Human beings have to take the bad with the good. Looking at the best moments for SEC programs this century can’t be fully appreciated without acknowledging the other side of life’s coin. Here are the worst defining moments for SEC East programs, the occasions which either left the biggest scars or represented the most profound missed opportunities, sometimes both.
KENTUCKY — Joker Phillips hits rock bottom in 2012
Rich Brooks built Kentucky from nothing. Joker Phillips steadily eroded that progress, and in a miserable 2-10 season in 2012, it was beyond clear that Kentucky played the wrong card with Joker.
MISSOURI — a non-SEC moment: losing the Big 12 title game to Oklahoma in 2007
Missouri wasn’t expected to do much in the SEC, so its failures don’t represent devastating occurrences freighted with emotional trauma for the locals in CoMo. The most scarring event for Mizzou football this century was the 2007 Big 12 Championship Game loss to Oklahoma. The Tigers were one win away from playing for the BCS national championship. Much like West Virginia on that very same night, a program outside the central power structure of college football had a supreme accomplishment within its grasp, the kind of moment which transforms legacies and careers. The Tigers, however, fell to an Oklahoma team which subsequently got blasted in the Fiesta Bowl… by the very West Virginia team which also failed to play its way into the national title game. Life is a circle — no one said it was a gentle or kind one.
VANDERBILT — the 2005 home loss to Kentucky
Before the Commodores finally got over the bowl hump in 2008 under Bobby Johnson and then improved in subsequent seasons under James Franklin, this 2005 loss to Kentucky represented the misery of VU football. Despite having Jay Cutler under center, the Dores couldn’t make a bowl game during his tenure at quarterback. Vanderbilt could have gotten there, but this loss to Big Blue slammed the door on those hopes. The Vanderbilt defense collapsed, allowing 21 points in the first quarter and 48 through three. Such was life for Vanderbilt football for many years.
SOUTH CAROLINA — the 2004 brawl against Clemson
The 2000 loss to Florida — in terms of a game result — was the most difficult outcome for the Gamecocks this century, but the most embarrassing, darkness-soaked moment was this complete loss of control against Clemson, emblematic of the frustration of never quite getting over the hump during Lou Holtz’s decent but not glorious reign in Columbia, S.C.
FLORIDA — Ron Zook
There wasn’t a single game or a single season which made Ron Zook unbearable. The whole era was one unending nightmare for a program which had just ascended to the highest heights under Steve Spurrier. Jeremy Foley rebounded by hiring Urban Meyer — maybe it was meant to be that way — but the Zook hire remains one of the great whiffs in coach-hiring history. Urban was so good at his job that the Gators didn’t take long to rebound from The Zooker.
TENNESSEE — Lane Kiffin
Derek Dooley was a bad coach, but Tennessee couldn’t expect to hire a better coach after Kiffin’s disastrous season in Knoxville. Kiffin wasn’t exactly a reformed choirboy at USC, but he had all the maturity of a preschooler when he coached the Vols. He always should have had to prove himself at a Group of Five school (which he is finally about to attempt at Florida Atlantic) before any athletic director hired him to run a prestigious program. One could say the Vols are STILL paying the price for that move, nearly a decade later.
GEORGIA — the end of the 2012 SEC Championship Game
Mark Richt’s game management played a role in this gut punch, but the act of catching a deflected ball is a natural and instinctive thing. That felled Georgia inside the Alabama 10 in the final seconds of an epic 2012 SEC title game which could have delivered the Dawgs a spot opposite Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. No loss carried more weight in the Richt era, and no plot twist felt like more of a curse from the fates. Many losses to Florida have sickened Georgia fans through the years, but this could have been a program-changing win for UGA. It was not to be.