Poor, poor Tennessee.
The Volunteers have been kicked around so often that they're now viewed as an "easy" game on Alabama's schedule each season, irking those who want to do away with the SEC's permanent cross-division rivals. Without a winning season since 2009, UT coach Butch Jones is selling kids on great facilities and proud tradition, rather than recent victories. (To his credit, he's doing a darn good job of it.)
But the Vols aren't the only SEC school to have experienced a prolonged drought or two.
In 1964, the SEC finally moved all the way into the modern age as Tennessee -- ironically -- became the last league school to drop the single-wing offense, find a quarterback, and move to the T-formation. 1964 to 2013 represents 50 seasons of modern-era football in the SEC, so we took a look back through the five decades of SEC standings to see if the Volunteers' current struggles are all that unusual. We found that, no, they are not.
When the league broke into divisions, the "Big Six" schools of the league were split evenly and sent their separate ways -- Florida, Georgia and Tennessee to the East Division and Alabama, Auburn and LSU to the West Division. (Auburn is actually east of Nashville and Vanderbilt, so that was the league's first geographic "cheat" in terms of divisional alignment. So there was a precedent for Missouri being placed in the East Division.) Those six power programs have won or shared every SEC title from 1964 to now. The league has expanded and expanded again but still, none of the other eight current members of the league have snared a conference crown in the last 50 years.
Looking only at the "Big Six" of the SEC, we found the following data:
1964-2013 SEC Results
|Won/Shared SEC Titles||17||7*||8*||8||7||7|
(*Auburn was on probation and not eligible for the 1993 SEC championship. Florida's 1984 SEC title was vacated by the league due to NCAA rules violations. Florida was also ineligible for the league title in 1990. None of those three championships are counted in the above chart.)
As you can see, Alabama is clearly ahead of the others thanks mainly to a stretch from 1971 through 1980 when the Tide won fewer than 10 games only once. And that was an age when schools were playing 11 or 12 games per season, not 13 or 14 (bowls included).
Everyone else is more or less bunched together in terms of overall wins, average wins per season and league titles.
Focusing specifically on conference championships, we found that droughts are not at all uncommon, even for these six programs, some of the best in college football history.
Alabama's longest title drought: 9 seasons from 2000 through 2008
Hey, we said Bama was ahead of everyone else over the last 50 years. But even the mighty Crimson Tide stumbled a bit through the late-90s and early-2000s. If not for a conference title in 1999, Alabama's longest drought would have lasted 16 seasons. For those who've forgotten, the NCAA wound up hitting the Tide for rules violations during the Mike DuBose era, which included that '99 title. Bama fans also experienced seasons of four, three, four, six, and six wins between 1997 and 2006.
Auburn's longest title drought: 19 seasons from 1964 through 1982
Until about 30 years ago, the Tigers didn't have a whole lot to growl about. Pat Dye led Auburn to all or part of four SEC titles between 1983 and 1989. Of course, his tenure ended with AU in the NCAA hoosegow. That spanking led to another lengthy championship drought of 14 seasons from 1990 through 2003.
Florida's longest title drought: 20 seasons from 1964 through 1983
The Gators didn't really get things rolling in the SEC until Charley Pell and Galen Hall worked a little magic in the 1980s. The trouble -- and this is becoming quite the theme -- was that that their particular brand of magic involved NCAA rules violations. If you remove Florida's 1984 title from shelf -- which the SEC did -- the Gators' drought stretched a whopping 27 seasons from 1964 through 1990. Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990 and promptly ran off what would have been six titles in seven years had he not inherited a 1990 squad on probation. Still, five league crowns in seven years changed America's view of the Florida program.
Georgia's longest title drought: 19 seasons from 1983 through 2001
The 1980s in Athens started with a running back named Herschel Walker, Belue-to-Scott and a national championship. They ended with a Vince Dooley stepping aside for Ray Goff. As Georgia declined through the '80s and '90s, Florida and Tennessee emerged as two of the strongest programs in college football, blocking the Bulldogs' path to the SEC Championship Game in their own backyard. Jim Donnan got the ball rolling in the right direction, but it was Mark Richt who finally won Georgia another SEC title in his second season with the Dawgs. UGA has won 10 or more games seven times in the 11 seasons since that '02 championship.
LSU's longest title drought: 15 seasons from 1971 through 1985
The Bayou Bengals are no strangers to struggles. A generation of high school prospects don't remember a time pre-Les Miles and pre-Nick Saban, but Tiger fans do. From '71 through '85, LSU won eight or more games eight times, but the brass ring eluded them. And after a two-crowns-in-three-years stretch from 1986 through 1988, the Tigers really hit the skids. Between 1989 and 2000 there were zero conference championships and seasons featuring four, five, five, two, five, four, four and three wins. Under Saban and Miles that's all changed. The past 13 years have been a golden age for LSU with four SEC titles and nine seasons of 10 or more wins since 2001.
Tennessee's longest title drought: 15 seasons from 1970 through 1984 and 1999 through 2013
No offense to the folks on Rocky Top, but it's very likely -- OK, it's pretty much a sure thing -- UT will set a new personal level of futility this fall by stretching its drought to 16 seasons. From 1985 through 1998, Tennessee collected all or parts of five different SEC titles. That includes back-to-back championships in 1989-90 and 1997-98. The Volunteers' struggles of late have led many to forget that it was actually Tennessee that last recorded back-to-back December victories in the Georgia Dome.
The point, of course, is that for just about all of the SEC's "Big Six" programs, the sport of football is cyclical. All rise. All fall. And a few have risen using unscrupulous means. (A jokester might say in one case at least, an "Albert Means.") That's one reason the SEC has gotten things right in terms of protecting those controversial permanent cross-divisional rivalries. Tennessee has been cannon fodder for Alabama in recent seasons. But before Bama's current seven-year run over the Vols, it was UT that claimed 10 of 12 games against the Red Elephants. For all of Florida's might, the Gators have lost five or more games in six of the last 12 years. LSU will stumble into a another lull at some point. Ditto Auburn -- which went from national champs to national chumps and almost back to national champs in a four year span. Georgia fans are already wondering why Richt hasn't brought them a title in eight seasons.
Up. Down. That's the nature of SEC football. Even for the six programs that have done the most winning over the past 50 years.