Reaching bowl benchmark has propelled some SEC programs, eluded others

HOOVER, Ala. -- It’s not that Steve Spurrier shouldn’t be proud of his 7-6 record last season. Considering the program he took over in Columbia, South Carolina, a decade ago, just reaching a bowl game should be considered an accomplishment.

The Head Ball Coach might have been incorrect in his assertion that he was the youngest coach in the SEC to win four consecutive bowl games, but so what? He proved his point.

But where he veered off track was when he brought Arkansas and Tennessee into it. He couldn’t help himself when he told his local media, "There are people in Knoxville and Fayetteville still doing cartwheels over going 7-6."

That, my friends, is trolling of the highest order.

But what Spurrier failed to take into account with that not-so-subtle jab was a little thing known as expectations.

Maybe he forgot what it was like to reach his first bowl game. Maybe he forgot what changed afterward.

It might seem like forever ago but before last season, Spurrier’s Gamecocks were tabbed as the East champ by the media. Tennessee, meanwhile, was picked to finish fourth in the division. In the West, Arkansas was expected to finish dead last.

So, yeah, Arkansas and Tennessee had every right to take a victory lap this offseason. If they hadn’t reached six wins and won their bowl games, they would be where Kentucky and Vanderbilt are right now -- which is nowhere promising at all.

If anything, those three programs illustrate just how important getting over the five-win hump can be.

"It’s amazing how one game can change a whole mindset," said Tennessee coach Butch Jones. "It can change everything. It’s big.

"Now we have evidence behind everything. Here’s tangible evidence."

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said he thought Spurrier’s comment "was more at the orange and white than the red and white," but he made his point in the very next breath.

"I don’t like 7-6, but it’s better than 3-9," he said, harkening back to the Hogs' record the year prior. "To get a bowl game, to get those practices, to have that notoriety and to beat Texas the way we did, you can’t buy that momentum and publicity."

Asked how he would feel if the Vols hadn’t played in bowl, linebacker Curt Maggitt said, "Now you’re talking about a totally different team."

Neither Arkansas nor Tennessee is thumping its chest about seven wins, but they aren’t apologizing for their records either. They will happily ride the wave of momentum through offseason workouts and on the recruiting trail.

Now the upstart Vols are considered the primary threat to unseat Georgia and Missouri in the East while Arkansas is a popular dark-horse pick to emerge from the hotly contested West.

Kentucky, meanwhile, is in no man’s land.

The Wildcats would have walked over hot coals to keep the momentum they established by starting out 5-1 last season. But they lost their final six games, including a heartbreaking 4-point loss at Louisville. Now, instead of being on the same victory parade as the Vols and Hogs, they’re the team no one is talking about.

"That’s the way it goes," said Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. "I certainly know the value in [reaching a bowl game]. If you look around, there’s a big difference. There’s a fine line with that. Every game is so critically important, certainly when you’re in our position or at Tennessee or anybody that’s building a program."

"It was tough missing out on that one win," Stoops said. "We were in a tough stretch. We were in a tough stretch physically and mentally, and our team, we weren’t as deep as we needed to be."

With former stars Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree now in NFL camps, the Wildcats’ depth will challenged again in 2015.

The goal, Jordan Swindle said, is still the same, though.

"Our goal is to get six wins, and from that keep winning more," said UK’s senior offensive tackle.

A bowl game, he said, would "change the culture" of the program.

At a place like South Carolina, that might not mean much. At Alabama or Georgia, it’s playoff or bust year in and year out.

But when you’ve been down for as long as some programs have, just having one more game on the schedule is everything.

Those extra practices. All that publicity. That feeling of momentum.

For some, it's enough to cause a celebration.