Much as there is Alabama and then 13 other teams in the SEC (yes, Georgia is an exception, but the Bulldogs still have some hurdles to clear in the coming month), the ecosystem of Florida football captures the flaws and frailties of the conference better than any of the other 13 programs can. We'll certainly discuss several SEC teams in the latest edition of the Stock Exchange, but Florida will get the last -- and longest -- word.
Let's start in the West.
ALABAMA -- Will this team be tested? There's not a lot worth saying about this team until it faces a real challenge. We can all see (if we didn't already see it at the time) that the Texas A&M game was a cosmetic challenge, something which got a lot of people excited but was never terribly close in the second half. We're still waiting for the first true moment when this team faces anything close to an adverse situation.
LSU -- The Tigers get the next crack at the Crimson Tide. It is certainly admirable and important that Ed Orgeron did not allow this season to fall off a cliff, but a blowout loss to Bama, should it happen, will remind everyone at LSU that the larger purpose of firing Les Miles -- beating Nick Saban -- will be as remote and unrealistic as it ever has been this decade. That will be a cold splash of water after an October bounce-back. We shall see if LSU can force Alabama to play at a higher level in order to win.
OLE MISS and ARKANSAS -- Just when it seemed that Arkansas had become the worst team in the SEC West, the Rebels blew a 31-7 lead to the Razorbacks at home. This shouldn't change opinions of Bret Bielema; Arkansas fans need to be worried that it might, especially if the Hogs pick off an SEC West win against a better team in November. That might offer Jeff Long just enough of a reason to cite cost savings as a sufficient basis for retaining Bielema for one more year. Arkansas fans would intellectually understand that line of thought... and they likely would disagree with it to the fullest possible extent.
On a separate note, Ole Miss-Arkansas football games remain ridiculously nutty, wildly improbable, and supremely entertaining this century. The Rebels and Hogs continue to spit out insane plot twists each autumn. It is uncanny.
AUBURN -- Is this the team which humiliated Mississippi State and took a quick 20-0 lead at LSU, or is this the team which folded like a House of Cards (the Netflix series or 52 pieces of paper with numbers and symbols, take your pick)? We now get to find out in a November of truth for Gus Malzahn. This week's game against Texas A&M is scary in the sense that it is the LEAST challenging SEC game Auburn will play in November. A loss to Kevin Sumlin makes it imperative for Gus to beat either Georgia or Bama to save his job. Going 0-3 against A&M, UGA and Bama will get Gus fired. Of that, there can be no doubt. If he goes 1-2 and beats only A&M, playing UGA and Bama competitively could still save him. If Gus wants to be completely safe, he will go 2-1 against those three teams... which is the ultimate value of the A&M game for him.
Related: Auburn fans might secretly be happy if this month blows up in Malzahn's face. At the very least, they might prefer an 0-3 disaster to 1-2. A 3-0 mark would be their first preference, but an in-between result would give AU fans comparatively little satisfaction and return in exchange for Gus staying another season. Complete dominance or a complete reset of the program are the two best outcomes for Auburn.
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- While you try to figure out the Bulldogs, also realize that if Auburn does collapse in November, Dan Mullen's team could finish second in the SEC West, which would be an amazing achievement in spite of the SEC West's non-Alabama mediocrity. MSU did not handle early-season road games well at Georgia and Auburn. Mullen has undeniably made himself attractive to Florida, where he can reel in a lot more high-end players on a regular basis.
TEXAS A&M -- There can be no bigger indictment of Kevin Sumlin than this: In the past four seasons -- after Johnny Manziel left for the NFL -- Texas A&M has won a total of FOUR SEC home games, with the only SEC West home win coming against Mississippi State in 2015. Yes, the Arkansas game is never played at Kyle Field, but even then, the rarity with which A&M beats SEC West teams at home is simply staggering. Auburn has not been a great team since 2014, neither has LSU. Ole Miss was not good a year ago, and yet the Aggies lost to THAT Rebel roster.
Losing at home to Alabama is not the problem; Sumlin loses at home to everyone else in the SEC West. He gets one more bite at the apple against Auburn. If he loses, only a road sweep of Ole Miss and LSU later in November can save him.
MISSOURI -- The Tigers have improved over the course of the season. They might never become good under Barry Odom, but the job was way too much of a mess a few seasons ago to kick Odom -- just 40 years old -- out the door. He deserves a 2018 season to see if he can create improvements. Then we can discuss a potential change in CoMo.
KENTUCKY -- Okay, okay, we get it, Wildcats. You know how to beat mediocre or bad teams by very small margins at home. Tell us something we don't know.
VANDERBILT -- The Commodores aren't winning, but what makes their situation harder to stomach is that important players were either injured (running back Ralph Webb) or ejected for targeting (sack leader Charles Wright) in the loss to South Carolina. Derek Mason (and the people who sign his paycheck) would at least like to know that VU's full product is failing, but with extenuating circumstances, it's hard for everyone in Nashville to know where the program truly stands. One thing can't be denied: Vanderbilt always existed with a small margin for error. Good SEC programs have to have a Plan B when a few key components are lost. The Commodores have not fit that description at all.
SOUTH CAROLINA -- Beating Georgia is not likely, but the mere fact that the Gamecocks still have an outside chance in the SEC East at this point in the season is an achievement. On course for eight wins, Will Muschamp has exceeded many -- if not most -- expectations. South Carolina shouldn't expect to beat Georgia, but giving the Bulldogs a real fight would plant the right seeds for 2018, when the Dawgs will have a new-look team and lose a lot of starters from this year's group.
GEORGIA -- Kirby Smart's team can't overlook South Carolina -- and it probably won't -- but everyone is waiting for the Auburn-Georgia Tech-Alabama sequence which will define this team's season, and how the Dawgs are remembered. Georgia and Alabama are both teams whose stories are only beginning to be written in 2017.
TENNESSEE -- The events of the past week in Gainesville have forced UT athletic director John Currie to reconsider what is clearly a wait-and-see approach to Butch Jones. Whether it's right or wrong -- whether you feel it is the definition of practicality or insanity -- it seems clear that Currie does not believe in midseason firings. Many other people in his position would have axed Jones after the South Carolina OR Alabama OR Kentucky losses. Yet, Jones is still here. Many Tennessee fans are already fed up with Currie -- they want him gone. With the Florida job now open, though, Currie doesn't have the luxury of waiting until after Game 12 to fire Jones. The idea of waiting was reasonable, but now it becomes far less tenable. If Florida gets a highly attractive candidate and the Vols are left with table scraps, Currie will be a weakened, embattled AD before serving 12 months at his post. He has to reconsider his position.
And now, to the centerpiece of this week's Exchange:
FLORIDA -- The Gators are immersed in a very complicated internal situation, with a coach who wore out his welcome and a large bunch of suspended players. Florida faces on-field and off-field problems which spiraled out of control under Jim McElwain, a man who could not be held directly responsible for Will Grier's stupidity (which sabotaged a very promising 2015 season and indirectly shaped Mac's frustrating tenure in Gainesville), but who was also dumb enough to commit one of the great sins of SEC head coaches: Talk a big game and project arrogance before having the kinds of results which merited such arrogance.
Steve Spurrier immediately won big at Florida, so when he was combative with the press or with a rival coach, everyone ate it up and rightly saw the display as competitive cockiness, the sign of a man who knew that when he talked, he had already backed it up and could CONTINUE to back it up.
McElwain never backed it up.
The win-loss record was never great, but never horrible. It clearly did not merit firing after three seasons (or to be more precise, after two seasons and two months of a third). Attitude, internal politics, making his supervisors look good -- whatever label or word one prefers to apply, McElwain didn't demonstrate it often enough to remain employed. He was not a bad coach (not great, but not Will Muschamp in Gainesville), but he WAS a bad employee. So it goes... and so McElwain goes, out the door.
Florida represents so many of the tension points and failings -- and potential opportunities -- in the 2017 SEC.
The job is not for the faint of heart. Just look at how poorly Butch Jones has handled the pressure of being the coach in Knoxville. Look at how Bielema, with all that swagger from Wisconsin, has been exposed and cut to pieces in the SEC. Look at how Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn, once seen as rising stars in the business, have utterly failed to develop high-level consistency.
The SEC is a turmoil-filled place where coaches aren't finding answers. As the Les Miles-LSU saga showed, the felt need to beat Nick Saban has thrown programs and ADs into highly anxious states. Kirby Smart might become a home-run hire at Georgia, but for the most part, the recent years of SEC ball have shown that hiring someone unlike Saban is the better path to success. Poor Ole Miss -- it found the right anti-Saban solution, but Hugh Freeze had no sense of self-control.
Job turnover is a fact of life in SEC coaching, and Florida embodies that instability as well as (if not better than) any other non-Alabama SEC program. The Gators are different from most SEC schools in that they hired two iconic coaches in the past 28 years, but they are like the rest of the league in that they have suffered greatly when failing to nail their other hires.
Florida is like the rest of the SEC East in that the ability to find a high-level teacher of offense -- and molder of quarterbacks -- could give the Gators the ability to reside far above the competition for years... as was the case when they brought in Spurrier for the 1990 season. No SEC East program has an offense-first head coach or a star offensive coordinator. Eddie Gran of Kentucky might be the best offensive coordinator in the conference... which is more a commentary on the division than on him.
Florida, like the rest of the non-Bama SEC, is itching for a chance to stand out from the crowd and display a level of offense the SEC hasn't had since its 2013 season, when the offenses were ahead of the defenses and coordinators often got a lot more out of the quarterbacks at their disposal.
There were hopes that 2017 would unlock the talents of a promising QB class, but that hasn't happened. Georgia is not exactly suffering on offense, and coordinator Jim Chaney deserves credit for what he has done with Jake Fromm, but the Bulldogs' primacy in the East and on a national level is due more to a defense which has smothered the weak offenses in its path. Teams unable to hang with Georgia's defense put their own defense on the field far too often, and that war of attrition is something Kirby Smart knows how to win -- he made it happen at Alabama for many years under Saban.
Florida represents all the discontents and deficiencies of the current SEC, yet -- with a coaching vacancy now waiting to be filled -- has the chance to make an upward move and transform its situation. More SEC programs are likely to fire coaches by season's end -- Tennessee, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and the A&M-Auburn loser -- but one program's change of head coaches will make more news than the rest:
As Tim Russert said 17 years ago: "Florida, Florida, Florida."