I was wrong about SEC football. I thought it couldn’t get any more competitive.
Never mind Alabama vs. Florida for the SEC championship. January has been more competitive than December in SEC football.
What is supposed to be the off-season has never been more “on.” It started with the hiring and firing of coaches and assistant coaches. It has continued with one of the most competitive recruiting season in the history of a conference famous for fierce recruiting battles.
And Tennessee is right in the middle of it.
So what if the Vols finished 5-7 last season. New coach Lane Kiffin has 12-0 confidence and the bankroll to back it up. If he can’t sell you, he can buy you.
He hired assistant coach David Reaves away from South Carolina and assistant coach Lance Thompson away from Alabama. Kiffin hasn’t won his first SEC game and he’s treating his rivals like farm teams. Or worse.
Less than a month after new Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen added Frank Wilson to his new staff, Kiffin swooped in and whisked Wilson off to Knoxville. Earth to Mullen: You’re not at Florida anymore.
But the ex-Raider isn’t the only guy raiding SEC staffs. After Alabama coach Nick Saban lost Thompson to UT, he promptly took it out on Auburn by hiring James Willis.
Willis wasn’t just an Auburn assistant coach. He was a former Auburn player. How do you wake up to “War Eagle” one day, and “Roll Tide,” the next? Spies have more loyalty.
“Be True to Your School” doesn’t play in the SEC. “Show me the money” does. There’s so much coaching traffic between schools, family members run into one another along the way.
Auburn hired defensive line coach Tracy Rocker away from Ole Miss, which countered by hiring former Auburn assistant coach Terry Price, who is Rocker’s first cousin.
Four Mississippi State coaches coached at other SEC schools last season. LSU coach Les Miles filled vacancies on his defensive staff by hiring secondary coach Ron Cooper from South Carolina and former UT defensive coordinator John Chavis.
Familiarity breeds competition in the SEC and it intensifies already intense rivalries.
Imagine how motivated Chavis will be when UT plays at LSU in 2010. Former UT assistant Trooper Taylor, who’s now at Auburn, also will have something to prove — on the field and the recruiting trail — after he couldn’t even get an interview with Kiffin. Gus Malzahn, the new offensive coordinator at Auburn, has a score to settle with Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who didn’t exactly embrace Malzahn after he was forced to hire him at Arkansas two years ago.
And you know new UT recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron will have it in for the Rebels, who fired him as coach two years ago.
Bottom line: The majority of SEC games will feature an underlying grudge match.
Recruiting battles already are going full-bore. Sure, that’s business as usual in the SEC. But the business now seems more urgent. And commitments seem more flimsy than ever.
Trent Richardson, a star running back from Pensacola, Fla., committed to Alabama last summer. Yet Florida coach Urban Meyer reportedly spent six hours at Richardson’s home on a recent recruiting trip.
Marsalis Teague has committed to Florida, but UT and Alabama aren’t backing off.
UT commitment David Oku is expected to take a visit to Auburn.
There’s also plenty of SEC in-fighting going on in pursuit of two of the nation’s top wide receivers, Marlon Brown of Memphis and Rueben Randle of Bastrop, La. UT, Georgia and Ole Miss are in contention for Brown. Randle is trying to decide between LSU and Alabama.
It’s no wonder recruits waffle back and forth between SEC schools. The guys recruiting them can’t decide, either.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-324-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.