I had a moment the other day when it hit me. It always does this time of year, and even at age 31, I’m still baffled by the way that time works.

Next week is November.

How we got here, I’ll never know. I still walk outside and feel nothing but 85-degree weather on a daily basis, so fall is just something I see on Saturdays and when my friends back in the Midwest wear sweatshirts to the pumpkin patch. Still, it doesn’t change the reality that November is somehow here.

That means we essentially have 1 more month to figure out who will win SEC Coach of the Year.

Some things are worth noting in that discussion. One is that if we had decided this award in September, it would’ve been Sam Pittman vs. Mark Stoops without any real challengers. Another is that while any sort of “coach of the year” award often should be called the “coach who overachieves most” award, it’s a bit different in the SEC. Four of the past 5 years, the SEC Coach of the Year played for the national title. That included last year when Nick Saban took home the honor for the first time since 2016.

In other words, greatness is rewarded in the SEC. But there are also some fantastic candidates for the “coach who overachieves most” argument.

With November here, I believe the race is down to these 4 coaches:

1. Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Stoops is seemingly always a candidate for this award, but this year could potentially top the 2018 season, when he last claimed SEC Coach of the Year honors. Why? He led Kentucky to its first win against Florida in Lexington since 1986. How did he respond? By dismantling LSU to clinch the program’s first 6-0 start since 1950. Kentucky is 1 SEC win from producing its 2nd winning season in conference play in the past 4 decades.

It’s another elite defense that Stoops has with Josh Paschal playing at an All-American level, but offensively is actually where the defensive-minded head coach deserves a lot of credit.

He fired his long-time offensive coordinator and friend Eddie Gran to completely revamp the scheme with Liam Coen from the Los Angeles Rams. It’s not quite Ed Orgeron plucking no-name Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints, but there are similar vibes to how Coen came out of nowhere from the NFL and modernized the offense. Stoops deserves credit for that, as well as going out and getting Wan’Dale Robinson and Will Levis from the transfer portal.

The Wildcats are No. 12 in the SEC in 247sports talent composite rankings ahead of only Mizzou and Vandy. Even though there was some preseason buzz that they could finish No. 2 in the SEC East, it’s still a testament to Stoops’ ability to develop to have Kentucky at this stage with perhaps a New Year’s 6 bowl in play heading into the final month of the season.

2. Kirby Smart, Georgia

Remember that part in the intro where I said that 4 of the past 5 winners of the SEC Coach of the Year award went on to play for a national title that season? Well, Smart could very easily make it 5 out of 6. Sure, he has like 100 5-stars. But let’s think about what Smart doesn’t have. Or rather, who Smart doesn’t have.

It didn’t matter that George Pickens and Arik Gilbert haven’t played a down yet, or that JT Daniels and Darnell Washington have essentially only been out there for a couple of games. With Todd Monken, whom Smart hired last season to overhaul the offense, the Dawgs are blowing teams out with the likes of Stetson Bennett IV, Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey highlighting the passing game.

For all the heat that Smart has taken for his handling of quarterback situations, he turned to the backup everyone had written off, and the guy is averaging 12.1 yards per attempt.

And defensively, you have respected defensive minds like Mark Stoops saying Georgia has the best defensive front he’s ever seen. As a result, a group that lost 6 players from the 2020 secondary is No. 2 in FBS against the pass. Nobody has allowed fewer rushing touchdowns (1) and fewer passing touchdowns (3) than Georgia. We’re 7 games in and if you take away non-offensive touchdowns – UAB had a pick-6 — UGA’s defense is allowing 5.6 points per game.

You can say that Smart has more talent to work with than anybody, but it’s not a given that a team with UGA’s talent is this dominant. The Dawgs’ average margin of victory is +31.8, which is the best in FBS. All signs point to this being UGA’s best hope to end the 1980 jokes.

3. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss

I know Kiffin getting back atop the college football mountain is a fun thing to talk about, but think about it with this context. The guy took over a 4-win program that was relieved to finally be out of the woods with NCAA sanctions. When Kiffin arrived, Ole Miss was riding a streak of 4 consecutive seasons without a bowl berth.

In late-October of Kiffin’s second year in Oxford, he has:

  • A) The No. 7 offense in FBS
  • B) The No. 1 non-service academy rushing offense
  • C) The No. 2 player in the Heisman Trophy odds
  • D) The school’s first top-10 ranking since 2015
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

Kiffin didn’t necessarily overhaul the roster, either. Matt Corral, Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner and Braylon Sanders were all guys from the previous regime. But when Kiffin did dip into the transfer portal, he got impact players like Chance Campbell, Jake Springer and Otis Reese, all of whom have been integral pieces on an improved defense.

There’s a realistic scenario in which Ole Miss, which somehow started the season unranked, goes into bowl season 11-1 or 10-2. Kiffin would have a legitimate case for national coach of the year honors if he got to 11-1 with a roster that was No. 9 among SEC teams in 247sports talent composite.

4. Bryan Harsin, Auburn

Go back to that Georgia State game. The masses, myself included, were skewering Harsin. Harsin fired his receivers coach and his quarterback situation looked like a mess after a near-loss to a middle-of-the-pack Sun Belt team. What did Harsin do since then? He led the Tigers to their first win in Death Valley this century and also picked up a somewhat decisive road victory against a solid Arkansas squad.

(Yes, he also lost to Georgia. We’re not really faulting head coaches for that, are we? Harsin’s team also scored the first touchdown against UGA’s first-string defense this year, so that’s something.)

Bo Nix is playing the best football of his career, and the depth issues it appeared Auburn had at running back and receiver could be in the rearview mirror. The decision to go out and get Demetris Robertson from the transfer portal is proving to be a smart one, as is the move to get true freshman sensation Jarquez Hunter more meaningful reps in the offense.

Auburn has a legitimate chance to finish No. 2 in the West. Of course, much of that will depend on how it fares in these 4 West matchups in the last 5 weeks of the regular season, 3 of which are against top-15 teams. But I’d argue even an 8-4 regular season in Year 1 of the Harsin era would be a promising sign.

It’d probably take an Alabama win for Harsin to lock up the award, though with the way things have gone in 2021, I suppose we shouldn’t rule anything out.