Besides Dabo Swinney, these non-SEC coaches have had the most success vs. the SEC in the Playoff era

In the 7 years of the Playoff era, 50 FBS head coaches have earned the right to flex on the SEC. A total of 88 times in that 7-year stretch (2014-20), an FBS coach beat an SEC team. There are 34 coaches who did it once and 16 who did it multiple times.

I couldn’t tell you how many times they encouraged their fans to mockingly chant “S-E-C! S-E-C!”

I’ll save that discussion for another day.

What you already know is that Dabo Swinney has been pretty darn good against the SEC during that stretch. He is 12-4 vs. the SEC, which is more than twice as many wins as the next-closest FBS head coach. And actually, he has 4 times as many wins vs. the SEC as the next-closest active FBS head coach (sort of).

Swinney has wins against 4 SEC teams (Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and South Carolina) during the Playoff era. Believe it or not, there’s 1 other coach who can also claim that. Any guesses?

That’s right. Paul Johnson. He beat Georgia, Kentucky, MSU and Vandy. Granted, none of those had national championships on the line during his days at Georgia Tech, but it’s still impressive.

That leads to why you’re probably here, reader of this column. Besides Swinney, which non-SEC head coaches had the most wins against the SEC in the Playoff era?

Here’s that leaderboard:

  • 1. Dabo Swinney (Clemson), 12
  • T2. Paul Johnson* (Georgia Tech), 5
  • T2. Jimbo Fisher (Florida State), 5
  • 4. Bobby Petrino* (Louisville), 4
  • T5. Bob Stoops* (Oklahoma), 3
  • T5. Tom Herman* (Houston/Texas), 3
  • T5. Jeff Brohm (Western Kentucky/Purdue), 3
  • T5. Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), 3
  • T9. Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), 2
  • T9. Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern), 2
  • T9. Justin Wilcox (Cal), 2
  • T9. Justin Fuente (Memphis/Virginia Tech), 2
  • T9. Gary Patterson (TCU), 2
  • T9. Kalani Sitake (BYU), 2
  • T9. Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), 2
  • T9. Matt Rhule* (Baylor), 2
  • T17. 34 FBS coaches with 1

*Not an active FBS head coach

If your takeaway from that isn’t “oh, nobody is touching Dabo” then you’re looking at it wrong. For what it’s worth, even if you take away the 6 South Carolina wins, Swinney is still in that top spot by himself.

Johnson and Stoops are retired, Petrino is at FCS Missouri State and Fisher is obviously at A&M in Year 4 of a 10-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $75 million, so his opportunities to get a win vs. the SEC as a non-SEC coach are distant at best (and conceivably over).

That’s why if you’re looking at the active list after Swinney, it basically starts with Brohm and Kelly … at 3. And both could be bowl-dependent on that number growing because Purdue doesn’t play another SEC team in the regular season until 2029, and Notre Dame isn’t scheduled to face an SEC foe until 2024 when it takes a trip to Texas A&M.

The 2023 season will be Year 10 of the Playoff system, and this list (after Swinney) could be extremely similar to what it looks like now. That’s somewhat baffling.

It’s also baffling to think about some of the great coaches who didn’t even crack the “multiple wins vs. the SEC” group. Urban Meyer only got the 1 in the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Alabama, and Lincoln Riley’s first win vs. an SEC foe was this past season in the Cotton Bowl beatdown of Florida.

Then again, some of this is all about opportunity. Meyer only had 1 game against an SEC team during the Playoff era. Compare that to someone who also coached 5 years in the Playoff era like Johnson. He got 9 SEC matchups in that 5-year window, and to his credit, he went 5-4.

Kelly, on the other hand, gets criticized for never capitalizing on his SEC opportunities when really, his teams lost by an average of 8 points in those 3 games to Georgia and Alabama. He’s got a mark of 3-3 despite the fact that 5 of those 6 games vs. SEC competition were against Alabama, Georgia and LSU.

I’d consider that more impressive than Petrino, who beat a rebuilding Kentucky squad for 3 of his 4 SEC wins. It’s certainly more impressive than Brohm’s 3 wins, 2 of which came against Vandy and the other was a drubbing at Mizzou.

So if we’re excluding Fisher and the non-FBS head coaches right now, here’s what the list of wins vs. SEC teams in the Playoff era would really look like:

  • 1. Dabo Swinney (Clemson), 12
  • T2. Jeff Brohm (Western Kentucky/Purdue), 3
  • T2. Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), 3
  • T4. Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), 2
  • T4. Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern), 2
  • T4. Justin Wilcox (Cal), 2
  • T4. Justin Fuente (Memphis/Virginia Tech), 2
  • T4. Gary Patterson (TCU), 2
  • T4. Kalani Sitake (BYU), 2
  • T4. Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), 2

(Yes, I think it’s telling that Harbaugh is tied for 4th among the active FBS head coaches when you consider he’s just 2-3 vs. the SEC in the Playoff era).

The only guys of those non-Swinney coaches with a scheduled regular season matchup against an SEC team in the next 3 seasons is Wilcox at Cal, who will start a home-and-home with Auburn in 2023, and then Sitake at BYU. He actually might be the best bet to rise on this list with future matchups vs. Arkansas in 2022, at Arkansas and vs. Tennessee in 2023.

Other than that, it’ll be up to bowl games for those coaches to add more SEC wins to their résumés. At least in the near future. As we know, much can change in 3 years.

As for the “I did it once” group of 34 FBS head coaches, these are the most likely to rise:

  • Mike Norvell, Florida State (5 regular-season games vs. SEC in next 3 years)
  • Scott Satterfield, Louisville (4 regular-season games vs. SEC in next 3 years)
  • Chris Klieman, Kansas State (2 regular-season games vs. SEC in next 3 years)
  • Dave Clawson, Wake Forest (2 regular-season games vs. SEC in next 3 years)

It’s probably also worth noting that while Riley only has 1 upcoming regular season matchup vs. an SEC team in the next 3 years (vs. Georgia in 2023), he’ll inevitably get multiple cracks at the SEC in some more Playoff semifinal games. Riley’s 1-3 mark vs. the SEC still has plenty of room for improvement after finally getting on the board in 2020.

The only winless coach with multiple opportunities vs. SEC teams who really was a surprise was James Franklin. He lost bowl games to Georgia (2015) and Kentucky (2018) in his lone 2 chances to face his former conference.

It’s interesting because Franklin is the only SEC head coach in the last decade who left the SEC for another Power 5 job (without getting fired). And leaving Vandy for Penn State was hardly a lateral move. That shows why the SEC has established itself as a destination conference for players and coaches.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

View Comments

  • This is such a slanted article. A lot of Swinney's wins came against a "down" South Carolina program. 8 of his 12 wins were against unranked SEC opponents while Clemson was a top 25 team most often ranked in the top 5. While Swinney is a talented coach, he benefits from playing in a conference where the top talent has been down for years (Florida State) and the conference RPI is traditionally at or near the bottom of the Power 5 conferences. He is almost guaranteed a seat in the NCAA playoffs every year. Clemson has been in the playoff picture every year since 2016. Not even Alabama can make such a boast.

    • What exactly is an "up" South Carolina year at this point? He's got 12 Wins because USC basically hands him one every year. And since the playoffs inception Bama has only missed the cut once. So has Clemson.

      • South Carolina is 5-6 against Swinney since he took over the helm at Clemson. Auburn, however, is 1-4 during his tenure and Texas A&M is 0-2. Meanwhile, Kentucky is 0-1, LSU is 1-1, Georgia is 1-1, and Alabama is 2-2. I'd say South Carolina has held it's own overall, but let's not let facts get in the way.

        • If we're talking facts then you might want to check your numbers. It says he has 12 wins vs SEC and idk where you got your numbers but you gave him 17 SEC wins. For one I highly doubt he's played auburn 5 times as Clemson's HC.

        • As I stated, my numbers date back to the start of Swinney's tenure at Clemson in 2009. FYI . . . Clemson has played Auburn in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016, and 2017 . . . but don't take my word for it. Look it up yourself since you have high doubt.

        • What about the last 6 years? What's Dabo's record vs the SEC? Maybe, just maybe, he improved from year 1 vs year 6 as coach

        • Anyone can cherry pick stats to make an argument. Swinney's 5 game losing streak against South Carolina was conveniently omitted to make him look more dominant. The facts tell a different story. Swinney's winning percentage against SEC teams is 16-10 overall and not just the 12-4 record he's achieved after his 5th year of coaching. That's also the period when Clemson was regularly getting stomped by FSU.

    • Also bama has more cfp titles than Clemson, and that's going through the SEC. So yeah, if we're talking about what teams have to boast about..

      • I believe all of us real SEC fans dislike Clemp-son. They do play in the ACC(Always Cushy Conference) and rarely even break a sweat in trouncing their lowly competition in the ACC. Meanwhile in the SEC we face much better competition every conference game. The SEC season wears even good teams down, while those Clemp-son teams walk into the Playoffs rested. *It was wonderful to see the Ohio State Buckeyes teach them a lesson last year...a beautiful game to behold. And yes the Cocks are a guaranteed win vs. a SEC team every year.

        • South Carolina beat Clemson and Swinney during his first 5 years as head coach....but let's not let that get in the way of this article.

        • That would be affirmative. The Muschamp era has been a dark page in SC history. It will take some time to overcome Clemson's hold on in-state recruits. Their success, much like Alabama, has led to national recruiting as well. We will definitely need help from the ACC conference which has done nothing to slow Clemson down.

    • The article 1) addresses the wins over USC 2) Clearly states it is focusing on the playoff era

      It isn't complicated.

    • Don't forget the SECe is usually ranked below the ACC. If you can't win the East you aren't winning the ACC

  • One reasonable take from this article might be that the most successful coaches pursuing wins against SEC competition would be Dabo and Jimbo. I get it, but I'd still prefer to Gig 'em over whatever they do at Clempson.

  • This is definitely slanted. If Carolina had Clowney and played in the All.Advantage.Conference. then they would get the taters.

Published by
Connor O'Gara

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