Grading the SEC head coaches: Did anybody join Saban on the Principal's list?
All season long, coaches are in the business of player evaluation. Whether it’s recruiting or analyzing practices, coaches are putting others under the microscope. It’s time we return the favor. We look back at the 2016 regular season and give each coach a grade.
Coming into the season, Nick Saban was the gold standard of college head coaching. After another undefeated regular season, nothing has changed — except the manner in which he achieved it. Saban went with a true freshman quarterback and revamped the offense. He kept his team focused, motivated, and always looking at the next game. He’s not warm and fuzzy, but he is the best.
Tied for fifth place in the West and going 7-5 is probably about what most would have expected from Arkansas. But between losing to Mizzou to end the year and getting blown out four times, most notably a 53-point loss to Auburn, it feels like Bret Bielema underachieved a bit.
The beginning and ending of the season were rough, but the middle was fine. Auburn’s offense crushed bad competition and got crushed by good competition. Gus Malzahn has to get a steadier offense. If he does, the Tigers will challenge Alabama. If not, he’ll be unemployed in a couple years.
LSU: Miles D-, Orgeron B+
OK, no other way to do this. Les Miles completely failed to adapt his offense, had four ugly games, and lost his job. I thought the hammer fell too soon, but the ultimate decision is fairly hard to argue. Ed Orgeron took a fairly sloppy team and unified them, which meant instead of being about the eighth-best team in the SEC, LSU was more like the second- or third-best. I don’t particularly like him being hired as head coach, but he made his case well.
Mississippi State: B-
Wait, say all the Mississippi folk, both the Bulldogs and Rebels went 5-7. Yes, but hopes were much lower in Starkville, and Dan Mullen came much closer to delivering. Sure, the Bulldogs struggled, but they were 1-4 in one-score games. That is a testimony to having a young, rebuilding team. The year easily could have been a 7-5 season, and the long-term health of the program looks fine.
Ole Miss: D
NCAA issues plus a non-bowl season makes a pretty terrible year. In Hugh Freeze’s defense, he didn’t ask for his defense to spend most of the year banged up terribly. Against him, here’s the list of the Rebels’ wins this year: Wofford, Georgia Southern, Memphis, Georgia, Texas A&M. For a team with playoff aspirations, this was a train wreck.
Texas A&M: C-
There was a time when A&M was 6-0 and the game with Bama was the most anticipated game of the year to date. Losing to the Tide is no shame. But following that by losing to both Mississippi schools, sneaking in an ugly win over Texas-San Antonio, and then getting boat-raced by LSU is typical Kevin Sumlin fall football. If he doesn’t start winning in November, he won’t be around much longer for impressive September and October runs.
Sure, they won their second consecutive division title. But it’s hard to get too excited about a team that loses to Arkansas by 21 points, and blows a 21-3 halftime lead to Tennessee. Jim McElwain is supposed to be an offensive guru, but his blueprint of defense, defense and more defense isn’t endearing him to Gators fans. Florida was 8-0 when holding opponents to 14 points or less, and 0-3 when not. Even with a division title, the Gators don’t want to keep playing as the Gatrs (no “O”).
Kirby Smart had a fairly rough transition to head coaching. The good news is that he was 4-3 in one-score games. The bad news is that Georgia was chronically incapable of thumping bad teams, playing down to their competition all year. Georgia didn’t beat anybody by more than 14 all year — and that includes Nicholls State, Mizzou and Louisiana-Lafayette. Smart’s sophomore campaign will be important to gauge the momentum of his program.
After UK blew a 35-10 lead to Southern Miss and lost to Florida by 38 points, and lost QB Drew Barker for the season, Mark Stoops’ resume was due for a dusting-off. In one of the biggest surprises of the year, Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran re-invented Kentucky around dual-threat JUCO QB Stephen Johnson, and won seven games, including knocking off intrastate rival No. 11 Louisville to end the season. Stoops can’t make a poor start part of his routine, but his work once the bottom apparently fell out was deeply impressive.
The Tigers had been known as a defensive power, but under new coach Barry Odom, that identity was gone from Day 1. Mizzou passed the ball and to their eternal credit, didn’t quit down the stretch, with wins over Vandy and Arkansas in the season’s final three weeks. Odom seems to be a well-respected coach who had a difficult transition year, but he’s got to rally that defense — and soon.
South Carolina: B+
With USC looking completely punchless offensively at 2-4, Will Muschamp took the redshirt off QB Jake Bentley. In so doing, he reinvented his Gamecocks, who suddenly could score some points — and won six games despite probably having the least talent in the SEC. Upsetting Tennessee was doubtlessly the highlight of an impressive season for Muschamp. The move on Bentley was unorthodox, but when an unorthodox moves works, you just call it gutsy.
Well, somebody needed to give Tennessee a “D.”
This is the hardest job to grade. Tennessee vaulted to the top 10 with a 5-0 start, including a statement win over Florida and a miracle win against Georgia. But in hindsight, both victories look like flukes — and those flukes were all that kept this from being a 6-6 season.
When UT struggled with Appalachian State in the opener, we all should have known that this was a football team with major chemistry problems. And by failing to solve those problems, offering up some bizarre sanctimonious bull about the Championship of Life, and then losing down the stretch to South Carolina and Vandy, Butch Jones is skating on perhaps the thinnest ice in the SEC. He certainly should be.
Much like Kentucky and South Carolina, Derek Mason saved his bacon with an impressive second-half comeback. After Vandy lost the opener to South Carolina, they twice had crisis moments. Vandy was 2-4 preparing to play at Georgia, and after a loss to Mizzou, was 4-6 preparing to face Ole Miss and Tennessee.
Mason won the games he had to have, Vandy won six games, and he’s apparently signing a contract extension. Personally, I wouldn’t be shocked to see some fallback if Ralph Webb leaves early for the NFL, as he was probably the most underrated player in the SEC.