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SEC WEST TESTED TRUTHS — WILL THE LAWS OF SEC PHYSICS CHANGE THIS YEAR?

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of college football is that the sport's various programs exhibit the qualities of fully-formed personalities. A program is an intangible thing. It is comprised of very tangible components, but the program itself is a movement, an effort, an aspiration. It is remarkable, then, that a program can maintain the same traits and tendencies, as though it owns a complete psychological profile. The program might "act out" at times, but it retains its basic habits and quirks.

As a new college football season approaches, it's worth exploring the notably durable "personality traits" of SEC programs -- not necessarily the most defining truths for each football school, but the ones with the most relevance for the 2017 campaign. Will these truths hold in the coming four months, or will a personality adjustment occur, for better or worse?

In this column, we offer the SEC West schools:

ALABAMA 

Don't push me around -- if you want to get past me, you need to learn how to fly.

No SEC program likes being shoved around, but Alabama has the well-earned (and deserved) reputation for not tolerating physical confrontations on the playground or anywhere else. Under The Bear, Gentleman Gene Stallings, or now under Nick Saban, Bama has been the most muscular SEC program around. Much as Steve Spurrier represented the perfect foil for Alabama in the 1990s, Clemson and Deshaun Watson thwarted Bama's defense last January in Tampa with a downfield passing game. The more things change, the more they stay the same: Teams (offenses) have to throw the pigskin over the top of the Crimson Tide's defense. Asking for 13-play, 80-yard, seven-minute touchdown drives -- a football coach's idea of ecstasy -- is simply not realistic against Alabama defenses, as it has been for nearly 60 years, not just the Nick Saban era.

Can any SEC team run the ball on Bama this year? Don't expect it.

Will SEC coordinators (looking at YOU, Chip Lindsey and Matt Canada) relentlessly pressure the Tide's secondary? They will likely need to.

AUBURN 

Wow, that was a bad night of sleep... wait, you mean four years have gone by? Time to make the national title game.

The Tigers aren't necessarily the most enigmatic program in the SEC, but their form of irregularity is the most potent and fascinating.

Since 1983, follow the progression of Auburn football. The Tigers have this uncanny knack for uncorking a huge season, followed by three to five comparatively dormant seasons, then another breakout smash, then the handful of years of slumber -- repeat, wash, rinse. What started under Pat Dye and continued under Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville is still in evidence today under Gus Malzahn. Given the arrival of Jarrett Stidham as a classic "missing piece to the puzzle," it is easy from a historian's point of view (not as a product of raw film evaluation or X-and-O analysis) to say that this is Auburn's year. The Tigers are 20 percent of Rip Van Winkle -- they don't sleep for 20 years, but four.

When they wake up, they reach the national title game (or come very close).

LSU

Just get the damn ball there -- I don't care how good it looks.

When surveying the much broader history of LSU football, ask yourself: Has LSU ever had a "pretty" passing game, one that looked aesthetically pleasing? Zach Mettenberger in 2013 probably rates as one example.

Anyone else?

Tommy Hodson? Not really.

Rohan Davey? Great competitor, but not the picture of fluidity.

JaMarcus Russell? In his best moments, yes, but those moments didn't last.

Matt Mauck and Matt Flynn? They were great "gamers," but not Rembrandts of the passing game.

LSU football is the truck driver who doesn't care about the way his food is presented. Just give him a big pile of meat and potatoes for a reasonable price and he'll have no complaints. The weakness found in that comparison: One needs to eat green vegetables for complete nutrition. LSU can ride an elite defense to a national title game every now and then, but the passing game needs the precision, the wholeness, the attention to detail it so often lacks. No SEC program has wasted more high-end talent at wide receiver in recent years than LSU, partly because of poor quarterback development and partly because the head coach and the offensive coordinator just didn't take it seriously enough.

Matt Canada was hired by Ed Orgeron to change that, but Orgeron himself will not offer (enough) meaningful input to help Canada. It's the coordinator's show. Canada will either become a rock star or leave Baton Rouge humiliated. There doesn't seem to be much room between those two scenarios. We'll see if 2017 begins to change the way LSU treats its passing game.

TEXAS A&M

Let's try it this way. No, maybe that way. Well, let's see. What about if we do it this other way?

The Aggies' head coaches over the past 63 years represent a study in contrasts. Texas A&M head coaching hires reflect the personality of an anxious housewife who can never settle on one style. She likes to try things on or arrange the furniture in one form or fashion for a few years, but she gets bored. She is restless and wants to do things differently. Sometimes, the need for a shakeup is appropriate, but the larger theme of restlessness endures and prevails.

That's A&M football over more than six decades.

Starting with Bear Bryant and The Junction Boys in 1954, A&M has pinballed and ping-ponged from old-school disciplinarian to hotshot brainy play caller. The personality lies not in one vision or view (akin to Alabama or LSU), but in the switches from one philosophy to something noticeably different.

The Bear and protege Gene Stallings coached at A&M in the 1950s (Bear) and into the early 1970s (Gentleman Gene), but then the Aggies hired Wishbone creator Emory Bellard to chart a new course. The program became an annual bowl program in the late 1970s (at a time, remember, when far fewer bowls existed). Bellard left for Mississippi State, and after the too-brief tenure of Tom Wilson, the Aggies hired another highly creative football mind: Jackie Sherrill, who had just won big at Pittsburgh with studs Hugh Green (defense) and Dan Marino (offense) leading the way. Sherrill's Aggie teams forced opposing defenses to account for so many possibilities. Sherrill coached the shoelaces out of Pat Dye and Auburn in the 1986 Cotton Bowl, and then did the same to Lou Holtz and Notre Dame in the 1988 Cotton Classic.

When Sherrill's tenure ran its course, however, A&M decided to go back to the Old Ways -- they worked, but they were different from the Sherrill blueprint. R.C. Slocum formed and sustained the Wrecking Crew defense, which dominated games and made the task for an A&M offense very simple: Don't screw up. Slocum did quite well at A&M in the 1990s, but fans did get tired of his 17th-century offense. When his tenure ran out of steam, A&M entered the 21st century wanting an offense that dazzled.

The Aggies have been chasing that tail ever since.

Dennis Franchione, Mike Sherman, and now Kevin Sumlin all represent the brainy strategists in the Jackie Sherrill vein. The focus here is not that the moves have failed, but that A&M has seemingly fallen in love with one mindset and is due for the course correction the program has demonstrated over the past 63 years. A&M never settles with one style too long. Given that Sumlin is on the hot seat, a larger understanding of history would suggest that if he falls flat and gets fired this November, the Aggies will pick a defense-first coach to counter the Saban Monster and the rest of the SEC West.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Let's have some fun, boys! Just enjoy the ride!

The championship-poor folks in Starkville, Mississippi, love their Bulldogs. In a sense, MSU football fans are pre-2016 Chicago Cub fans, waiting for their moment but not allowing title droughts to diminish their affection for their team. Mississippi State's uncomplicated history -- uncomplicated when viewed through the prism of results -- makes the program the happy-go-lucky fellow who maintains an authentically sunny optimism and zest for life despite living at or near the poverty line.

That's a very admirable trait. Time to enjoy more MSU football this season -- the team should be very fun to watch... and in keeping with the school's football history, should come nowhere near a division championship.

OLE MISS

What am I DOING with my life? I need to rethink everything!

Ole Miss -- in a post-Johnny Vaught context, it should be noted (during the Vaught years, the program was a tower of power and strength) -- offers the most distressing psychological profile of any current SEC West program.

Ole Miss is the hard-charging professional climber, the frenzied aspirational animal who wants to get to the top of the power structure, but who is so consumed with the climb that he forgets his wife and kids and any sense of life-work balance. (No, this is not a Hugh Freeze story, but the connection is eerie, is it not?) He gets burned out and, frustrated, thinks he has to totally overhaul everything about his existence.

This mid-life crisis doesn't happen once, though -- it keeps happening.

Before Hugh Freeze crashed and burned, Ole Miss saw fit to fire David Cutcliffe, despite his efforts to rebuild the program.

Ole Miss hired Ed Orgeron as Coach Cut's replacement. That's such an Ole Miss move.

The decision to hire Freeze was a good one. Freeze's coaching acumen can't be denied -- he gave Nick Saban more trouble than his brother coaches in the SEC West.

The "Ole Miss" aspect of Freeze's tenure wasn't the school's decision to hire him, but Freeze actually having his own mid-life crisis in spectacularly colorful and public fashion. Details are still emerging about how reckless he was.

Reckless is an accurate one-word psychological summation of Ole Miss since Vaught called it a career.

ARKANSAS

You know you can't resist me... but I need to go unless I can think of a better reason to stay.

The history of Arkansas football has become a national discussion point because of the death of iconic athletic director and Boss Hog Frank Broyles on August 14 at the age of 92. Broyles was a giant in college athletics and legitimately the most famous Razorback of all time. He built Arkansas football. He sustained Arkansas football. He made the athletic program profitable on a long-term basis by steering the school to the SEC in 1992. The Hogs will not starve for revenue because of Broyles' excellent stewardship and vision.

Broyles hired high-quality football coaches when he stepped down and focused solely on his job as athletic director. Lou Holtz was his first hire, Ken Hatfield the second. Jack Crowe was Broyles' mistake, but he then hired Danny Ford. The national championship coach at Clemson (1981) did not do well in the aggregate, but he led the school to its first SEC West title in 1995. Broyles then landed Houston Nutt, who -- for all the jokes he inspires today -- could coach quite well. Nutt was a Clint Stoerner fumble away from knocking off unbeaten Tennessee in 1998. That team was extremely good, as was the 1999 version. Arkansas won multiple SEC West titles and, in 2007, defeated LSU to seemingly knock the Bayou Bengals out of the national title chase... until all hell broke loose a week later, and LSU became the only two-loss national champion in recent college football memory.

Arkansas coaches have been high-energy leaders -- hugely flawed, but always authoritative personalities who fill the room when they enter it. The common thread has continued after Broyles. When he stepped down as athletic director in 2007, Jeff Long hired Bobby Petrino and later Bret Bielema. Those two men often look foolish, but they do not back down from a fight. Razorback coaches through the years share that basic trait, albeit in many different hues and shades.

Entering this season, Bielema is the latest charismatic coach at Arkansas to stand on the precipice of termination. His predecessors, for various reasons, did not last more than a decade, and only Nutt exceeded the seven-year mark among any UA head coach in the post-Broyles era.

If Bielema is to break the mold at Arkansas and become a coach who sticks around for a long time in Fayetteville, he will have to score at least one marquee win and avoid any bad losses this season. Another ordinary and depressing season will make it hard for the Razorbacks to endure another year of drift in 2018.

Bielema's charisma and stage presence can't take him any further. His coaching has to be great if he is to survive for another year.

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