First things first: It's not as though Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Ole Miss don't embody the tensions, difficulties, and very narrow margins for error which exist in Southeastern Conference football.
To be sure, each school can claim -- in a unique way -- that its recent fate powerfully shows how difficult it is to remain prosperous in the SEC.
Tennessee hasn't reached the SEC Championship Game since 2007, harmed by a disastrous coaching hire... and Derek Dooley, too. (Lane Kiffin WAS a disastrous hire, for a very particular set of reasons.) The Vols have recruited well under Butch Jones, but Jones is showing that he's all hat and no cattle on Saturdays in the fall.
Georgia hasn't been to Atlanta in December since 2012. Whereas Tennessee has been groping for elusive solutions for 10 years, the Dawgs came ever so close to playing for national titles in 2007 and 2012 under a very good coach, Mark Richt... but narrowly fell short of their dreams and didn't sustain what they achieved the following seasons.
Auburn is that very unusual program with few other national comparisons. The Tigers hibernate for a number of years, then unfurl a top-three team which stays in the center of the national conversation on the day after the season's final game... and then go back to their lair for several more years of dormancy before snapping to life again. Auburn is conspicuous for its resplendent 2004, 2010, and 2013 seasons... and for doing very little before or after those towering years until a new awakening occurs.
Texas A&M had the first freshman Heisman Trophy winner in 2012... and then did absolutely nothing to build on it.
South Carolina won 11 games in three straight seasons... and never made a Bowl Championship Series game. The unique nature of the Gamecocks' predicament in the earlier part of the decade flows from the name on the front of the jersey. Had "South Carolina" instead read "Georgia" or "Alabama," there's no way the Gamecocks would have been kept outside the BCS candy store.
Ole Miss is the SEC program which knows how to beat or at least bother Nick Saban on an annual basis... and yet the Rebels STILL haven't won the SEC West since the division came into existence in 1992. That's really hard to do... and harder to fathom.
Yes, many different schools show -- in vivid relief -- how arduous life in the world of SEC football really is. Yet, while Alabama leads and everyone else follows, the two schools which put this dynamic into perspective better than the rest are Florida and LSU.
Florida has won back-to-back division championships. The Gators have played January bowl games in consecutive seasons. They have produced 50 NFL Draft selections since 2010, more than any other school this decade other than Alabama.
A feeling of restlessness pervades Gainesville, and what's more is that said restlessness is understandable, not irrational.
Who could have imagined that when Urban Meyer left?
It was hard to see the downfall of the SEC East when this decade began. Sure, Urban Meyer leaving Florida offered cause for concern, but Florida finds good coaches. The Gators -- ever since their 1990 awakening at the hands of Steve Spurrier -- have become impossible to ignore on a national level. Surely, the SEC East -- which remained robust and relatively healthy through 2013 -- was going to remain respectable... but it hasn't. Accordingly, the value of consecutive East titles doesn't mean for Florida what one once expected it to mean.
Florida offenses don't strike fear into opponents' hearts. The flood of NFL Draft selections hasn't translated into aesthetically pleasing teams, or teams which belong on the same field as Bama. Who could have thought that the Gators would outmaneuver Tennessee, UGA and South Carolina in consecutive seasons... and not feel (correctly, I might add) as though they came anywhere close to maxing out?
Then consider LSU.
While Auburn reveled in a feel-good 2013 carpet ride to the national title game, and Johnny Manziel had his moment in 2012, and Ole Miss beat Nick Saban in consecutive seasons, the non-Iron Bowl SEC West game which annually captures the national imagination is Alabama-LSU. Even though the Tigers had no offense and no permanent head coach last November, they gave the Tide one of their toughest tussles of the season. Alabama's toughest non-Ole Miss road game is at LSU... and this is despite the fact that the Bayou Bengals have struggled for several seasons, never regaining the heights they attained in 2011.
LSU, like Florida, has cranked out 50 NFL Draft picks this decade. The Tigers have not failed to bring in talent. Moreover, for some weird reason, very good wide receivers come to Baton Rouge despite the absence of quality offensive coordinators or polished passing games. That LSU can recruit so well and gain such national prominence yet still be shut out of championship achievements and events speaks to the brutal nature of the SEC.
A&M, Ole Miss, Auburn -- they are all more volatile than LSU. The Bayou Bengals, though, have walked through several empty seasons this decade.
Forget for a moment whether Florida and LSU will strike it rich in 2017. What they have endured in recent years is especially instructive in showing how merciless SEC football truly is.