First and 10: A stock report for every SEC coach
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We’re closing in on SEC Media Days, the unofficial beginning to the football season and my annual stock report of SEC coaches.
From blue chips to junk bonds and all in between, it’s time to break down those who are admittedly hired to be fired (with one notable exception, of course):
The blue chip
Nick Saban, Alabama: Of all the unthinkable success Saban has delivered to Alabama, his greatest gift can’t be quantified.
In a social media-driven, me-first culture, Saban has somehow figured a way to consistently sell “team.” The collective. United, not divided.
If you think that’s cheesy coachspeak, understand this: Season after season, elite recruiting class after elite recruiting class, Saban convinces each team that the gold on the top of the college football mountain earned the previous season was phenomenal.
But the gold up there this time is even better.
And players believe it.
When you get to the point where anything you say – no matter who large or small — is taken as something players believe will help them get to where they need to be, you’ve reached coaching nirvana.
Where almost one of every two seasons ends with a national title (6 in 14 years). Where three seasons ended with a loss in the national championship game — which means in 9 of Saban’s 14 seasons, the Tide have played for that gold on top of the mountain.
Saban’s Alabama teams are 11-3 in the College Football Playoff and BCS national championship games. They’re 66-17 vs. Associated Press ranked teams, 36-10 vs. the top 10 and 27-15 vs. the top 5.
Want to really see Saban’s dominance? Check out how each of his teams finished the season since 2009:
- 2009: National champions.
- 2010: 3-loss season.
- 2011: National champions.
- 2012: National champions.
- 2013: Lost to Auburn on Kick-6, lost chance to play for SEC/BCS title.
- 2014: Lost in CFP semifinals.
- 2015: National champions.
- 2016: Lost national championship game on last play of the game.
- 2017: National champions.
- 2018: Lost in national championship game.
- 2019: QB Tua Tagovailoa’s injury ends hope of rematch with LSU in CFP.
- 2020: National champions.
Saban has been so good for so long – in a much more demanding era than any other — any notion that he’s not the greatest coach in the sport’s history is laughable.
That’s right, even better than Bear Bryant. Frankly, by a long way.
Imagine if Saban had a 105-man scholarship limit (like Bryant) and could stow away elite players on his roster (like Bryant).
Bryant never worked with players who asked “why,” and never dealt with a BCS national championship game or a Playoff. And he sure as hell didn’t play in the golden era of the SEC, where rosters are built with 9 of the 14 teams consistently among the Top 25 in recruiting rankings – and where the transfer portal can be both beneficial and detrimental.
Saban is his own level in the annual SEC coaching stock report. Rest easy, SEC brethren.
There’s no coach in all of college football at Saban’s level.
2. Market drivers
They’re all over the board, up and down.
Trending up: Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
It took longer than most expected, but Fisher has turned the corner at Texas A&M because he’s recruiting at nearly the same level he did while at Florida State.
Those early years with the Noles included a cache of NFL picks that eventually led to a national championship in 2013 and a 29-game winning streak. That’s why Texas A&M sold its soul with a fully-guaranteed 10-year, $75 million deal.
A 9-1 record and an Orange Bowl win all sounds good until you look closer and see the heavy lifting still ahead.
The Aggies still lost by 28 to Alabama, and in 3 games under Fisher, have lost by a combined 69 points to the Tide.
The only way to get by Alabama is elite quarterback play. Fisher had a run at FSU where he churned out 3 straight first-round selections in the NFL draft (Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel, Jameis Winston).
It’s time to develop another (2021 projected starter Haynes King?), and move A&M closer to winning its first SEC title and first conference title of any kind since 1998.
Trending up: Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
Has always had the ability. He’s among the best play-callers in college football, and his ability to develop quarterbacks has been proven as an assistant coach and head coach.
The only thing holding back Kiffin: could he become more of a CEO coach, and eliminate self-inflicted distractions? The change began at FAU but showed out in Year 1 at Ole Miss.
Despite the limitations and natural distractions from COVID, Kiffin took a team that was dysfunctional by the end of the 2019 season and brought them all the way to an Outback Bowl win against top-10 Indiana.
The next step is dealing with expectations, pushing further with a talented quarterback (Matt Corral) and working more with the defense to find solutions (which he did in spring practice).
Think about this: His worst record as a Power 5 head coach was last season at Ole Miss – and the hope and hype hasn’t been this great in Oxford since Hugh Freeze won back-to-back games against Alabama in 2014-15.
Trending up: Dan Mullen, Florida
Even with all the problems off the field in 2020, and all the self-inflicted wounds on it, Mullen still had Florida within a touchdown of Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
In fact, had Florida not blown 3 critical defensive stops with penalties and a fumbled interception (all 3 led to Alabama scores) – in a defense-optional game of keep-away — the Gators would’ve won the SEC and more than likely advanced to the Playoff despite 2 regular-season losses.
Yet here we are: All the Gators have to show for a record season from the quarterback position and a historically bad season from the defense, is 4 losses and plenty of angst for what could’ve been.
But it’s the quarterback position that has Mullen’s stock rising. In 3 seasons at Florida, he has proven he can make elite players out of castoffs with Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask – who combined for a 98/24 TD to INT ratio and won 29 games.
Next up: QBs Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson, both former elite recruits whose dual-threat ability will add another dimension to Mullen’s offense.
If Mullen avoids the nonsense of last season (see: postgame antics, NCAA violations), he has the coaching chops to beat Saban.
Trending down: Ed Orgeron, LSU
Orgeron has made many smart moves at LSU. From realizing the mistake of hiring Matt Canada (a bad fit), and doing something about it, to taking a chance on a 20-something riser (Joe Brady) and making it work with a 60-something lifer (Steve Ensminger), to seeing potential in a transfer quarterback named Joe Burrow.
He’s back at square one this fall, rectifying a bad hire (DC Bo Pelini) and hiring another young OC (Jake Peetz) – and again with a big question at quarterback (Myles Brennan or Max Johnson).
Now, the problem: The margin for error has decreased despite the 2019 national title. A Title IX investigation at the university has led to some in and outside the campus bubble questioning his ability to lead a structured program.
There will have to be a monumental collapse (on and/or off the field) for LSU to force out a coach with a 29-9 record and a national title – and as important, a coach who has proven he can recruit among the best in the nation and can beat Saban.
Trending down: Kirby Smart, Georgia
It’s not easy finding flaws in a coach who has played for the SEC title in 3 of 5 seasons and is 44-9 over the past 4 years.
Georgia won the SEC in 2017, and was a blown coverage from potentially winning the national title that same season. No one outside of Alabama recruits better than Smart and his staff.
But in an age where quarterback is the be-all, end-all, Smart has struggled to manage the position.
Smart’s biggest move at the position was the easiest move: staying with freshman Jake Fromm in 2017 after injured starter Jacob Eason returned. The team was hot and playing well under Fromm, and there was no need to change.
Then 2018 happened. And 2019. And 2020.
Smart landed the No. 1 or No. 1A (depending on the recruiting service) quarterback in the nation in 2018, but couldn’t find a way to get Justin Fields in the lineup. He grew too attached to Fromm, who wasn’t elite but was good enough to get the Bulldogs to within that blown coverage of winning it all.
Instead of building an offense around Fields, he stuck with the pro-style, run-oriented offense that fit Fromm and led to Fields leaving Georgia for Ohio State at the end of the 2018 season. We all know what happened there.
That led to Smart playing Fromm again in 2019, and for the second straight season, Fromm didn’t improve – and the only reason Georgia won the East Division is because Florida, too, was dealing with quarterback issues/injuries.
Smart bungled 2020 again, choosing too late to play JT Daniels, who was coming off a year of rehab on a surgically repaired knee but was the most talented quarterback on the roster. All you need to know about the decision is after a nearly flawless performance in his first start against Mississippi State, Daniels was asked why he didn’t play sooner (specifically, in a loss to Florida).
Daniels responded by saying it was a coaching decision. He was physically ready to play.
Now Georgia has as much talent as Alabama, and has the more experienced (and maybe more talented) quarterback. Expectations to win it all are stronger than they’ve ever been in Athens.
Consolidation: Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Kentucky under Stoops is the ultimate consolidated stock: limited range and opportunity until another pattern emerges.
Hello, new pattern: OC Liam Coen.
For years, Stoops has done more with less at UK, piecemealing together solid seasons despite the inherent differences between UK and the SEC heavyweights.
In the era of quarterback rules all, UK nice had to resort to using a wide receiver at quarterback. And Stoops still won.
Coen’s offenses put up big numbers in the NCAA lower divisions and at his alma mater UMass.
Los Anglese Rams coach Sean McVay has raved about Coen and calls him “unique.”
For UK to get beyond overachieving and on to beating Georgia and Florida in games that matter, Coen must find and develop a quarterback. The sooner he can, the quicker Stoops moves upward from scraping .500 (49-50 career record), and closer to the highwater mark he created in Lexington (10 wins in 2018).
The potential is there. Can it be developed?
— Eliah Drinkwitz, Missouri
Another marvelous Year 1 job considering the potential pitfalls.
It wasn’t just COVID; it was also a wild ride through the coaching carousel that finished in Columbia.
Think about this progression for Drinkwitz: OC at NC State in December 2018, head coach at Appalachian State in December 2018, head coach at Missouri in December 2019.
In 12 months, Drinkwitz went from calling plays in the ACC for a few hundred thousand dollars and not a care in the world, to making $4 million a year as a head coach in the SEC.
Three months later – before he knew his players by sight — the pandemic began. Five wins last season (with a redshirt freshman quarterback who had 21 career attempts) might have been the best season since Gary Pinkel’s back-to-back East Division championships.
— Bryan Harsin, Auburn
Give Auburn president Jay Gogue credit: He did the unthinkable and went outside the Auburn family to get a head coach.
Like all Boise State head coaches, Harsin waited for the right job before jumping from the best situation in the Group of 5. Of the 3 Boise State coaches before him (Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins, Chris Petersen), only Petersen had consistent success when moving to a Power 5 school.
In 5 of 6 non-COVID seasons, Harsin’s Boise State teams won double-digit games. His offenses were among the best in college football, and he won 3 Mountain West Conference championships.
He has the coaching chops. But can he trade blows with Saban – or others in the loaded SEC West?
— Mike Leach, Mississippi State
Leach had success at Texas Tech and Washington State because what he was doing was unique.
Now everyone uses principles of his Air Raid offense, and it’s getting more difficult to consistently win unless you have rare players at skill positions.
QB Will Rogers played well at times as a true freshman last year, but the Bulldogs have to get better throwing vertically. The second season is typically when Leach’s quarterbacks make their biggest improvement.
Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell, Luke Falk. All multiyear starting quarterbacks, all got better in their second season.
Rogers better improve significantly because Leach has Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham waiting to play – and Leach has never been hesitant to change quarterbacks.
When the quarterback is a fit for Leach’s Air Raid, his teams can beat anyone.
— Sam Pittman, Arkansas
A revelation of a fallback choice. Pittman humbly describes himself as “an old O-line coach” – but he’s much more than that in a difficult job.
The expectation of winning and competing for championships hasn’t left Arkansas since it first played in the SEC Championship game in Year 3 of its conference affiliation.
Pittman has been an ace recruiter in the SEC at various stops and is doing the same in Fayetteville. He took a group of overachievers and snapped a 20-game SEC losing streak, won 3 games and lost 3 others by a combined 7 points.
Pittman’s two recruiting classes at Arkansas have been ranked 30th and 25th by 247sports. What happens when the Hogs start winning more than they lose?
4. High yield
Junk bonds: risk vs. reward.
— Shane Beamer, South Carolina
There’s value in not only name recognition (the son of Frank Beamer), but an assistant who has learned under some of the top coaches in the past 3 decades (Phil Fulmer, Steve Spurrier, Frank Beamer, Kirby Smart, Lincoln Riley) and made his bones as a recruiter.
— Josh Heupel, Tennessee
The Vols steered clear of a Tennessee and/or an SEC connection – and went straight for a coach who has proven he can score points.
The game is about offense, and Heupel’s teams at UCF averaged more than 40 points per game in his 3 years. They were 28-8, and but for an injury to QB McKenzie Milton, his first UCF team had an argument for the CFP.
— Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
Let’s be honest, it’s a crapshoot every time Vanderbilt hires a football coach.
The problem has always been the same: Vandy doesn’t take football seriously. Only now, with a new football facility taking shape and Lea a charismatic and energizing force, things are beginning to take shape.
There are still the inherent problems (the high school stadium, the uphill battle of recruiting, zero tradition), but Lea will take a big swing like everyone else before him.
5. The Weekly 5
The Weekly 5, plus 9 – and the overall coaching rankings:
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Florida DL Zachary Carter.
“He’s an intriguing player staring at a money season. He’s not unlike (Kadarius) Toney in that regard. A guy at the same school who really hadn’t done much, but showed flashes. What does he do now that he’s playing for NFL money? He has the size and has shown athleticism for such a big guy. He’s close to 300 (pounds) and could probably play anchor (end) at that size. He’s quick, but I’ve got to see more consistent effort. It’s just not there. What is he, a pass rusher? Not with those limited skills he has shown. Does he move inside? Is he big enough to hold the point of attack? But he has definitely shown an ability to create havoc. Let’s see him do it game after game.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: Top freshman of impact.
1. Georgia: CB Nyland Green.
2. Alabama: WR Agiye Hall.
3. Texas A&M: DL Shemar Turner.
4. Florida: CB Jason Marshall.
5. LSU: DT Maason Smith.
6. Ole Miss: DT Tywone Malone.
7. Auburn: DT Lee Hunter.
8. Missouri: DE Travion Ford.
9. Kentucky: WR Chauncey Magwood.
10. Arkansas: RB Raheim Sanders.
11. Mississippi State: WR Theodore Knox.
12. Tennessee: TE Julian Nixon.
13. South Carolina: WR O’Mega Blake.
14. Vanderbilt: CB John Howse.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’ve read your stuff for a few years now, and it’s clear that you’re a fan of NIL. Do you see any negatives? Sue Langston, St. Louis
Sue: You can always find a negative, and there will be a handful with this new frontier. Recruiting – more specifically, cheating in recruiting – is at the top of the list. There’s really no way to control it, and that was the biggest concern of nearly every administrator and coach. One overlooked problem: tiers in the locker room. Or as one SEC coach told me last week: “There are people and things I have no control over setting up a tier system in my locker room.”
Translation: players who sign NIL agreements and earn money are automatically on a separate tier from those who don’t. Will there be jealousy? Absolutely. Will it cause friction? Unquestionably. Coaches spend all season trying to keep everyone on the same level, pushing toward the same goal. Like it or not, that will be harder to preach (and manage) in the NIL world. And that will impact team chemistry, the one true foundation of championship teams.
14. For those still wondering why Tennessee hired Heupel: The Vols had 14 plays of 30-plus yards in 2020. Their 3 main rivals were among the top 22 in the nation: Florida (41 plays), Alabama (40), Georgia (29).
Tennessee has had less than 20 plays of 30-plus yards in each of the past 3 seasons. UCF had 34 (2020), 64 (2019) and 40 plays (2018) of 30-plus yards in Heupel’s 3 seasons.
10. Quote to note
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey to a U.S. Senate commission working on federal NIL legislation: “Knowing the competition within my 11 states, I can foresee quickly the other 10 one-upping each other. And I think that’s a problem for fair and equitable competition.”