After running the SDPI numbers for all 11 conferences in 2006, I thought it would be an interesting sojourn through recent football history to look back at SDPI for the six BCS conferences throughout the entirety of the BCS era (98-06). It also gives me an excuse to add some pretty little graphs to the site. Don't know what SDPI is? Click here for an answer. Remember, its performance, not achievement, so years with the highest win totals may not actually be a certain team's best season. And its also only conference play, so any non-conference action, championship games, and bowl game are excluded. We'll continue with a look at the SEC. After each team's graph, there is a paragraph of commentary followed by the number of first place SDPI finishes or if there are no such finishes, the highest SDPI finish.
Mike Dubose was the head man for the first three seasons featured here, taking the Tide to an SEC Championship in 1999. The 2000 squad that got him fired (and finished 3-8) was not nearly as bad as their record would indicate. They were a tough luck 0-3 in close games and played only one team, Vanderbilt (3-8), that finished with a losing record. Consequently, his successor, Dennis Franchione, was hardly stepping into a deplorable situation. After a 3-5 start in his inaugural season (2001), the Tide won their last four games, included amongst them a 24-point throttling of arch-rival Auburn and an exciting 14-13 Independence Bowl win over Iowa State. In Franchione's second and final season at Alabama, the Tide were actually the best team in the SEC, but thanks to probation were ineligible for postseason play. He left for what he thought were greener pastures at College Station following the 2002 season and was replaced by Mike Shula. For most of his tenure, Shula fielded average teams that were beset by terrible luck. His 2003 team was 0-6 in close games, the 2004 squad was 0-3, and his final team in 2006 was 3-5. In between he had a stroke of good luck as the 2005 Tide went 3-1 in close games in rout to a Cotton Bowl win.
First Place SDPI Finishes: 2002
Best Non-Probation SDPI Finish: 4th (1999 and 2005)
Houston Nutt has been the head man for all nine seasons pictured. Until 2006, his best season was his first, as the Hogs were merely one stumble away from playing for the SEC Championship and derailing Tennessee's national title hopes. In the years between 1998 and 2006, Nutt kept the Hogs competitive in the SEC. They were never very much above or below average save for 2000 when they were roughly only the 10th best team in the SEC. They finished 3-5 in conference play, not winning any game by more than 11 points, but still qualified for a bowl with thanks mostly to a non-conference slate consisting of Missouri State, Boise State, and Louisiana-Monroe. If the Hogs were much worse than their final record in 2000, they were much better in both 2004 and 2005. The Hogs were a combined 9-13 over those two seasons (5-11 in SEC play), but most of that is due to a 1-7 record in close games (1-6 in SEC play).
Best SDPI Finish: 2nd (2006)
Terry Bowden and Bill Oliver share culpability for the 1998 season and Tommy Tuberville has been in charge for every season beginning in 1999 when he came over from division rival Ole Miss. Bowden struggled a bit in his first and third seasons, but has had the Tigers above average every other season. The Auburn program is certainly in much better shape than it was when Tuberville first arrived. After surviving the attempted palace coup in 2003, Tuberville had his best teams, going a combined 15-1 in SEC play in 2004 and 2005.
First Place SDPI Finishes: 2004 and 2005
Care to guess which seasons Steve Spurrier is responsible for? The decline of the program once Spurrier departed is really quite amazing. Perhaps Urban Meyer will return the Gators to consistent SEC title threat, but the 2006 season, despite it's ultimate finish should be seen for what it was. The Gators could just as easily have been playing in the Outback or Capital One Bowl if one or two breaks didn't go their way. The BCS Championship Game is one point in Florida's favor that they were the best team (and a large point). However, the one point win over Tennessee, the one point win over South Carolina, the five point win over Vanderbilt, a pair of seven point wins over Georgia and Florida State, and the loss at Auburn are counterpoints in that argument.
First Place SDPI Finishes: 2000 and 2001
Since taking over for Jim Donnan in 2001, Mark Richt has turned the Dawgs into a consistent threat to win the SEC Championship. While he has yet to have the best team in the conference, he has finished worse than 3rd only once, in 2006. In his other five seasons at the helm, Georgia has finished 2nd three times and 3rd twice.
Best SDPI Finish: 2nd (2002, 2003, and 2004)
Hal Mumme is the coach for the first three seasons, Guy Morriss the next two, and Rich Brooks the last four. Mumme, with his air raid attack, guided the Wildcats to middling seasons in 1998 and 1999, guiding them to bowl appearances in both seasons. The bottom fell out in 2000 and Mumme was replaced by Guy Morriss. Kentucky's decline in 2000 has a lot to do with what I like to theorize as 'The Rule of 4'. It's pretty intuitive: Only four teams in a given division at any one time can hope to have a successful season in leagues with two divisions. In 2000, South Carolina rose from their doormat status and became a solid SEC team. With Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee remaining strong, Kentucky had nowhere to go but down. The lone exception in my perusing of recent standings would be the SEC in 2006. Incidentally, don't be fooled by Kentucky's 2006 team. They really weren't that good. A beneficial intra-division schedule and some good luck got them to bowl eligibility. But I digress. The Wildcats improved in Morriss' first season and were even better in his second, nearly becoming a league average team and finishing with a winning record, but no bowl bid thanks to probation. If not for the LSU miracle, the Cats would have doubled up their loss total and finished 8-4. Coincidentally or not, the Cats unexpected rise coincided with a decline in Columbia keeping the Rule of 4 in equilibrium. Morriss left for Baylor after the season and was replaced by Rich Brooks. The Cats fell off a bit in 2003, then bottomed out in 2004. They have improved incrementally in the succeeding two seasons. They may improve performance-wise in 2007, but don't expect an uptick in their conference record. They are not an SEC East sleeper.
Best SDPI Finish: 8th (1998 and 2002)
Nick Saban's five season run on the Bayou is sandwiched between two from Gerry DiNardo and two from Les Miles. DiNardo fielded an average team in 1998 and then promptly ran the program into the ground in 1999 at which point he was fired. Saban immediately improved the Tigers' his first season and they held steady as an average to above average SEC team his first three seasons. Then in his fourth, they made the leap to conference power, and won a national title along the way. The team has remained strong under Les Miles and actually had their best conference season in the BCS era in 2006.
First Place SDPI Finishes: 2003 and 2006
Tommy Tuberville is responsible for the first season, David Cutcliffe the next six and Ed Orgeron the last two. While the program had its share of ups and downs under Cutcliffe (it was at least one standard deviations above and below average twice), it also enjoyed its greatest recent success under him. Firing him just one season removed from a 7-1 conference record does not make a great deal of sense especially when you consider the caliber of programs the Rebs must contend with in the SEC West--Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Arkansas all have equal or greater tradition, both recent and contemporary than Ole Miss. Hell, even Mississippi State has played in an SEC Championship Game. The Rebs have not won a conference title in over 40 years (1963). Orgeron may still do great things on the Grove, I'm all for giving new coaches a chance, but firing Cutcliffe was definitely the wrong move.
Best SDPI Finish: 4th (2003)
The fall for Mississippi State has hard and it was fast. In 1998, Jackie Sherrill's charges won the SEC West and participated in the SEC Championship Game. It was the schools first conference title of any kind since 1941. The next season Mississippi State won ten games and in 2000, the Bulldogs doubled up their losses by going 8-4. The Bulldogs performance actually declined each season, but even the most pessimistic Bulldog fan could not have foreseen the impending collapse. In 2001, the Bulldogs dipped to 3-8 (2-6 in SEC play). They were bad (more than one and a half standard deviations below average), but they were also unlucky going 2-5 in close games (2-4 in close conference games). With that in mind, 2001 could easily be seen as a small bump in the road, especially considering Jackie Sherrill's track record at the school, which included six bowl appearances and seven winning seasons in eleven years up to that point. It wasn't a bump in the road. It was a major blowout that forced the Bulldog bandwagon to careen into oncoming traffic where they were T-boned by their conference rivals. Mississippi State won three games again in 2002, but they were much worse. They were 0-8 in SEC play, with the closest loss a seven point defeat to Arkansas. They lost every other conference game by at least twelve points and their three wins were over Troy (4-8), Memphis (3-9), and Jacksonville State (non-IA). Then the roof collapsed in 2003. The Bulldogs did win one conference game (a 30-21 decision over a 2-10 Vanderbilt team), but they were nowhere near competitive in their seven SEC losses. Every SEC loss was by at least 25 points and six were by at least 30. Sherrill and Mississippi State parted ways after the 2003 season and Sylvester Croom was brought in to replace him. The team improved under Croom from awful to merely bad in 2004, but they have been merely been treading water since.
Best SDPI Finish: 3rd (1999)
1998 marks the end of the Brad Scott era in Columbia. The team was bad, going 1-10 and losing their final ten games after a season opening win over Ball State. Still, Scott does own the distinction of being the head coach when the Gamecocks won their first bowl game in 1994. Lou Holtz took over for the 1999 season, and before he raised the program in 2000, he razed the program in 1999. That 1999 team finished 0-11. The defense while not good by any means, was close to adequate. They allowed 25.27 point per game (27 per game in conference play). The offense on the other hand, was simply atrocious. They scored 87 points in eleven games. The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, one of the best college football teams (probably the best) of the past quarter-century, scored over 70 twice and over 60 four times. South Carolina was shut out twice, held to single digits six times, and scored more than ten points only twice (with a high of 21 in the season finale against arch-rival Clemson). The Gamecocks immediately improved in the two subsequent seasons, posting consecutive Outback Bowl wins over Ohio State in 2000 and 2001. It looked like the Gamecocks were hatching into an SEC power at the turn of the century, but that was not to be. The team slumped in 2002 and 2003, finishing over one standard deviation below average both seasons, before improving to league average in 2004. Holtz left after the 2004 season, and Steve Spurrier took the spurs. Both Spurrier's teams have been about league average with his 2006 team actually besting the 2005 squad in terms of performance, but not conference record, thanks to a better record in close conference games in 2005 (4-1 in 2005 versus 1-4 in 2006).
Best SDPI Finish: 4th (2000)
Tennessee has the distinction of being one of only two SEC teams (Florida is the other) to be above average every season in the BCS era. That should give Phil Fulmer some pull at his next contract negotiation. Cue the Imperial March. The Vols have been at least one standard deviation above average six times in nine seasons (again tied for most with Florida). I'm not a Tennessee fan per se, but the 2004 incarnation does hold a special place in my heart as it was the inspiration and subject of my very first blog post. Like Tom Petty famously sang, even the losers get lucky sometime.
First Place SDPI Finishes: 1998 and 1999
Woody Widenhofer was the is the head coach for the first four seasons and Bobby Johnson for the last five. Woody's tenure at Vanderbilt was a far cry from his successful run as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for the Steel Curtain in the 1970's. His successor, Bobby Johnson, is notable both because he was at the helm for the best season in Vanderbilt's recent history and for his uncanny resemblance to 'The Jerk'.
Best SDPI Finish: 9th (2005)