guy at one school. The conference was a haven for some of the best coaches in the sport. From 2006 to 2012, four SEC schools won seven straight national titles. Those programs were led by Meyer (Florida), Les Miles (LSU), Saban and Gene Chizik (Auburn).

Okay, forget Chizik, because that title was really won by Cam Newton. But the point is this: As coaching icons have retired or moved on, the SEC does not appear to have replaced them with the best and brightest from the next generation.

Quick quiz: If Saban is obviously the SEC's best coach, and he is, who is the second-best?

Quite recently, the candidates might have included Spurrier (who ended up at South Carolina after his national-title winning days at Florida), Miles (eccentric, to be sure, but he won 77 percent of his games at LSU), Richt (whom Georgia replaced after he won 74 percent of the time) and maybe even James Franklin (who did the impossible: made Vanderbilt relevant). Go back a few years further and add Meyer, who left Florida, where he won two national titles, after the 2010 season.

Now, the second-best coach in the SEC is almost certainly Mullen, the Meyer protege who has made Mississippi State into a tough week for any conference opponent. Ask Miles's replacement at LSU, Ed Orgeron. His team was just waxed by Mississippi State, 37-7.

That's the kind of result that raises reasonable questions for SEC fan bases: Is our current coach really the answer? Outside of Tuscaloosa and, presumably, Starkville, what SEC town is soliciting sculptors for the inevitable statue of its current leader?

Mullen is a fine coach who has done a fine job. But the fact that someone without so much as a division title is easily the SEC's second-best coach tells you something about SEC coaches.

Play that game in, say, the Big Ten. Whichever of Ohio State's Meyer and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh isn't No. 1 would be No. 2, right? But then there's Franklin, now at Penn State, who beat Meyer last year and is still wondering how his Nittany Lions didn't get into the playoff. And there's Paul Chryst, who, in two-plus seasons at his alma mater, Wisconsin, is a cool 24-6. And there's Mark Dantonio, whose 3-9 2016 at Michigan State is probably more a blip than a trend, as he led the Spartans to bowl games in each of his first nine years, including an appearance in the playoff following the 2015 season.

That doesn't even get to, say, Pat Fitzgerald. In more than a century of football before Fitzgerald took over as head coach, Northwestern had played in six bowl games. In 11 seasons, Fitzgerald has coached the Wildcats in seven. And it ignores Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who has been in his current job longer than any other Division I head coach.

Plus, the Big Ten may have three of the profession's rising stars at, of all places, Purdue, Minnesota and Maryland — where Jeff Brohm, P.J. Fleck and DJ Durkin appear to be on the way to altering the perceptions of their programs.

That's just one opposing conference, and you can quibble with these individual assessments. But en masse, the verdict is clear: The SEC doesn't have the top-to-bottom coaching heft it once did, nor that other conferences do.

What happened here? A shift in power, for one.

"When I was there," said Brooks, who retired after 2009, "at that time, the SEC East was the tougher side of the conference."

Anyone who watched the first 59 minutes of the Florida-Tennessee game last week understands that's no longer the case, nor has it been since Saban reestablished Alabama, which plays in the West, as a national power. Florida's victory on a last-play Hail Mary will be remembered, and rightfully so.

But what should accompany those memories is how the two teams, coached by McElwain and Jones, produced an afternoon of nearly unwatchable football. Coaching? How in the name of Bear Bryant was Gators wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland the first player to cross the goal line on the decisive, no-time-on-the-clock play? Score tied, time for one more snap — and Jones and his staff played a straight coverage, with just two deep safeties?

That might be too much for Jones, now 14-19 in SEC games, to survive. But then, Tennessee never successfully replaced Fulmer, churning through Lane Kiffin, someone named Derek Dooley and, now, Jones.

That one result, though, doesn't mean things are groovy for McElwain, either. When Florida fired Muschamp — yes, the same guy who's now at South Carolina, and yes, there's some inbreeding in the SEC — the Gators were so sold on McElwain, then at Colorado State, that they agreed to piece together a $7 million buyout. He might work out fine. But what they have to show for it thus far are two losses to Florida State and two SEC championship game losses to . . . Alabama.

Which brings us to an awkward point: Saban is so good — perhaps even the best in history — that he and the Tide might be ruining the entire conference. Dating from 2008, a span of more than nine seasons, Alabama has a total of seven regular season losses and has won four national titles. Yes, Alabama is the only program to reach the College Football Playoff in each year of its existence — and it won three of the previous five national championships before that.

But in the three years of the playoff, the Big Ten (Ohio State and Michigan State), ACC (Clemson and Florida State) and Pacific-12 (Washington and Oregon) have all sent multiple programs to the national semifinals. Alabama is the lone SEC rep, Saban the lone SEC coach to participate.

This is not to say that the current Kentucky team, 1-0 in conference, is a threat to win the SEC East. What it is to say: Right now, in the SEC, there's Alabama, and there's everyone else — and nearly everyone else can raise a question about its coach.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.