Enterprise

SEC Breakthrough: Programs Need Players, Culture and Patience

If you want to break into the top level of college football, having skilled players, an established culture, and the time to get both are essential.

Yet year after year, fans, boosters and administrators expect their team to celebrate a title no matter how young the program is, even in the tough Southeastern Conference.

While No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama appear to be the favorites for the SEC title game, a group including No. 8 Kentucky, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 11 Tennessee and Ole Miss No. 16 has unbeaten records and big goals.

“I think that’s one of the things that helped create the buy-in for our players,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said in his second season. “We never set a cap on what we could or couldn’t do.”

And he’s not alone in the SEC.

Ole Miss and coach Lane Kiffin used rushing and defending to start 3-0. The Rebels are second in the league with 243 rushing yards per game and fourth in yards allowed behind Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky.

The undefeated Razorbacks, who face No. 23 Texas A&M (2-1) on Saturday night, adopted the tough-minded style of coach Sam Pittman, the former Tennessee offensive line coach, from Arkansas and Georgia before he was hired after the 2019 season.

Tennessee is the best offensive team in the conference with more than 553 yards and 52 points per game.

The secret to getting into the SEC? “Just playing our brand of football,” Arkansas wide receiver Matt Landers said.

Former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier agrees. It’s important to have the best players, he said, but equally essential to have an established culture that his teams can rely on every week and season after season.

Plus, “you have to give the guys you hire some time,” said Spurrier, who led Florida to a national championship and six SEC titles and South Carolina to its only East Division title in 2010. .

That’s the path Kentucky took with Mark Stoops, who in his 10th season passed Bear Bryant as the school’s leader in coaching wins.

Stoops’ team broke through to go 10-3 in 2018, its sixth season, but slowed to 8-5 and 5-6 the next two years, a drop that may have led some schools to make the move. housework. The Wildcats, however, rebounded last year to 10-3 and are focused on bigger things this fall.

Part of Stoops’ success comes from the patience of fans and school administrators, Spurrier said. Stoops said another goal is to keep young players engaged so they stay and become playmakers instead of being transferred.

“We’re caught up in the win, which is ultimately the most important thing,” Stoops said. “But we can’t forget about development and bringing these guys with us.”

Stoops’ tenure is rare on many SEC campuses. Nine of the league’s 14 schools have changed coaches in the past three seasons.

All high expectations, said longtime CBS Sports college football analyst Gary Danielson, create annual pressure cookers for teams that can’t meet them.

Danielson said while other Power Five leagues might have two or three title-winning teams, there are six or seven SEC schools that could change coaches “if they’re not potential playoff teams. NCAA playoffs.”

In the current four-team college football playoff format, it’s difficult for all of the top teams in the SEC to compete for a national title. That will change, Danielson believes, when the CFP expands to 12 teams, as announced earlier this year.

Winning 10 games will likely be enough to qualify additional SEC teams for the expanded playoffs, Danielson said.

Coaching changes do not guarantee instant success. South Carolina coach Shane Beamer, coming off a surprising 7-6 freshman season last year, lost both SEC games to Arkansas (44-30) and Georgia (48- 7) in a 1-3 start.

Beamer was disappointed with the Bulldogs’ loss. But in the process, the recruits and their families present were delighted with the atmosphere of the stadium.

“That’s all they could talk about, thankfully, and not the results on the pitch,” he said with a smile.

Nothing beats having NFL-caliber talent on your side. According to 247sports.com, Texas A&M, Alabama and defending national champion Georgia went 1-2-3 in last season’s scouting round.

There are seven SEC teams in the top 16 of 247sports 2023 recruiting rankings with Alabama leading the way. For programs at the back of the pack, like the Gamecocks, Missouri and Vanderbilt, this is the way up.

“I think if you don’t get three to five top-three picks in the NFL draft like LSU, Alabama and Georgia, you need to be a little more unique,” Danielson said.

___

AP sportswriters Mark Long in Jacksonville, Fla.; Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee; and John Zenor in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.

___

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the PA college football newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/mrxhe6f2

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.