Momentum is a funny concept. How can something that can't be seen, can't be touched come and go so easily?
A year ago, Ole Miss signed the most-talked about recruiting class in the country, headlined by the nation's No. 1 player Robert Nkedmiche, five-star offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil and five-star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. The Rebels jumped from Rivals' 40th-ranked class in 2012, signed shortly after Hugh Freeze's arrival, to seventh. Ole Miss' 2014 class ranked 19th nationally.... and 10th in their own conference, one spot behind Kentucky. On the field, Ole Miss improved from 7-6 to 8-5 from 2012 to 2013, but its SEC record remained static at 3-5. The Rebels broke through with wins over Texas and LSU, but gave much of that progress back with an overtime loss to Mississippi State to close the regular season. Ole Miss actually lost a spot in the SEC West standings from year to year, falling from fifth in 2012 to sixth in 2013.
Speaking of sixth place in the SEC West, that brings us to Texas A&M. Almost impossibly, SEC media pegged the Aggies at sixth place heading into the 2014 season. After a debut season that exceeded every single expectation set before them, Texas A&M fell back to 9-4, 4-4 in the SEC, in 2013, good for fourth place in the SEC West. Not long removed from a Heisman Trophy, from a team that legitimately may have been college football's best over the second half of the 2012 season, from a preseason spotlight unlike anything we've ever seen in college football, A&M is picked one spot above the cellar in their own divison. And yet, the Aggies will likely start the upcoming season ranked among the top 25 nationally. Those ideas seemingly can't coexist, but here they are.
Combined, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are 35-17 over the past two seasons - 19-1 outside the SEC, and 16-16 inside of it.
This isn't to dispute the progress each coach has made. Ole Miss was the worst program in the conference upon Freeze's arrival. The Rebels were 1-15 in conference play in 2010 and 2011. Sumlin inherited a talented roster, but a program in a complete state of flux that hadn't competed for championships in more than a decade.
Neither school lacks top-end talent. Kevin Sumlin noted his Aggies had three first-round picks in May's NFL Draft - tied for the most in college football - and none after that. "Thursday night in New York was a great night," Sumlin said Tuesday. "Alabama and LSU had nine and eight guys drafted. That speaks to depth across the board. For us to be where we need to be, we need to have depth."
Freeze said Thursday that his program is ahead of even his own expectations. He's right. But even getting Ole Miss to its highest peak since the Johnny Vaught days guarantees the Rebels no better than fourth in their own division. Alabama and LSU aren't going anywhere, to say nothing of the Auburn program that blew the Rebels, Aggies and the rest of the conference by over the course of last season. In 2013, the year Ole Miss finished seventh nationally in recruiting, it still finished third in the West behind Alabama and LSU. This February, Texas A&M finished sixth nationally, but fourth in the SEC and third in the West.
The West has produced five straight SEC champions. With another SEC championship, the West will match an SEC record for most consecutive title game victories by one division. With two more wins, it sets a national record. By any measure, the top of the West is stronger than any division in any conference has ever been. And, of course, in talking about top of the West, we're truly talking about Alabama, LSU and Auburn.
In a league where everyone is well-paid, everyone's facilities are the best in the nation, where everyone expects to compete for championships, only a handful truly do. Nearly three-fourths of the SEC loses three conference games or more every season.
This isn't to say the positive momentum Ole Miss and Texas A&M has been wrong, or misplaced, or over-inflated. Each program has been a freight train over the past 24 months. Only, that freight train has only brought them to the middle of the pack.
"This league is as tough Sunday through Friday as it is on Saturday," said Sumlin. "Obviously the NFL believes that, because there's more guys drafted out of this league than any other league in the country."
The inevitable, yet uncomfortable, questions to ask are: What happens when that momentum stops? How often can Ole Miss and A&M reasonably expect to win the division? Can you realistically expect SEC fan bases plunging their entire reserves of resources to be okay with finishing fourth? And what happens to Freeze and Sumlin when they don't?
For a middle-class SEC program to have an honest conversation with itself regarding its own expectations, well, it would be the first. There's a clock ticking in everyone's heads, an expiration date to get to Atlanta or get somewhere else, in everyone's head, even if no one is willing to speak it out loud yet. To his credit, Sumlin admitted as much Tuesday. "Our expectations are not going to change," he said. "We don't have in this business, and you know this, we don't have time for a bunch of rebuilding years. There would be another guy standing up here real quick."
There's no question how far Freeze and Sumlin have brought their programs. There's also no question of how far they still have to go.