1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

Anyone holding out now is doing so because of what was. Meanwhile, I’ll stay in the world of what is.

Kirby Smart is the best coach in college football, and therefore, the SEC (or maybe that’s the other way around).

And this, of course, means You Know Who is No.2.

A year ago, there were interesting (and I use that term loosely) responses when I first had the audacity to say Smart was a better coach than Nick Saban. He had caught Saban, and passed him — and frankly, was a major factor in Saban’s rise at Alabama in the first place.

Now here we are again, another annual ranking of the most competitive, fiery coaches in all of college football — where nobody really wins. The 2 at the top are in their own mini war, while the the 12 below are figuring out how to stay afloat in an ever-changing college football landscape.

And Texas and Oklahoma want to join this demolition derby?

They’re all chasing Kirby Smart, anyway. Even You Know Who.

On with this year’s ranking, heading into next week’s SEC spring meetings in Destin.

2. The championship level

1. Kirby Smart, Georgia (No. 1 in 2022): We have to start looking beyond the back-to-back national titles and the recruiting dominance.

If his secondary doesn’t blow a coverage in the 2017 Playoff national championship against Alabama, Smart could have 3 national titles in 7 seasons. Georgia has won 17 straight games, and 33 of 34.

The Bulldogs are on the verge of accomplishing what no other team in the modern history of the sport has done: win 3 straight national titles. The last program to do it was Minnesota in the 1940s, about a decade after the SEC was formed in 1933 — when Tulane, Sewanee and Georgia Tech were original members.

It’s recruiting (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 1st and 2nd rankings in the past 5 classes per 247Sports composite), and development (48 NFL Draft picks, 12 in the 1st round) over the same time.

Nick Saban had a chance in 2013 to win 3 straight championships at Alabama, and then demanded 1 second back on the clock in the Iron Bowl. We all know how that ended. Maybe Smart, who was on the Alabama staff as the Tide’s DC and ace recruiter, learned from that season how to navigate the chase for 3.

2. Nick Saban, Alabama (No. 2 in 2022): Now, the counterpoint: Alabama has more wins than Georgia since 2017, and as many national titles (2).

Saban has a 4-1 record head-to-head with Smart since 2017. What else is there?

There’s 2 straight seasons of having the best player in college football (QB Bryce Young) and a loaded roster of the best combined recruiting classes over the past 5 seasons (according to 247Sports composite) — and a handful of impact transfer portal additions — and the Tide didn’t win the national title.

There’s the defense that once dominated college football in the 2010s that has now shifted to Georgia.

Look, it’s close. But here’s the key: It’s not as close as it was last year — and the gap between the 2 coaches is growing because Smart is developing players better than Saban.

You can complain about the Alabama defense, or that the offensive line isn’t as good as it once was, or that the receivers aren’t as dangerous and consistent as before. But that’s recruiting and developing.

There’s a disconnect somewhere.

3. Brian Kelly, LSU (No. 5 in 2022): I’ve said this over and over, and I’ll say it again: What did everyone think was going to happen when 1 of the best college coaches of the past 2 decades was given a job with every possible advantage?

Think about it this way: Kelly and Saban walked into similar situations at LSU (dysfunction, players transferring). Saban won 8 games his 1st season in 2000; Kelly won 10 and the West Division. And beat Saban.

Saban was at LSU when the SEC hadn’t begun to hit its stride. Kelly arrived with the SEC better and deeper than it has ever been.

Kelly will win a national title at LSU within his first 3 seasons, and maybe even this year. He’s young (61), in great shape, and loves to recruit. He’s going to be a load to deal with for a long time.

4. The long climb up

4. Josh Heupel, Tennessee (No. 10 in 2022): Offense and quarterback production has never been a question for Heupel.

Team building and recruiting elite defensive players were always the difference between a good coach and potential championship coach.

It’s turning at Tennessee, and Heupel has already declared this offseason that the Vols will have an elite defense. If they do — and if Heupel has QB Joe Milton playing at a high level (like every QB who has played for Heupel) — the Vols will beat Georgia and win the East Division if they can avoid another bizarre loss (see: South Carolina).

Not bad for taking over a program under NCAA investigation because the former coach and his wife were accused of paying players — and the Vols still weren’t winning games that mattered.

5. Mark Stoops, Kentucky (No. 3 in 2022): There were any number of reasons why Kentucky regressed in a season of high expectations.

It’s unfair to place all the blame on OC Rich Scangarello (since fired and replaced by the return of Liam Coen). A young offensive line struggled under 1st-year coach Zach Yenser, too.

Now it’s time for Stoops, who has done more with less than any other coach in the league, to recalibrate with Coen, NC State transfer QB Devin Leary and 2 elite WRs (Dane Key and Barion Brown). The Wildcats aren’t that far away from doing what Tennessee did in 2022: play games in November with the Playoff on the line.

6. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss (No. 6 in 2022): Rebels were 7-0 with 6 games to play in 2022, and couldn’t match 10 wins from 2021.

But losing 5-of-6 to finish the season is a bit deceiving. Ole Miss could have — and maybe should have — beaten Alabama and Mississippi State and gotten to 10 wins again.

Despite that, Kiffin still has 18 wins in the past 2 seasons at Ole Miss, and with a handful of made plays in 2022, would’ve given Ole Miss back-to-back 10-win seasons for only the 2nd time in school history.

His offenses are prolific and difficult to defend, and he’s developing elite players on that side of the ball.

7. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M (No. 4 in 2022): That national title at Florida State is a decade away, but the heavyweight recruiting Fisher accomplished in Tallahassee is still rolling strong in College Station.

Nearly every coach/play-caller reaches the point in a long career where he realizes he can no longer do both jobs — and it’s affecting the results on the field. I‘m not sure Fisher thinks he’s there yet, but he hired Bob Petrino, anyway.

In a perfect world, Petrino does what Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian did for Saban: expands and develops the offense and moves on without (for the most part) disruption. In any other scenario, this odd marriage of 2 of the game’s biggest egos gets interesting.

8. Sam Pittman, Arkansas (No. 7 in 2022): Every possible quirky and strange thing that could happen to a program seemed to happen last year at Arkansas — all the way down to a game-winning field goal attempt hitting the top of the upright.

Pittman completely revamped the roster (more on that later), and a team that lost 4 games by a combined 9 points — that’s how close the Hogs were to 11 wins — recalibrates and takes another shot with a schedule that has 4 non-conference gimme putts.

9. Shane Beamer, South Carolina (No. 9 in 2022): It’s hard to argue with 15 wins in 2 seasons, especially after the way 2022 ended with top-10 wins over Tennessee and Clemson.

But now what? Are the Gamecocks any closer than 41 points to Georgia? And what happens with the trip to Knoxville and the Tennessee rematch?

Beamer deserves a ton of credit for those Tennessee and Clemson wins, for getting a team (and a quarterback) ready despite losing by 32 points at Florida a week earlier.

Now it’s time to back it up.

10. Hugh Freeze, Auburn (unranked in 2022): What Freeze accomplished at Ole Miss from 2012-16 should put everyone in the SEC on notice.

Those 39 wins in 5 seasons — 2 over Alabama and Saban — came with NCAA issues, but now it’s all legal with NIL deals. And Auburn is loaded.

Freeze has proven he can X and O with the best of the SEC. But can he build at a program that doesn’t exactly have patience — and can he recruit at an elite level when everyone else can hand out NIL cash, too?

4. Searching for answers

11. Billy Napier, Florida (No. 11 in 2022): At the end of the day, 1 question remains: How much patience does the notoriously impatient Florida fan base have?

Because if they’re willing to choke down a few lean years, the payoff can be rich. Recruiting won’t be a problem; Napier is among the elite at it, and the Florida administration finally realizes what it’s going to take to compete with Alabama and Georgia and LSU.

But remember this: Will Muschamp recruited better than anyone outside of Saban while at Florida but couldn’t get the quarterback position figured out despite blue-chip recruits (Jeff Driskell, Will Grier). Napier is hands on with the quarterbacks and calls the plays — and might need to give it up if the Graham Mertz experiment fails.

12. Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri (No. 13 in 2022): Wile Mizzou took a slight step back on the field, the administration doubled down.

Drinkwitz’s contract extension from November 2022 all but guarantees he’ll be around awhile. If Missouri were to fire him without cause after this season, it would owe him $20.4 million.

The stadium renovation, the new indoor practice facility, the NIL commitment, the contract extension. It’s all there for Drinkwitz.

All that’s left is to find a quarterback and win games that matter — beginning with the Week 3 game in Columbia against defending Big 12 champion Kansas State.

13. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt (No. 14 in 2022): Look, it’s a brutal job. Always has been, always will be.

Lea says the goal is to win a national title. What else is he supposed to say?

The Commodores beat Kentucky and Florida last year, opened a new football facility and have broken ground on stadium renovations. The administrative effort is there, can the product on the field match it?

14. Zach Arnett, Mississippi State (unranked in 2022): The late Mike Leach raved about Arnett’s organization and motivation, and his consistent approach to coaching.

Or as Leach always said, “if you’re not coaching it, you’re allowing it.”

Arnett made a quick decision to veer away from the pass-heavy offense under Leach, and wants Mississippi State to play with more physicality on the offensive line. That might take another recruiting class, and more additions from the transfer portal.

5. The Weekly 5

Five games that stress the Ole Miss under of 7.5:

1. At Georgia, Nov. 11: Comes at the end of a brutal 6-game stretch that includes games at Alabama, and against LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M.

2. LSU, Sept. 30: Tigers just started feeling it under Brian Kelly in last year’s game and won by 25.

3. Texas A&M, Nov. 4: Despite the 1-possession score in 2022, Ole Miss won rather comfortably.

4. At Mississippi State, Nov. 23: The annual white knuckle ride moves to Starkville. Ole Miss has had the better team all 3 games under Kiffin, and is 2-1 in the series.

5. At Tulane, Sept. 9: QB Michael Pratt turned down big NIL offers from multiple SEC teams to return to loaded Tulane, which won 12 games in 2022.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Georgia S Javon Bullard.

“At the end of the day, you want a guy on the back end that understands his role and plays it. I know that sounds basic, but his position in this league isn’t for freelancing. You know your deep zone, and you move to cover it. You know your run support, and you move quickly to get where you need to be and engage. He does it all with athleticism, and he can run better than most at safety. He attacks the ball in coverage, and the ball carrier in run support. Fun guy to watch play, because he plays smart and is never out of position — and he can bring it coming off the edge in those exotic Georgia fronts and pressures.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: most important month of the 2023 season.

1. Georgia: November (Missouri, Ole Miss, at Tennessee, at Georgia Tech). That Ole Miss (Nov. 11) and Tennessee (Nov 18) are back-to-back might help the Vols. They run similar tempo offenses, and Tennessee can glean whatever it can to put Georgia in a difficult position when it arrives in Knoxville.

2. LSU: November (at Alabama, Florida, Georgia State, Texas A&M). It begins with the rock fight against Alabama, and includes 2 potentially dangerous games. Florida will be difficult because it’s a week after the physical pounding with Alabama, and how good is talented Texas A&M (which beat LSU in 2022) if Petrino works his magic with talented QB Conner Weigman?

3. Alabama: October (at Texas A&M, Arkansas, Tennessee). Forget about the Nick vs. Jimbo nonsense, and understand Fisher may have found out how to handle his mentor. Beat him in 2021, and should’ve won in 2022. That game is followed by 2 roadies against 2 dangerous offenses.

4. Tennessee: October (Texas A&M, at Alabama, at Kentucky). Vols get a bye week to prepare for Texas A&M, but finish the month with back-to-back difficult road games. By mid-October, Alabama should have its quarterback situation figured out, and QB Devin Leary could have UK rolling.

5. Texas A&M: September (New Mexico, at Miami, UL-Monroe, Auburn, Arkansas at Arlington, Texas). Based on talent alone, the Aggies could be 5-0 after September — and what better way to kick off the heavy lifting of the back end of the schedule than by having 2 big SEC wins (and a big nonconference win) for Petrino and Weigman to feel good about?

6. Kentucky: October (at Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee). UK knows how to beat Florida (Cats have won 3-of-5), and that September win would cap a 5-0 month and set up and October with the 2 toughest games in the East Division. UK won’t win at Georgia, but can beat Tennessee at home (watch Devin Leary’s 2021 season in case there are questions).

7. Ole Miss: September (Mercer, at Tulane, Georgia Tech, at Alabama, LSU). Ole Miss has 31 new players (16 from the portal) and gets Mercer to begin the season before it gets real. Tulane beat USC in the Cotton Bowl last year, and Alabama — which Ole Miss could’ve beaten in 2022 — will still be transitioning with a new quarterback. LSU in Oxford is an advantage.

8. Arkansas: October (at Ole Miss, at Alabama, Mississippi State). September could end with back-to-back losses (at LSU, Texas A&M in Arlington), leaving October a critical salvage. Even if the Hogs can’t win at Alabama, beating Ole Miss and Mississippi State could pave the way for a 9-win season.

9. South Carolina: September (North Carolina in Charlotte, Furman, at Georgia, Mississippi Sate, at Tennessee). Which Spencer Rattler shows up? If it’s late November 2022 Rattler, South Carolina could get 4 wins. If it’s anything else, it could be 3 losses.

10. Mississippi State: September (SE Louisiana, Arizona, LSU, at South Carolina, Alabama). There are potholes everywhere in Arnett’s 1st season. Arizona will be vastly improved. LSU and Alabama are brutal for experienced SEC staffs, and the Bulldogs haven’t won at South Carolina since 1998.

11. Florida: September (at Utah*, McNeese, Tennessee, Charlotte, at Kentucky). Utah is Thursday Aug. 31, so it qualifies for September. Then there’s Tennessee and at Kentucky, and the potential of 2-3 for the month. UT and UK aren’t yet that far away in the East Division — and Florida needs to show it.

12. Auburn: October (at LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State). The get-right month. If September has 3 losses (at Cal, at Texas A&M, Georgia), Freeze desperately needs to make it up in October. LSU isn’t make or break, but Ole Miss and Mississippi State are.

13. Missouri: November (at Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, at Arkansas). Win a couple games you shouldn’t early (Kansas State, at Kentucky), and it builds momentum. Lose them, and it could be 0-for-November.

14. Vanderbilt: September (Alabama A&M, at Wake Forest, at UNLV, Kentucky, Missouri). A Week 0 win over Hawaii in August sets up the season goal of bowl eligibility. Then all it takes is winning out in the non-con schedule, and at least 1 SEC home win.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Can a complete roster overhaul like what Deion Sanders is doing at Colorado work in the SEC? — Kirk Franklin, Nashville.


There are a few SEC teams that, while they haven’t gone full-on Colorado (71 of the current 85 scholarship players are new), have certainly flipped a healthy percentage of their roster in 2022 and 2023.

At the top of the list is LSU, where Kelly arrived last year and his 1st complete class was 30 new players (15 high school, 15 portal). Year 2 for LSU under Kelly begins with 39 new players (25 high school, 15 portal).

In 2 seasons — not including players who left from the 1st class — Kelly turned over 69 spots on the roster. The how or why — or who left from the 1st class — is irrelevant. LSU in the past 2 years signed 69 new players.

One other key thing LSU has done in the past 2 years: become a legitimate threat to win the SEC.

Auburn under Freeze is — like most SEC teams — still recruiting the transfer portal, and will recruit graduate transfers (who didn’t have to be in the portal by April 30 to be eligible for 2023) until the 1st day of classes this fall.

Auburn currently has 40 new players on the roster, more than any other SEC team. That’s nearly half of the 85 scholarship limit. Arkansas is at 39.

It’s not Colorado, but don’t think SEC coaches aren’t reshaping their rosters.

9. Numbers

570. This should end any doubt of the change in offensive philosophy at Mississippi State: new MSU OC Kevin Barbay was the OC at App State in 2022, where his offense ran for 2,453 yards.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, rushed for 1,883 yards in the past 2 seasons under Leach’s pass-happy Air Raid offense — 570 yards less than what App State gained in 1 season.

While Barbay will still use Air Raid principles, his offense looks more like what former Baylor coach Art Briles did with Leach’s system — and what many others followed — by adding a downhill run element to it.

Last year, App State ran the ball 57% of the time (474 carries, 358 pass attempts), averaged 5.2 yards per carry and had 27 TDs. In the past 2 seasons, Mississippi State ran the ball 42% of the time (565 rushes, 1,338 passes attempted), averaged 3.3 yards per carry and scored 22 TDs.

10. Quote to note

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin on his deep quarterback room: “When people say ‘Well, why do you go add these guys when only one quarterback plays at a time?’ I say, ‘OK, well, do you like having really good pitchers on a baseball team? You’d like to have more than one.’”