The SEC is the best conference in America, but the divisions have been a bit lopsided as of late.

Since the West is home to Alabama and its four national championships in the past seven years, the East has had a tough time holding serve. The last East team to win the league was Florida in 2008.

Three of the seven programs in the East are hitting the reset button in 2016 with a first-year head coach: Kirby Smart at Georgia, Barry Odom at Missouri and Will Muschamp at South Carolina. At least one must build a legit contender if the SEC is going to come back into balance again.

With Mark Richt, Gary Pinkel and Steve Spurrier all now elsewhere, Mark Stoops and Butch Jones are the longest-tenured coaches in the East — they’re only in Year 4. Hard to believe, but still true.

We’re right in the middle of an election cycle, so here are approval ratings for the East coaches.


Coach: Jim McElwain (2nd year)

Despite his only head-coaching experience being at Colorado State, McElwain knows life in the SEC.

With relatively meager expectations for Year 1, McElwain won the East division and earned a trip to the conference title game. The previous July at Media Days, the Gators were picked to finish fifth.

That being said, UF had to squeak by East Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic a year ago. When McElwain faced three powerhouses to close out the season — Florida State in Gainesville, Alabama in Atlanta and then Michigan in the Citrus Bowl — he was beaten up badly all three times.

But there was a lot more good and bad for the rookie coach. While McElwain’s first recruiting class was only 21st according to the composite rankings at 247Sports, his haul for 2016 moved up to 13th.

Not a lot of experts are picking Florida to repeat in the East. McElwain doesn’t mind in the least.

Approval rating: 85 percent


Coach: Kirby Smart (1st year)

Between the hedges, fans seemed to be very Jeckyll-and-Hyde when evaluating the now-departed Richt.

On the one hand, he was a shoe-in for double-digit wins most seasons and ran a pretty clean program more often than not. Conversely, he never broke through and turned the Dawgs into a genuine threat.

Apr 16, 2016; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart coaches during the second half of the spring game at Sanford Stadium. The Black team defeated the Red team 34-14. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Smart, a longtime Nick Saban disciple and a former defensive back at UGA, appears to be the perfect hire. While he got a lot of credit — both on the sideline and the recruiting trail — for helping the Crimson Tide develop a dynasty, deep down he bleeds red and black. He won’t settle for 10 wins.

However, if Smart goes with Greyson Lambert at QB over Jacob Eason, his poll numbers could plummet.

Approval rating: 75 percent


Coach: Mark Stoops (4th year)

Coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons, it’s time for Stoops to get over the hump and earn a bowl bid.

Speaking at Media Days last month, Stoops grew frustrated talking about his Wildcats’ inability to close out games in the fourth quarter. They suffered single-score defeats to Florida and Auburn at home, as well as to Vandy on the road. Winning just one of those would have made UK bowl-eligible.

Clearly, basketball comes first in Lexington — ask Ashley Judd. Stoops better make a splash soon.

Approval rating: 55 percent


Coach: Barry Odom (1st year)

Most first-year coaches know they have at least three or four years to put a plan in place and earn job security for the long term, but that’s not the case for Odom. With all the high-level turnover at Mizzou lately — including Mack Rhoades, the AD who hired him — he can’t feel very comfortable.

Fortunately, the Tigers aren’t starting from scratch. Odom, last year’s defensive coordinator, will do his best to build on what the retired Gary Pinkel started in Columbia. But he sure has some high hurdles to jump, including a shrinking student body resulting from all the recent strife on campus.

Approval rating: 60 percent

South Carolina

Coach: Will Muschamp (1st year)

If Spurrier no longer had the energy to pace the sideline, then Muschamp is the ideal replacement.

Sep 26, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive coordinator Will Muschamp on the sidelines during the first quarter at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody has ever doubted Coach Boom’s spirit, as he’s the subject of countless internet memes thanks to his combustible — OK, downright explosive — nature on game day. He’s also a strong recruiter, earning the nickname “Flipper” for his ability to get a kid to change his mind at the last minute.

The Gamecocks are drawn to big names (Spurrier, Lou Holtz). Muschamp fits the mold. But can he win?

Approval rating: 70 percent


Coach: Butch Jones (4th year)

Inheriting a mess in the wake of the Derek Dooley disaster, Jones has rescued a once-proud program.

After five wins in Year 1, seven in Year 2 and then nine in Year 3, the Volunteers appear to be the premier team in the East this season and, perhaps, ready to reclaim their spot as a national power.

It has to happen now, though. The rest of the division is in some stage of the rebuilding process. Jones has the most returning starters — nine on offense, eight on defense — and most experience in the East. If the Vols can’t get it done in 2016, you have to wonder if they’ll ever get it done.

More than any coach on this list, Jones’ numbers will spike or tumble based on this year’s results.

Approval rating: 80 percent


Coach: Derek Mason (3rd year)

A sharp dresser and smooth talker, Mason is a good face for an institution as prestigious as Vandy.

But even in Nashville, the game of football is about winning games. Nobody cares about graduation rates and off-the-field success stories if the Commodores can’t earn a bowl invitation.

Mason’s predecessor, James Franklin, was only around for three years — including back-to-back nine-win campaigns in 2012-13 — but went to three bowl games. He also beat in-state rival Tennessee twice. He turned his success into a bigger and better job at Penn State, where he’s been 7-6 twice.

Going from 3-9 in Year 1 to 4-8 in Year 2, that’s progress solely by definition. It’s not enough to get anyone’s attention. The East isn’t as deep as the West, so Mason needs to pull an upset or two.

Credit Mason for putting together an underrated defense. The offense is holding Vandy back, though.

Approval rating: 65 percent

John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.