Square foot for square foot, the toughest room in America is the one Southeastern Conference football coaches gather in at the Spring Meeting in Destin, Fla.
After the four new hires in the SEC, has that room become an even deeper snake pit than it was before?
You can make the case that all four new coaches will pay big winning dividends for their schools.
Bret Bielema brings a Big Ten toughness to Arkansas, a style that has worked exceptionally well for Les Miles and Nick Saban. Gus Malzahn is a familiar hand at Auburn, seemingly the best fit of all, and runs a trendy spread offense. In Butch Jones, Tennessee has snared one of the nation’s hottest up-and-comers. And even at Kentucky, Mark Stoops comes armed with a winning name (there are probably three footballs and a set of goalposts on the Stoops family crest) and a defensive sensibility that could serve the typically Mildcats well.
With Vanderbilt going to back-to-back bowls under James Franklin and at least a semblance of winning tradition at Missouri (remember, Mizzou was No. 1 in the nation the week before the final BCS standings came out in 2007), you can argue there are zero easy outs in the SEC anymore.
Is it possible that everyone is good?
As the highly quotable Smoke Laval used to say: Yeah, but no.
As Miles aptly described Tiger Stadium as the place where opponents’ dreams go to die. That’s the SEC as well. Just ask Georgia fans about that hole at the 5-yard line in the Georgia Dome where they buried their collective hearts last Saturday night.
In the SEC, you can multiply Tiger Stadium by 13 other chambers of horror. Everyone — even Vanderbilt, which kept Franklin away from jobs with more traditional powers by promising upgraded facilities — is paying coaches more and placing a greater premium on winning.
One day, unthinkable as it may have once been, it may be Vandy that picks its way through the land mines and makes it to the SEC Championship Game. And just as someone’s investment is going to pay off in flag-waving, song-inspiring success, someone else has to lose. And end badly.
Winning in the SEC has never truly been a birthright. It has had to be earned, often re-won and fought for, a shining city on the hill to be recaptured. That is even truer today, and will be in the seasons to come, with more programs willing to let fortunes ride on a shot at glory instead of accepting mediocrity.
LSU was once one of those schools. When I was growing up, eight wins was a good season. The Tigers won eight games and went to the Orange Bowl 30 years ago, and it was one for the scrapbook. Today if LSU wins eight games, you couldn’t clone enough Dr. Phils to deal with all the trauma.
Does LSU face a greater challenge to its preeminence in the SEC than it did just a couple of years ago? Certainly. In a 14-team conference with everyone seemingly committed to winning, getting those wins is going to be tougher. Chances are, 10-2 is going start looking like a really good record, the kind of record that may get you into the coming four-team BCS playoff quite often given the overall strength of the SEC.
Alabama is going to continue to be a clear and present danger for LSU. Texas A&M looks like a growing threat. Florida could be on the verge of being Florida again. Georgia has been consistently very good, if not stellar. And you have to expect bounceback in the future for Arkansas and Auburn and Tennessee.
There are two big advantages for LSU, though, similar to the ones enjoyed by Bama and Georgia and Florida. One, the Tigers sit atop a vast pool of talent. Two, since 2000 LSU has established the longest unbroken string of success in program history. Auburn and Arkansas and Tennessee have to reboot their programs. Playing catch-up will require more energy and expense than LSU requires to stay at or near the top.
And as for those programs with their exciting new hires, there’s also a good chance they could fall flat, too.
Bielema doesn’t seem like a good fit for the SEC, and recruiting at Arkansas, with a smaller in-state talent base, is much harder than at LSU or Florida.
Malzahn did call the plays for the greatest offensive season in Auburn history in 2010, but he also was the trigger man for an offense that often fell flat in 2011 without benefit of a generational talent like Cam Newton.
Jones looks like a good hire, but a lot of other good coaches turned Tennessee down, and his record hasn’t been overwhelming so far at Cincinnati and Central Michigan. And Kentucky frankly will probably always be Kentucky when it comes to football, unless there’s a second coming of Bear Bryant (think of the recruiting draw that would be).
Someone will win, but someone has to lose as well. And as the SEC grows more powerful, it also grows more volatile. So chances are, this time next year, we’ll be talking about the crop of new coaches and the challenges they will present to the old guard.