When you look at the three programs that made a change at the top in the wake of the 2008 season, one thing leaps out: Despite the SEC's reputation as a defensive league, the quickest way to get fired last year was to have a bad offense. In two teams' cases, offenses that met in one of the worst football games ever played.
Yes, if "45-35" was the iconic score for the chaos in the Big XII South in 2008, then "3-2" was its parallel for the offensive impotence of all but the best teams in the SEC.
The participants in that slogfest, Auburn and Mississippi State, had struggled on offense for years. But this game was a new high. Auburn was 3-for-16 on third down, lost three fumbles and, of course, provided the Western Division Bulldogs their points by way of a safety. Mississippi State made sure those errors were relatively harmless, going a mind-boggling 0-for-14 on third down and rushing for 38 yards.
This was particularly troubling in Starkville. After all, Sylvester Croom was an offensive coach, right? But when was his vaunted offense going to show itself.
Whenever he fired coordinator and good friend Woody McCorvey, many Mississippi State fans insisted. The irony of Croom's situation was that he was apparently moving in that direction when he, as the story goes, made the decision to step aside himself.
His replacement candidate was, in one of those bizarre intersections of life, Al Borges. Borges, you might recall, was Auburn's play-caller from 2004 until 2007, when he was shown the door and head coach Tommy Tuberville brought in Tony Franklin.
Franklin was an odd choice for the job from the beginning. For all of Tuberville's reputation as a riverboat gambler, he's never gone for the kind of gimmicky offense that was Franklin's bread and butter. And Franklin was unconventional in more than just the design of his offense; he eschewed game-planning and, before coming to Auburn, sold his copyrighted offense to high schools and colleges.
Eventually, in frustration, Tuberville declared that Auburn was no longer running Franklin's spread offense, but was instead running the "Auburn offense." But no one seemed to know what it was, an identity crisis that produced more dismal numbers, Franklin's ouster and, eventually, the end of Tuberville's time on the Plains.
Tennessee's "Clawfense," brought in by new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson after David Cutcliffe left Rocky Top for the top job in Duke, was just as ill-fated as Franklin's experiment at Auburn. The ineptitude culminated in a 219-yard effort against Wyoming, a game the Vols lost, 13-7, shortly after Tennessee dismissed head coach Phil Fulmer or Fulmer resigned, depending on who's telling the story.
The question of Fulmer's responsibility Tennessee's greatness in the 1990s might forever be muddied by the episode. After Cutcliffe's first departure from Tennessee, for the head coaching job at Mississippi, Fulmer would never again win a national or SEC title. His first losing season at Tennessee, 2005, happened while Cutcliffe was coordinator at Notre Dame. His second was the year after Cutcliffe left for Duke.
In the end, though, Tennessee found an offensive identity in 2008 -- as a service academy. The Vols attempted just 17 passes combined in games at Vanderbilt and against Kentucky, completing 10, but rushed for 432 yards.
They won both games.