The cutthroat sports talk radio view of coaches and teams is often expressed in the question, "What have you done for me lately?"
If one question sums up the 2017 SEC East, it's "What have you NOT done for me lately?"
Yes, even for you over there, Florida Gators.
It's striking how every program in this division -- with the possible exception of Kentucky -- is burdened with the realization that a poor or relatively disappointing 2017 season will lead to a very grim assessment of the future for each head coach. Optimism at each SEC East program will take a substantial hit.
Entering 2017, there is cause for optimism at a few schools, a "wait-and-see" attitude at a few others. If 2017 doesn't become what it is expected to be, however, coaches and programs could suffer a downturn in stature and support which will make their tenures untenable before too long.
Let's start with the one program which might be at least somewhat immune from this dynamic.
Mark Stoops saved his job at Kentucky when he reached a bowl game in the 11th contest of the 2016 season. Yet, had his Wildcats taken a 30-point beating from Louisville, everyone in and around the UK program would have absorbed the reality that the Cats barely snuck in the bowl-game door the way other programs (think Boston College) do: by winning cupcake non-conference games and doing just enough in the conference to reach the 6-6 mark.
Then something unexpected happened: Kentucky went into Louisville and defeated Lamar Jackson. The Wildcats upended the Heisman Trophy winner and knocked the Cardinals out of the Orange Bowl (and Florida State into it). Stoops had worked at Florida State, so he did former boss Jimbo Fisher a solid.
More importantly, he avoided the 6-6 purgatory of making a bowl game, but doing it without beating a single team with a winning record. When Kentucky beat Louisville, it reached 7-5 and defeated a team of consequence. For this reason, Stoops -- under fire at the end of September -- bought genuine leverage for his future.
It's not certain that any other SEC East coach has as much space as Stoops does.
Missouri probably comes the closest, if only because Barry Odom walked into a mess after the previous coach (Gary Pinkel) departed for a melange of reasons, all of them unrelated to his job performance. The folks in CoMo know Odom was handed a difficult assignment. To that extent, he has some leeway. Nevertheless, another miserable football season will deepen concerns that the remainder of this decade will never live up to its promise... or to a recent past in which Mizzou won consecutive East titles.
The other five programs in the SEC East are clearly in the territory of "What have you NOT done for me lately?"
Vanderbilt making a bowl is news, but with the program considering an upward move in terms of facilities (and hence, the fundraising needed to make it happen), the standards of performance must accordingly shift as well. Regression by Vanderbilt in 2017 will convey the idea -- whether fair or not -- that Derek Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig won't ever turn the corner. This would mean the possibility of a new stadium might demand a coaching change -- perhaps not after 2017, but to the point that 2018 will become a hot-seat season.
When contemplating the future of Vanderbilt football, one can't separate the Dores from their in-state neighbors, the Tennessee Vols. The main reason Butch Jones is still employed as UT's coach is that the University of Tennessee had open or transitional situations at two posts -- athletic director and chancellor -- when the 2016 season ended. A mediocre 2017 should spell certain doom for Jones's tenure.
What this means for Vanderbilt: 2017 might offer the last, best chance to vault past the Vols and into the upper tier of the East. If Mason can't pounce on this opportunity, his long-term window for growth could close.
South Carolina fell into the 6-6 tar pit last season, but it found what appears to be the kind of quarterback who can transform fortunes this year. Jake Bentley gave much-needed giddy-up to Will Muschamp's offense. Muschamp-coached teams usually fall into offensive black holes, so 2017 presents a dynamic in which Bentley can either elevate the program or succumb to the chess-match deficit Muschamp offenses often confront. If this road bends in the right direction, the Gamecocks will exult. If it bends in the wrong direction, Muschamp won't hear the end of it.
In Athens, the college football world has its eyes on one of the three or four most important coaching stories in the country. Kirby Smart represented a risky high-end hire at the University of Georgia. He has a lot of talent coming back in a second season at the helm. The potential for greatness and the possibility of failure are more pronounced at Georgia than at almost any other program in the country. We'll know so much more about Smart as a head coach after 2017. The wrong answers and revelations could have a disastrous effect on the Dawgs.
Finally, Florida -- despite two straight East titles -- is not where its fans want the program to be. The Gators of Spurrier and Meyer won SEC titles, not just division titles, and when they won division titles or finished second in the East, they gained BCS bowl bids (now New Year's Six invites).
As much as Jim McElwain has done well to win the East two years in a row, the kind of season Florida has produced in 2015 and 2016 won't cut it this year, and it won't cut it on a long-term basis. McElwain has been the best coach in a mediocre division. He needs to stand out more in comparison with the SEC West and other national powers. Merely modest or slight regression this season will cast shadows over his future as well.
Except for Kentucky, the SEC East labors under the burden not of replicating recent achievements, but of needing to do much better this season in order to sustain hope for the future. This coming autumn probably won't get any coach other than Jones fired, but it could certainly create several hot seats for 2018.