Cracking the Big 6

BATON ROUGE, La. – It's the SEC, the conference they say cares too much about football.

So it should come as little surprise that of the five SEC members that did not qualify for a bowl game this season, four have fired their head coaches.

As big names Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas continue their coaching searches with phrases like "boatload of money" getting tossed around like it's the magic fix-all, it's worth noting that now might be the worst time for these schools to be looking for a coach.

That's because the programs they are chasing, the ones with built-in advantages that make it tough for the coach at any of the three open jobs to compete, are all at the height of their powers.

Take LSU, as an example.

The Tigers, under eighth-year coach Les Miles, reached 10 wins for the for the third straight season and the sixth time in eight seasons by going 10-2 in the regular season. Miles, with an 85-20 record at LSU that includes three SEC West titles, two SEC championships, two trips to the BCS championship game and one national championship, has the best winning percentage among coaches in LSU's modern era at .810.

LSU is the only big-time program in a state that produces the most NFL players per capita. Miles taps into this rich recruiting base, supplements it with regional talent and cherry-picks the occasional out-of-the-region national recruit to form a perennial national contender.

It's a formula that has worked at LSU since Nick Saban arrived in Baton Rouge in 2000. Before that, Louisiana prep stars such as Ed Reed and Reggie Wayne -- who both attended Miami (Fla.) -- were getting away from LSU's grasp, and a program such as Tennessee cherry-picked players such as Peyton Manning and Raynoch Thompson, both from New Orleans, to help build itself into one of the SEC's top programs in the 1990s.

Not any more.

LSU keeps the vast majority of top Louisiana players at home. With some notable exceptions, out-of-state programs that look for players in Louisiana likely will leave with players who aren't priorities on LSU's recruiting board.

Flush with cash, LSU has the budget to hire away coaches who bedeviled it in the past (like former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis) and to upgrade facilities to make top players want to come.

Miles has the LSU football machine running on all cylinders.

LSU is not alone in this in the SEC, which has in its footprint seven of the top eight states in per-capita production of NFL players, according to statistics from USA Football. The others are Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

With the exception of Mississippi, the smallest of the above states, the rest of the these hotbed states have SEC teams ranked in the BCS Top 10.

The SEC's hotbeds had six programs reach at least 10 regular-season wins this season, an unprecedented number for any conference.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia are 11-1, with Bama and Georgia playing Saturday in Atlanta for the SEC championship and the right to play for the national championship. Florida is a shoo-in for the Sugar Bowl.

Behind them, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M all finished 10-2.

The "Big Six" have a combined 63-9 record, and the nine losses have come against each other. It's by far the best combined record for those six programs in any one season.

Under Saban, Alabama is in contention for its third national title in four seasons. Mark Richt has led Georgia to back-to-back SEC East titles. Will Muschamp has Florida back as an elite national power while the coach who originally brought the Gators to those heights, Steve Spurrier, seems to have gotten South Carolina there, too.

At Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin brought the Aggies more success in their first year in the SEC then anyone expected, making College Station an attractive destination for Texans who want to compete in the SEC.

What does all this have to do with Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn?


Tennessee and Arkansas sit outside the SEC player-producing hotbeds. Tennessee is a solid player-producing state, but well behind the leaders. Auburn is in Alabama and sits near the state lines of Georgia and Florida. But its new coach will have to beat the newly red-hot Muschamp for recruits in North Florida, Richt in Georgia and, of course, Saban in Alabama.

The Big Six programs, meanwhile, each have classes among ESPN's Top 13 in the team rankings, and they might all fight to add players decommitted from Auburn's top 10 class.

The question now is, have those six programs built a fence around the nation's hotbeds? Or can Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee find coaches who can break through?