HOOVER, Ala. — One team has suffered two second-half collapses in as many seasons, the other is facing a plummet from the top of its division and an exodus of one administrator after another. In the SEC East, South Carolina is hardly the only program trying to set things straight after a difficult 2015.
If anything, there might be room for upward mobility for head coach Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks despite the challenge of upgrading a roster dotted with walk-ons last season. USC may be rebuilding, but Kentucky and Missouri have problems of their own — the former a chronic inability to finish, the latter a plunge from two-time SEC East champs into uncertainty.
“We’ve been very close,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “We’re tired of being close.”
The Wildcats’ 26-22 victory last season at Williams-Brice Stadium snapped a 22-game road losing streak dating back to 2009, and was a rare bright spot for a team that lost six of its last seven games. It was a season-ending belly-flop similar to one the year before, when an early-season run capped by a comeback win over USC was followed by an 0-6 finish.
“The reasons were the same,” said tailback Jojo Kemp, who ran wild in a 2014 victory over the Gamecocks that remains Stoops’ biggest victory in the Bluegrass State. “That comes from getting close and not being able to finish. That comes from maturity level, doing the little things right all the time, not just when someone’s looking.”
Kentucky, which hasn’t reached a bowl game since 2009, will open this season with its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, and a new starting quarterback after Drew Barker replaced Patrick Towles, who transferred to Boston College. That picture is downright rosy compared to the one at Missouri, which sank to 5-7 last season amid a spate of turnover on campus.
Head coach Gary Pinkel retired, part of a parade of departures which has also included the university’s chancellor, president, and now athletic director. Campus was gripped by racial tension. Shortly before new Mizzou head coach Barry Odom took to the stage Wednesday, news broke that AD Mack Rhoades was leaving for Baylor.
“I could definitely deal with not having to answer so many questions outside of Mizzou,” said senior linebacker Michael Scherer, who said he was asked about the situation on campus repeatedly last week at his brother’s wedding.
“It’s not really that big of a distraction. You do get that, ‘Here’s Mizzou with another deal. Mizzou in the news again.’ I’m sure there are people who are like, ‘Well, I thought we were out of the news, not anymore.’ But what are you going to do about it? I can’t do anything about it. You just have to move on like nothing’s wrong, nothing’s changed.”
The instability within the university and athletic department comes as Missouri is trying to rebound from a 2015 campaign that included a 1-7 mark in the SEC, a far cry from the consecutive SEC Championship Game appearances of the previous two seasons. The Tigers’ lone conference victory last season was a 24-10 triumph over South Carolina in Columbia, Mo.
“What’s tough is being at the top and then back down at the bottom,” Scherer said. “... You had two great, awesome, SEC East championship seasons, and then you go to last year and I think maybe some guys who were new to our program came in and thought, ‘We’re back-to-back SEC East champions. We walk in, we’re going to win another championship.’
“Well, they weren’t there when we had our first 5-7 season, and they didn’t see what happened between that season and the next season when we got our first SEC East championship. They’re seeing that now. They’re seeing, I can’t walk in the door and show up and go to the SEC Championship Game. This league is too hard. It’s not going to happen.”
Despite it all, Scherer doesn’t agree Missouri is in rebuilding mode. “I think we have a ton of talent,” he said. Between the Tigers, Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, the bottom of the SEC East appears a jumble with each of those programs looking to leave the others behind.
“We’ve done the work. We have the pieces in place. We will take the next step,” said Kentucky’s Stoops. After the collapses of the past two years, seniors like Kemp certainly hope so.
“Nobody wants that same feeling we had the year before,” he said, “and the previous year before that.”
— Steve Spurrier may be notably absent this week, but the former South Carolina head coach was remembered by Nick Saban when the Alabama coach took to the stage Wednesday morning.
“One thing that I will miss is, I’m usually up here responding to some barb from coach Spurrier, who ... is retired and probably playing a lot of golf,” Saban said. “We just wish he and Jerri the very best in the future. He’s made a tremendous impact on the game and I’m sure will continue to do that with his leadership and deeds and actions even though he’s not coaching.”
— Satellite camps did not get the best of reviews among SEC coaches. “Kind of a colossal pain in the back end,” said Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, who added that camps held at high schools often suffered due to inadequate facilities.
Stoops wasn’t a fan, either. “We have not gotten a lot of out of them,” he said. “We want to see players on our campus. Satellite camps are recruiting. Let’s not call them anything else. You want to evaluate and recruit. So we want those players on our campus.”
— Saban said Cam Robinson and Hootie Jones, two players arrested in May for gun and marijuana possession who ultimately were not prosecuted, are facing internal discipline. “They were not charged with anything,” he said. “I think the facts that we have are a little different than sort of were advertised.”
The arrests took place in Monroe, La., where both players are from. The Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate reported that Saban indicated to SEC Network host Paul Finebaum in an off-camera discussion that the police involved were LSU fans.