Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee combined to lose 29 of 32 SEC games last season. Which explains why there are so many new faces at SEC Football Media Days.
The league’s four new head coaches — Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Tennessee’s Butch Jones — were introduced to the madness and massiveness of the SEC’s preseason media event Wednesday.
“Everyone asks me, ‘What’s it like to be in the SEC?’” Jones said. “The best analogy I can give you is that every day in the SEC is like fourth-and-1 for the national championship.”
The four coaches inherited teams far from championship caliber, though, as evidenced by last year’s SEC records — Auburn 0-8, Kentucky 0-8, Tennessee 1-7 and Arkansas 2-6.
The only SEC opponents any of those teams beat? Each other. Arkansas defeated Auburn and Kentucky. Tennessee defeated Kentucky. Suffice to say, the new coaches have their work cut out for them.
“I told our guys last year is last year,” Malzahn said. “When I first got there, we had to do some Dr. Phil-ing. There were some mental scars.”
Stoops found the same at Kentucky. “You felt like the guys were a little beat down, a little bit lacking some confidence,” he said.
The four coaches bring different resumes and styles to their new jobs and new league.
Bielema came from Big Ten champion Wisconsin, which he led to a 68-24 record in seven years and Rose Bowl berths in each of the past three seasons. His teams are known for stout running games and physical defenses — “a little bit of normal American football,” he called the style.
Jones, hired after Tennessee pursued at least two other candidates, bought a 50-27 record in six years as a head coach, three at Central Michigan (27-13) followed by three at Cincinnati (23-14). He is known as an innovative offensive coach.
Malzahn returned to Auburn, where he formerly was offensive coordinator, after going 9-3 and winning the Sun Belt Conference in one season as head coach at Arkansas State. Known for a high-scoring, no-huddle spread offense, Malzahn said, “Our goal is to play faster than anybody in college football.”
And Stoops, the only first-time head coach among the four, left the defensive coordinator position at Florida State to take over the Kentucky program. Like Jones and Malzahn, he wants an up-tempo offense.
Of the four coaches, Jones is most experienced at taking over new programs, Tennessee being his third head-coaching job.
“I think that’s why the transition has been so seamless,” Jones said. “We have relied upon those experiences that we gained in the other two places.”
Only one of the four, Malzahn, previously worked in the SEC as an assistant. He was Auburn’s offensive coordinator when the Tigers won the national championship in 2010.
“The No. 1 thing that our players have to do for us to be successful is get our edge back,” Malzahn said. “History shows if Auburn has their edge, they can compete for championships.”
When Malzahn arrived for his Media Days appearance, he was greeted by a throng of Auburn fans in the hotel lobby. “Coming off a year like we had last year, that says everything about them,” Malzahn said. “It was a special feeling for me to come through and see those guys.”
The other new coaches also were impressed by their introduction to the annual event.
Jones: “When the SEC does something … it’s a spectacle.”
Bielema: “It’s kind of been a whirlwind. I’ve had media days in my past, but nothing to the extent of today. … The thing that jumped out to me, I saw a stat that there were more credentials issued for this event than there were for the national championship game.”
The first question Stoops faced in his turn at the podium was about a 2-month-old comment from his brother, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who dismissed accounts of SEC football supremacy as “propaganda” because, he said, its seven consecutive national championships are offset by poor performances by teams in the bottom half of the league.
“I certainly understand Bob defending his conference,” Mark Stoops said. “… With that being said, I don’t think any of us need to defend what’s going on here in the SEC.”
It’s a fact, though, that the league’s lower-echelon teams were not competitive last season, resulting in the flurry of coaching changes. And none of the four teams under new coaches are expected to be picked highly when the media’s predictions for the 2013 season are announced Thursday.
“The lower the better,” Bielema said. “For those of you that want to, vote us lower. I mean that with all my heart. Then just sit back and watch.”