- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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The stench of youth in certain areas of the SEC is palpable.
Depth issues have bogged down all Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee during the last two seasons and it’s a main reason for the combined 27-32 record from these teams in that span.
Ole Miss went from back-to-back Cotton Bowl winner to losing 10 straight conference games. Tennessee has been hurting ever since Lane Kiffin stepped on campus, but its recruiting woes began before Phil Fulmer was run out of town. And Florida went from winning two national championships in three seasons to stumbling through a tumultuous 2010 season.
Before the 2011 season, we expected improvement from all three teams, but right after the halfway point, they’re still marred in mediocrity.
It looked like Florida had all the talent to compete in the East, despite being under new leadership with coach Will Muschamp. Those stellar recruiting classes Urban Meyer brought in were supposed to be on full display. What we’ve seen is a group of youngsters getting worn down and lacking much big-play ability on offense.
Losing starting quarterback John Brantley was the first sign of depth trouble, as Florida tossed out two true freshmen to replace him and neither has done much with their time on the field.
It doesn’t help that Florida’s offense has had to work with an offensive line and skill players primarily made up of sophomores.
Defensively, the Gators sometimes field 11 underclassmen and there are almost no options for Florida after their starters in the front seven, making for a very tired bunch up front.
Overall, Florida has 68 combined freshmen and sophomores (walk-ons included) to just 33 upperclassmen. Attrition and graduation have ravaged the depth of this team in the last two years, leaving Muschamp with a young mess on his hands.
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt is enduring a similar storm in Oxford. There is a lot of young talent there, but the Rebels entered the season as one of the youngest teams in the league.
At one point, 16 players saw their first career start this season. Nutt brought in quite the 2011 recruiting class, which has been at the forefront of Ole Miss’ fight this season.
Against Arkansas, Ole Miss started four freshmen on offense, including two linemen, and two more on the defensive line. The Rebels put up a valiant effort, but eventually lost to the Hogs, dropping to 2-5 on the year. When asked what could help Ole Miss, Nutt said depth would be a great start.
“We're playing a lot of young people, and we don't have the word 'next,'” Nutt said. “We can't say 'Next,' especially when you lose a Wayne Dorsey and a Marcus Temple. That hurts. That's hard."
It has been really hard on the Rebels. Instead of relying on upper classmen, like he did in his first two years, Nutt has turned to his youngsters, which Ole Miss at the bottom of the SEC. Nutt can thank ugly attrition numbers and recruiting disappointments for that.
The issues for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley took place well before he arrived in Knoxville. Recruiting started to fall off under Fulmer and it tumbled off the shelf under Kiffin, as most of his first -- and only -- class didn’t make it to 2011.
Now, the Vols are having to field games with a gang of underclassmen. Their best players are their young players, which could make the future bright, but in the present, it isn’t working out too well.
Tennessee doesn’t have enough manpower to win SEC games, injuries have exploited depth issues on offense and defense and the special teams issues stem from the inability for the coaches to put their best athletes out there because they don’t want to tire them out.
There has been a lot of criticism surrounding Dooley this year, but look at what he’s working with. Inexperience runs rampant among the ones and the twos aren’t much to get excited about.
That’s what we are seeing at all three of these schools. There are spurts here and there, but at the end of the day, depth issues are holding these programs back and it’s going to take time for them to rebound.