It was jarring to see and difficult to absorb: The 13 teams other than Alabama in the 2016 SEC football standings all lost at least four regular-season games. One can immediately respond by saying that's a one-off event, extremely unlikely to recur anytime soon... and be fundamentally accurate. Yet, even coming close to that kind of 13-care pileup on another occasion in the near future would offer cause for concern.
The 2017 SEC season sits finely poised between two reasonable inclinations: the urge to resist panicking after one season, and the awareness that the past three seasons have been relatively underwhelming, 2016 merely being the worst of the three. Being cautious and being alarmed are both understandable, and 2017 might offer clarity... but not the kind SEC fans hope. It's a fascinating but unsettling time to be a SEC football fan. This year could usher in a revival for the conference, but it could just as easily affirm the downward trend which began in 2014.
In 2013, the SEC was pretty damn good. Both division champions were strong ones, at 7-1. Four teams won at least 11 games, five won at least 10. A talented Georgia team with Aaron Murray at quarterback finished at 8-5, outclassed and, at times, dealt rotten luck such as Auburn's "Miracle on the Plains" tipped catch.
This past season, the Big Ten became the first conference to put four teams in New Year's Six bowls: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In 2013, the SEC was hamstrung by the BCS in the system's final season. The BCS set a limit of two teams per conference, which meant that South Carolina and Missouri had to settle for non-BCS games, the Capital One and Cotton Bowls. (The Cotton was then a non-BCS game. The New Year's Six system revived and elevated it to top-tier status.) No one would argue: The SEC had four teams worthy of a New Year's Six bowl in 2013.
Then, in 2014, the music slowed down. Missouri remained strong for one more season. The Mississippi schools overachieved. However, Auburn and Gus Malzahn lost the magic at quarterback. Connor Shaw graduated and Steve Spurrier's age caught up with him on the recruiting trail in South Carolina. Georgia stagnated and Florida remained caught in transition. Johnny Manziel left Texas A&M. The Les Miles-Cam Cameron black hole in Baton Rouge swallowed up the LSU offense, as it continued to do for the remainders of those two doomed tenures. When Ole Miss and Mississippi State lost by a combined total of 54 points to non-blue-blood schools (TCU and Georgia Tech) in bowl games, the SEC's muscular identity lost a measure of traction on a national scale.
Then came 2015. Gary Pinkel stepped away at the end of the year, one in which Missouri fell off the map. The Mississippi State magic didn't last after 2014's departures. Bret Bielema could not turn around the Arkansas Razorbacks, and few coaches were able to engineer positive reversals of previous seasons or generate upward movements from stagnant situations.
The 2016 season was supposed to be the corrective occasion relative to 2014 and 2015. While Kentucky represented a very pleasant story and Vanderbilt made tangible progress, no non-Alabama school made any sort of national splash. The only reason Auburn got a Sugar Bowl bid is that the league secured a contractual tie-in with the New Year's Six. On merit, no 8-4 team should be found anywhere near an NY6 game, and yet the entire non-Bama membership of the SEC carried at least four losses into bowl season. It was that bad for SEC fans last year.
The temptation is to look at this carnage and assume that the corner won't be turned in 2017, but such a line of thought could prove to be premature.
Four people (more than others, at any rate) hold the reputation of the SEC in their hands this coming autumn:
Matt Canada, Jarrett Stidham, Jim McElwain, and Kirby Smart.
If Canada puts the pieces together for the LSU offense, Stidham gives Gus the QB he's long coveted at Auburn, McElwain develops his talent in Florida, and Smart proves worthy of Georgia's confidence in him, the SEC could get five 10-win teams much as it did in 2013, before the jukebox broke down and stopped playing the hits.
Should SEC fans be skeptical? It's a fair and relevant question, but the bigger point of emphasis is that so much about the league is unsettled and uncertain. LSU made a big move to address its problem. Auburn caught a huge break at just the right time. McElwain is searching for a breakthrough, but he has demonstrated a fundamental level of confidence. Smart is entering his second season, having not yet done anything -- good or bad -- to deserve a label or reputation of any kind as a head coach.
The canvas of the SEC is barren enough that anyone can write anything on it this fall.
Hold on a second -- the SEC faces urgent concerns, but that doesn't mean the league will fail to meet them in 2017.