Coaching vacancies in SEC indirectly tied to Alabama's Nick Saban, if not directly
Because of what Nick Saban has done at Alabama, coaching in the SEC is a more difficult profession than it was a decade ago.
Yes, I understand that the Crimson Tide just lost to Auburn and won’t be representing the West in the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2013, but let’s not overreact. Saban is still running America’s premier program.
Prior to Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Arkansas had won the division twice in the previous five years. Even Mississippi State made an appearance in the conference title game — Wayne Madkin quarterbacked the Bulldogs, not Dak Prescott — in 1998. Five of the six teams in the West at the time had made a trek to Atlanta. Only Ole Miss hadn’t turned the trick.
However, since Saban re-established ‘Bama as the division bully in 2008, just three have made it to the league championship game.
The Tide, of course, have made six trips during that time. LSU has only done it once, in 2011, when the Bayou Bengals squeaked by Alabama in the regular season but were then blown out of the rematch in the BCS Championship Game about a month later.
With Auburn’s victory Saturday over the Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl, the Tigers are taking their third ride to Atlanta of the Saban era. In two of those three — including 2017 — the Tigers needed to upset ‘Bama on Thanksgiving weekend in order to prevent their most bitter in-state rival from winning yet another division crown.
That means Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, which joined the league in 2012, have zero West championships during the Saban regime.
Compare that to the East, where five of the seven institutions have been to the SEC title game on Saban’s watch: Florida (four times), Georgia (three), Missouri (two), South Carolina (one) and Tennessee (one). Only Kentucky and Vanderbilt have been absent.
Arkansas has won the division three times, the most recent coming in 2006 — perhaps not by coincidence, the year before Saban was hired. The Razorbacks had 10 wins that season under Houston Nutt and 21 in 2010-11 with Bobby Petrino steering the ship. But the Bret Bielema experience produced more lows than highs in Fayetteville, which led to his ouster Friday.
Ironically, Ole Miss and Mississippi State have been more relevant recently than most fans remember, but it’s not good enough in Saban’s world.
While the Rebels peaked in 2014-15 by topping the Tide twice in a row for the first time in history, they failed to finish. In 2014, they later lost to LSU, Auburn and Arkansas. In 2015, they fell to Florida and Arkansas again. Alabama still won the division.
The Bulldogs climbed to No. 1 in the country in 2014 — never had that happened before — on the dual-threat strength of the aforementioned Prescott, but they were outclassed when it was time to face the Crimson Tide. They actually lost three of their last four, so the first 10-win campaign in Starkville since 1999 ended with a thud.
Texas A&M made the mistake of shocking ‘Bama on its maiden voyage through the conference, which led to some unrealistic expectations.
Since the Aggies pulled off that miracle behind Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, the Tide are 5-0 in the series and have triumphed by an aggregate score of 209-98. That includes a 59-0 laugher in 2014, a year after Manziel departed.
As a result, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin appears to be on his way out of College Station. At the moment, he still has a job despite wrapping up the schedule 7-5 — including a 45-21 loss to LSU in the finale. Because he was essentially told by athletic director Scott Woodward that a fourth straight 8-5 performance wouldn’t be acceptable, Sumlin should freshen up his résumé.
If Bielema and Sumlin are both looking for employment soon, their status can largely be blamed on an inability to compete with Saban.
The same can be said of former LSU coach Les Miles, who won a ring in Baton Rouge in 2007 but was unceremoniously canned a month into the 2016 season. After some initial mano-a-mano success, he’d been beaten five straight by Saban.
It’s a similar situation at Tennessee. Even though the Volunteers reside in the watered-down East, they have the unfortunate pleasure of playing a crossover matchup with Alabama on an annual basis — it makes the job less attractive as a result — on The Third Saturday in October. Butch Jones, who was axed after Week 11, went 0-5 against Saban.
Getting back to Ole Miss, while Saban may be less responsible for that current vacancy, he did have something to do with it.
Matt Luke ran the Rebels this season as the interim coach because Hugh Freeze left in such spectacular fashion. Sure, Freeze looked like a genius with those wins over Saban, but he wasn’t able to carry that momentum all the way to Atlanta.
Even Florida’s current opening can be tied to Saban to some degree. Say what you will about Jim McElwain — a one-time Saban assistant, by the way — but he still directed the Gators to two division titles his first two seasons on the job in 2015-16. However, losing to the Crimson Tide both times by a total of 52 points proved how weak the East was.
In a year and change, we’ll see coaching turnover at Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee and probably Texas A&M.
That’s the Saban effect. The overwhelming majority of the time, these programs can’t handle him. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop the decision makers from churning and burning through quality coaches in an effort to join ‘Bama atop the pyramid.
Gus Malzahn just beat the Tide and did so convincingly, so Auburn goes to the league title game — another showdown with Georgia awaits — for the second time in five years with him on the sideline. But rumors have circled that he might take over for Bielema at Arkansas, where pressure to have Saban-like success isn’t so poisonous.
No, Alabama isn’t going to the SEC Championship Game this year. Saban continues to leave coaches in his wake, though.