Football programs acquire psychological profiles. It is one of the mind-bending yet utterly irresistible elements of college football. What follows is not necessarily a look at each SEC East program's most defining "psychological" feature. The focus is one the most notable characteristics in relation to the 2017 season.
I do this job because I have to and it pays the bills, but I'd rather do something else.
Kentucky football consistently performs as though every Wildcat knows UK is a basketball school. Sure, Rich Brooks revived the program for a little while. Hal Mumme and Tim Couch made life interesting. Many years ago, Bear Bryant won big in Lexington, but he didn't stick around. In 1977, the team went 10-1, unbeaten in the SEC... and could not play in a postseason game due to NCAA probation.
Some athletes don't even like sports -- they're simply very good at it and make a lot of money from it, but their passions lie elsewhere. Kentucky isn't that person. Big Blue would simply rather play a different sport.
Work hard, and maybe good things will eventually happen... just not great things.
The Tigers greet the 2017 season knowing they have an uphill battle to fight. Missouri football over the past 45 years -- following the luminous 1960s under Dan Devine -- has followed a pattern of needing several years to build toward a big moment, then achieving something good, but getting kicked in the teeth... and having to then start from scratch.
Missouri has been on the short end of a few memorable college football gut punches. Start with "Fifth Down" against eventual co-national champion Colorado in 1990, when the Buffaloes were mistakenly awarded a fifth play and were able to beat the Tigers as a result. Seven years later, in 1997, Nebraska receiver Matt Davison made a do-or-die catch off a pass which was inadvertently kicked to stun the Tigers.
Then came 2007. Missouri was within one win of playing for the national title, but the Tigers lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game. As punishment for that loss, Mizzou didn't even get a BCS bowl bid.
Similarly, in 2013, Missouri entered the SEC Championship Game with at least an outside shot at a spot in the BCS Championship Game, but after losing, the Tigers didn't even get a BCS bowl... again.
Missouri is not good on an annual basis, but the Tigers go through cycles of pain, work, rebuilding, and success... only to be treated poorly by the bowl system or a weird turn of events.
This season, Missouri is near the starting point of that cycle. It needs to make progress... and hope that if it becomes a strong program in 2021, college football might treat the Tigers more fairly. (Just don't bet on it.)
I'm afraid of flying.
The Commodores -- title-starved in the SEC at a level on par with Mississippi State -- are afraid of heights, in that they never climb too high, but the fear of flying is more specifically germane to this season.
When Vanderbilt had Jay Cutler -- the strongest-armed quarterback in program history -- the Dores still couldn't make a bowl game. A late-season loss to Kentucky sealed their fate. A win at Tennessee, while satisfying, didn't punch a ticket to a bowl; it merely salvaged a disappointing campaign by giving it a worthwhile achievement and memory.
At the end of the 2016 regular season, Vanderbilt's passing game clicked under quarterback Kyle Shurmur. The Commodores shredded Ole Miss and Tennessee to earn a bowl bid. Two points of caution: Ole Miss was and is dysfunctional, while Tennessee is coached by Butch Jones. Nevertheless, Vanderbilt still unleashed a dynamic offense with a potent passing game.
Can Vanderbilt fly this year? Can its passing attack flourish at a level it never has before? We'll see how "tested" this tested truth becomes in the next few months.
I have been so virtuous. I need to splurge and be bad for a little while!
The South Carolina Gamecocks, like rest of the SEC East underclass, rarely win conference championships, but a more particular insight into their history is that even when they do well, they lose a game they shouldn't. It's as though a wild child lurks inside the soul of South Carolina football.
Everyone knows this tendency existed even under Steve Spurrier, who achieved more than any previous South Carolina head coach. The 2011 team went 11-2, but it played terribly in a game it should have won at home against Auburn. The Gamecocks let that contest slip away, and the result was enough to exclude them from a BCS bowl. In 2013, the Tennessee game dripped through Spurrier's fingers. He got way too pass-happy with his second-half playsheet, going away from running back Mike Davis after first-half success. That loss to the Vols also knocked South Carolina out of a BCS bowl, even though the Gamecocks deserved at least one BCS ticket in those three special years for the program.
This is not just a Spurrier pattern, however. The 2000 team under Lou Holtz stormed to a 21-3 lead over Florida... and then fell apart in what was, up to that point, the biggest game of the Holtz era.
More (in)famously, the great 1984 team under coach Joe Morrison produced a 10-1 regular season but lost its one regular season game to a Navy team which finished 4-6-1 and won only two games against FBS (what were then called Division I-A) opponents. The Gamecocks entered that game ranked No. 2 in the country but looked like an FCS team in a 38-21 loss.
This year, South Carolina isn't expected to win 10 games, but the team is expected to improve upon its 2016 finish, when quarterback Jake Bentley announced himself as a source of immense hope for the future. South Carolina doesn't have to beat the big boys, but it can't let winnable games turn into losses. That's how the Will Muschamp era will fail to get off the ground.
The prodigal son
The Vols are resource-rich and result-poor under Butch Jones. For a program with one of the largest stadiums in the country with a passionate fan base, the period of time following Tee Martin's quarterback tenure in Knoxville has to rate as a disappointment. In the 21st century, the program has been far more erratic than it ought to be. The Vols never really recovered from a devastating loss in the 2001 SEC Championship Game to a man named Nick Saban and LSU. That psychological wound has remained in place.
Jones couldn't make use of a lot of weapons last year. Let's see if he can maximize a younger and less developed arsenal this year. Sometimes, coaches simply work better when they are forced to improvise more and coach with an element of desperation. Jones couldn't handle the heat of managing high-end talent last year. If he can assemble his resources in a better way this year, he might be able to hang on to his job.
I want to make the most money and gain a position of genuine power and influence... well HI THERE, pretty lady!
The Dawgs -- not without reason, I should add -- view themselves as high climbers, a program which ought to be at or very near the top of the heap in college football. The best years of the March Richt era (2002-2005, 2011-2012) and Vince Dooley (1976-1983) suggest that Georgia can be great and stay great. Yet, so many Georgia seasons start with supreme optimism and ambition, only to get sidetracked by a distraction, most commonly in the form of a dropped pass (ah, Terrence Edwards in the 2002 Cocktail Party against Florida), a missed field goal, or another clumsy mistake such as the inability to knock down the ball instead of tipping it on the Auburn touchdown which became known as "The Prayer in Jordan Hare" in 2013?
Here comes another season loaded with promise in Athens. Georgia fans know what late August feels like, but it has been awhile (2005) since they have crossed the SEC altar. Can the Dawgs marry the bride for once, instead of rekindling a high school crush with someone else on the night of the wedding rehearsal?
If it's not a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce, I'm not going to drive it to work.
The Gators in many ways own a history which is BS and AS -- Before Spurrier and After Spurrier. However, this decade after Urban Meyer's exit puts Florida in a weird in-between position. The talent and coaching are not on par with the Spurrier or Meyer teams. In a sense, this feels like a period of time in which Gator fans are anxiously waiting and hoping for that "new dawn," the time when the program busts through and becomes a big hitter. In this sense, one could make the argument that Florida is in a 1983 position under Charley Pell, on the cusp of being great but not yet crossing the threshold.
Jim McElwain has been very good, but he has not been great, and the fans in Gainesville are anxiously wondering if the very good coaching and very good talent will ever migrate to greatness. Not getting there -- because of the Spurrier and Meyer standard -- will rate as a disappointment.
It is very much worth mentioning that Florida fans got very impatient with Spurrier near the end of his tenure, when the national title game appearances ended and SEC titles became more rare. One can never know for sure, but those voices certainly did not discourage Spurrier from wanting to scratch his NFL itch with the Washington Redskins. Florida fans -- starved for ultimate success for so long -- drank it up so quickly that they refused to consider a life of upper-middle class comfort. They wanted to live the lifestyle of the filthy rich.
Among the best Spurrier and Meyer teams, only the 2006 Gators (under Meyer) lacked what one would reasonably call high-end talent. That team got by on guile, guts and determination, enabling quarterback Chris Leak to complete a highly improbable journey to the college football mountaintop. For the most part, Florida powerhouses -- the best UF teams when they surfaced -- have owned Cadillac talent and Cadillac coaching.
Can Jim McElwain show he is a Cadillac coach... or will Florida continue to remain very good and nothing more in 2017 and beyond?